Sensory overload

Garden captures accessible spirit of Audio-Reader

“People often express surprise that I can enjoy nature when I cannot see its beauties or hear its harmonies. But really it is they who are blind. For they have no idea how fair the flower is to the touch, nor do they appreciate its fragrance, which is the soul of the flower.”

— Helen Keller, 1923

Gladys Staab sits on a bench smelling the aroma at the Audio-Reader sensory garden, 1120 W. 11th St., at Kansas University.

This quote started it all.

Inspired by Helen Keller’s words of wisdom, Diana Frederick, development director for the Audio-Reader Network, sprouted the idea for a sensory garden on the sprawling grounds near Audio-Reader’s headquarters.

That was 1996, and the area had to go through many transformations before it became the haven for gardeners, the visually impaired and curious visitors that it is today.

The garden, tucked behind a wall of towering eastern red cedars and full honeysuckle bushes at 1120 W. 11th St., is designed to titillate visitors’ sense. The campanile bells toll nearby. The sounds of the KU band playing fight songs drifts over during football games. And on quiet days, passing breezes stir faint rustlings in trees.

Leann Johnson, a Prairie Acres Garden Club member, gives me a tour through this outdoor space. A trellis draped with clematis and a hand-painted sign letting you know this is meant to be a sensory experience greet you at the entrance. You can hear water bubbling and splashing against river rocks, wind chimes clinking in the soft breeze and ornamental grass blades brushing against one another.

The aroma of sweet peonies, roses in full bloom, chocolate mint, rosemary and lavender creep toward you. Textured lamb’s ear, artemisia and sedum cry out for hands to stroke them.

“This garden is meant to be an educational, hands-on experience,” Johnson says. “Visitors are encouraged to touch and smell and activate all of their senses.”

From left, Judy Koehler, Lorena Meyers and Leann Johnson take in the aroma of chocolate mint at the Audio-Reader sensory garden, 1120 W. 11th St., at Kansas University. The garden, which contains plants that smell good, feel good and emit sounds when the breezes blow through, is maintained by two Lawrence garden clubs.

The garden falls right in line with the mission of Audio-Reader. Since 1971, the service has been broadcasting the latest news, books and magazines — read by volunteers — 24 hours a day over closed-circuit radios, reaching as many as 5,000 visually impaired listeners in Kansas and Missouri.

Audio-Reader makes its home in a big brick built in the 1920s by Paul and Mary Dinsmore. Once the couple’s private residence, the home was later purchased by community leaders J.L. and Frances Constant, who donated the building to KU. It went from fraternity house to storage facility to shambles by the early 1980s. It was returned to its former glory by the KU Endowment Association, Gene Budig and The Louis and Dolpha Baehr Foundation.

The house has not been the only work in progress; the grounds surrounding the place have been in flux as well. The transition began on Make a Difference Day in 1996, when 21 volunteers transformed a patch of dandelions and grass into a blooming garden. Though the result was a vast improvement, a couple of Lawrence garden clubs took it a step further in August 2004.

The Audio-Reader Network and its sensory garden depend on volunteers. If you’re interested in helping with the garden, call Diana Frederick at 864-4634. If you’d like to volunteer as a reader, call Jen Nigro at 864-4604. Engraved bricks that line the garden paths may be purchase for $100. All proceeds beyond the cost of the brick go toward maintenance of the garden.

The Lawrence Flower Club and the Prairie Acres Garden Club received a historical preservation grant from the National Garden Clubs. In keeping with the goals of Audio-Reader, the clubs decided to select plants that smelled good, felt good and produced sounds. They also wanted to use plants that would have been available in the 1920s, when the house was originally constructed.

They had their work cut out for them.

The garden had become overrun with mint and weeds and consisted of one simple path that started at the gazebo and led to nowhere. There were shade plants in the sun and sun-lovers in deep shade. The daylilies and irises needed dividing, and the entire garden was in a state of disrepair.

After hundreds of hours of volunteer work, the garden clubs transformed the space into an outdoor sanctuary that sighted and visually impaired gardeners alike can appreciate. Lawrence Landscape gave the project a negotiated rate to install hardscapes, such as the raised beds and curving walkways. The Sunflower Water Garden Society donated the water feature. Local Eagle Scout Bryce Baringer developed new plant markers that are larger and in braille.

The garden will continue to evolve. The clubs hope to construct a ramp leading to the gazebo, more raised flower beds and a watering system. They’d also like to develop an audio tour of the garden, which is open to the public and intended for everyone’s enjoyment.

— Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.