“Hands-on Gardeners,” a group of blind and visually impaired adults whose interests include the love of watching flowers grow, not with their eyes, but with their hands. are all clients, staff or volunteers for the Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ASB).

Anne Frank once speculated that nature was the source of all goodness in the world; nature was for her, and still remains for many people, a constant reminder of a higher power. Within her diary she often questioned how something as horrific as World War II could co-exist with the awesome magnificence of nature. Today, individuals ponder this same question, or questions of their own, while reclining in an easy chair on the sun porch, or walking amongst beautiful flowers and plants.

Perhaps individuals seeking the sanctuary of Mother Nature temporarily forget their own problems when surrounded by the beauty of the outdoors. This is what happens at the PA Horticultural Society Garden, nurtured by the “Hands-on Gardeners,” a group of blind and visually impaired adults whose interests include the love of watching flowers grow, not with their eyes, but with their hands. It is located in Fairmount Park, just off from Belmont Avenue. The members of the group are all clients, staff or volunteers for the Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ASB).

Upon observation of the Hands-on Gardeners’ garden, individuals such as myself are astounded by the cornucopia of fragrances that dance through the air. The shrubbery that lines the paved walkways provides a much-needed oasis to the backdrop of city living and to the enigma that is life. It is not uncommon to see several college students on a sunny day preparing for classes while enjoying a spectacular view of the garden.

Other individuals such as myself stroll through the garden observing the parade of colors as well as pleasurable aromas. The cannas (tall shrubs) take center stage providing an elegant backdrop for the abundant plants and flowers such as Lambs Ear, a type of plant that feels like fleece, to Vinca flowers nodding gently in the breeze.

Peggy Garrett, a Chestnut Hill resident who is blind, recalls one time when a young man stopped her and commented that the garden gave him hope, for now that he saw the garden, he wanted to live. Garrett is the Garden Program Coordinator and an ASB staff member.

The garden is also used as a tool for higher learning, applicable to both visually impaired and sighted admirers. The sighted want to know how their garden at home can look like the Hands-on Gardeners’ garden, while the visually impaired who grow it, can bask in earned approval. This approval has been formally recognized through the PA Horticultural Society’s annual contest which judges all urban gardens. Hands-on Gardeners’ garden has come in first for many a year.

Mrs. Garrett established this Sensory Garden in 1995, hoping that it would serve as a tool for increased learning. When Garrett founded the garden, it was dilapidated except for the raised beds that would enable handicapped individuals to more effectively tend to the greenery. At the time Garrett was a rehab teacher forASB, an agency in Philadelphia which enables the blind and severely visually impaired population to function independently by providing resources such as Braille and audio books, as well as classes on self-help skills.

When she was a rehab teacher, the dilapidated garden in Fairmount Park was brought to her attention. “I decided that restoring this garden would be an excellent project for my rehab class,” she said. “In order for this to become a reality, however, it needed a grant from ASB, which I later received.”

In the years to follow, this garden proved to be the final segue to independent living, for even if our blind neighbors’ challenges did not allow them to live totally independently, to some degree individuals knew that if they could master gardening and tend to the flowers, they could be independent to the best of their abilities. Today eight individuals, all visually impaired, work with Garrett tending to the garden as well as tending to themselves, each with a different story to tell of hope and self-worth that the garden restored back into their lives.

Today this garden in Fairmount Park is affectionately called the Hands-on Garden because for the blind community a tactile sense displays vivid pictures of the world. Although the garden did bring recreation to the blind, the Sensory Garden drives home a more fervent point; that no matter the degree of disability, an individual should be viewed not as handicapped, but handicapable, with different talents and gifts to share that perhaps go unnoticed until someone else unlocks them.

In my opinion, being inquisitive is not a bad trait, for if people are encouraged to ask questions, they become less ignorant on a given subject. Some individuals who browse through the Sensory Garden inquire about Garrett’s disability as well as the garden, for when individuals learn about the plants and flowers in this garden, it provides a common ground for everyone. Perhaps others are amazed that such a group of blind individuals exist.

Every year students from Overbrook School for the Blind get a chance to visit the garden and to experience for themselves the fact that anything is possible despite having a disability. Mrs. Garrett fondly remembers that one afternoon when the garden was especially nice, she and her sibling took their mother, Mildred Fisher, to the Sensory Garden, and while there, their mother fell asleep. Upon awakening amidst the numerous flowers, she opened her eyes and exclaimed, “Now I know what Heaven feels like.”

Kelly McLaughlin is a resident of Flourtown who is blind. For more information about Hands-on Gardeners, email lscarpa@asb.org

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