We had found our way to the Center in Watertown, Massachusetts with the combined help of GPS, pencil notes, Google maps and finally by querying dog walkers. Precise parking lot at last located, we followed our noses along the historic 38-acre campus paths. Just past an ages-old Copper Beech was the reception entrance, where we were to get a visitor pass. A staff member guided us through a dark hall and then outside to paths leading to the horticulture center.
This is the story of a few garden club gal-pals paying a visit to the Thomas & Bessie Pappas Horticulture Center located within The Perkins School for the Blind.
As we were getting oriented in the building, we were feeling appreciative of this opportunity. There are roughly 50 schools for the blind and visually impaired in the United States. Just a portion of these have horticulture centers and garden programs.
The historic Perkins School was established in 1829 to prepare blind and visually impaired students to lead independent lives and to teach academic and vocational skills. It is the oldest school for the blind in the U.S. The student body age range is birth to 22 years old. In addition to the school’s basic mission, it offers a range of international outreach programs, educational leadership programs, and programs for others in the disability community.
Horticulture has been a part of the Perkins’ School’s studies since it moved to its present site in 1912. An updated horticulture therapy program began as a part-time pilot in 1979 and went on to become a national model. We meet certified horticultural therapist Deborah Krause who has been a dedicated staff member with 30 years of experience. First to clarify, horticulture therapy is defined as the engagement of a person in gardening-related activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific individualized and established treatment goals.
Deborah leads us to one of the Pappas Center classrooms. I am struck by the musky smell of herbs. In the corner a collapsible clothes drying rack serves well as a place to hang bundles of herbs. Next to it a volunteer-crafted wooden cabinet of drying trays holds rose petals, mint, eucalyptus, anise, lavender, rosemary. On the table in the center of the room is a small straw wreath sparsely decorated with dried pom-pom flowers. A parent was to pick up the keepsake that day. Cafeteria type trays serve as self-contained workstations keeping materials organized for each student’s project. At the end of the table is a container holding desk supplies and Braille plant labels.
After discussion with Deborah, we get a sense that the bulk of her workday is about individualized student attention along with lots of student record-keeping. Her job involves being cognizant of each student’s particular sensory preferences. Which students love digging their hands into a slimy pumpkin and which find that a little too icky. Or which students enjoy the prickliness of a dried strawflower, tackiness of a glue, and who finds these sensations over-stimulating. Which students tolerate handling dirt, which don’t. Part of her day may involve taking students on a campus tree tour for some literal tree hugging.
Once we’re shown into the greenhouse, we encounter two trickling water fountain features to sit beside, tinkle bell ornaments providing tactile and sound experiences. A wide range of potted plants are laid out on waist high tables selected for their variety of textures and leaf shapes—banana trees, succulents, large bulbs, velvety stems, delicate leaves and feathery ferns, overhanging vines, hanging pots, fragrant specimens.
Touching of plants is invited. There is evidence of Deborah’s endless campaign to use various non-toxic products and methods of keeping plant pests under control. While some students may participate in greenhouse care, she relies heavily on about 20 volunteers and a landscape designer for support.
Outdoors, the sensory garden is based on the familiar square-foot gardening. Plenty of aisle space is allotted between squares to accommodate groups or those in wheel chairs. Some square plots are tables at waist-level, some plantings are at ground level. There are raised beds to sit at where gardening work is within arm’s reach. Wooly thyme and mint grow in barrels. As late as November we see the remnants of cherry tomatoes, berries, lots of herbs and other plants.
It practically goes without saying that gardening provides everyone a sense of accomplishment—caring for other living things and witnessing growth. It offers lots of sensory stimulation and exploration. For many impaired students, the experiential learning derived from gardening may also develop problem-solving skills, attention to detail and practice following directions. Deborah tells us of various Perkins teachers and classes that utilize the greenhouse and notes an interdisciplinary overlap. “You can teach anything through horticulture—math, history, science, geography for instance.”
Nearing our tour-end, we linger in the lobby. Gift items made by the students are available for sale. They include potpourri in drawstring bags, catnip, herbal teas, stamped bookmarks and other items. A bulletin board displays photographs of some of the children planting seeds in the garden. A couple of other photos show students working off campus at local floral centers. One photo shows a boy delivering flowers to school staff members using a custom-made vial holding tray attached to his walker.
We leave Perkins enlightened by a number of things. One surely senses a family atmosphere among students and staff and parents. If you’d like to be part of the family here is a link to the various volunteer opportunities at this particular school .
Link to Perkins School for the Blind
Link to Pappas Horticulture Center
Nancy R. Peck