Garden of the Five Senses
At the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, flowers tantalize every part of you.
Excerpted from Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens: A People’s Garden by William Cullina, Dorothy E. Freeman, Ph.D., Barbara Hill Freeman. Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 144 pages; $34.95. Photograph by William Cullina
Sprawling over 248 acres, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is a blooming retreat on the tidal Back River in Boothbay. Footpaths loop and wend through woodlands, along the shore, and, of course, around lush and diverse gardens filled with roses, herbs, and hundreds of varieties of colorful perennials. Perhaps the most engaging of these landscapes is the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, whose imaginative plantings aim to tantalize eyes, ears, nose, fingertips, and tongue.
Designed by noted landscape architect Herb Schaal, of Colorado, and less than an acre in size, it has meandering paths and a changing elevation that make it seem much larger. The paths circle around through five distinct regions designed to emphasize each of the senses, descending slowly to a weir separating two ponds before rising again to the exit. The garden, which was funded by a generous gift from media executive Daniel Lerner and his wife Lyn, of Maine, Pennsylvania, and Florida, has been carefully designed to be horticulturally interesting and fun for all visitors no matter what their level of physical ability.
Visitors pass first through the olfactory “node” after entering the garden through a larch-covered archway. Plants such as lilies, daphnes, lilacs, and hyacinths, all known for their fragrant flowers, highlight this most sensory of the five senses, as do aromatic herbs such as lavender, thyme, and mint. Next is the taste node, featuring edible fruits, vegetables, and flowers that guests are encouraged to sample. Raised planters are designed for ease of access by participants in the gardens’ horticultural therapy program, which is housed in the pavilion that helps define this space.
Farther down the path and at the high point of this garden begins the sight node. Here, masses of brightly colored flowers frame panoramic views of the garden and spaces beyond. As the path descends to the center of the Garden of the Five Senses, visitors come upon a reflexology labyrinth that marks the beginning of the tactile node. In addition to the labyrinth, soft-leaved plants, stonework, and the cascade of water over the weir beckon to be touched.
Sound is the most difficult sense to celebrate with plants, but the final node features a more subdued color palette and a large sitting area to encourage guests to pause and listen. Gray tree frogs flocked to the ponds even as they were still being built, and their shrill birdlike trills combined with the buzz of katydids and croak of green frogs add an unplanned musical ambiance. The primary attraction here is a pair of sound stones. These chiseled pillars of granite have cylindrical holes carved into them, and if you place your face in one and hum, the sound reverberates so loudly it can be heard from the nearby event lawn.
Though not noticeable to many, there are several features in this garden designed to facilitate its use by physically challenged guests. This was the first garden to feature brick paving, for instance. Changes in paving surface and pattern help guide visually impaired visitors while providing a smooth, hard surface and gentle slope for wheeled mobility aids. The fountain in the upper pond provides a constant sound to help orient those who cannot see, while ample opportunities for tactile as well as visual stimulation delight those who cannot hear. The raised beds in the horticultural therapy area have cutaways underneath so that participants in wheelchairs can slide in close in much the same way as one sits at a desk. These “tabletop” beds are excellent for fast crops of greens and herbs that do not need much soil.