Country and Garden: Time to stop and feel the flowers

For disabled children, gardens are not just pretty, they are places where senses and skills can blossom. By Sally Ballard
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The Independent Culture
Beth sits on the edge of a raised flower bed. Her chubby, seven- year-old hands stroke the soft, grey leaves she calls lamb's ears. Behind her, tall grasses rustle in the breeze and at her side a fountain bubbles a stream of cold water over smooth pebbles. All day she can hear gentle sounds in this almost musical garden. But Beth can see none of it. She is blind.

In another garden, three-year-old Amy heaves herself upright, holding on to a long garden bench. She lifts one of many lids in the seat. This one contains a treasure-trove of sea shells. All around the garden the benches hold fascinating finds. But to get to them Amy knows she must stand and walk - up the log steps to the sandpit, holding on to the rope rail to the mirrors which reflect bright geraniums. It is imperative that Amy learns to walk before she is much older, otherwise her legs will become twisted and her muscles wasted. She has cerebral palsy.

These gardens were designed especially to cater for the children's specific needs - while also making them places of fun, exercise and relaxation for themselves and the rest of the family. Ian Christopher-Poole designed the award-winning garden for Amy, sitting in on her therapy sessions so he could understand her disabilities and needs.

"Disabled gardens often seem to say `disabled people come here and the rest of you have nice gardens elsewhere'. To me, it was important to integrate Amy's special needs with the needs of everyone else using the garden; Amy's twin sister, her parents and friends." Christopher-Poole had to understand what Amy's therapists were trying to achieve. In this case it was to get Amy off the ground, stop her crawling, and to encourage her to stand and move. "The garden I designed is about incentive. It is about fun - children won't do things just because they are told it is good for them. In this garden Amy would feel she was simply playing with her sister and so the difference between them was narrowed."

Beth and Amy are two examples of many children throughout the country who are benefiting from horticultural therapy - gardens and gardening activities specially thought out to provide stimulus, recreation and a place of peace and safety not often found in the bewildering and frustrating world of the disabled. Gardens and gardening are great levellers. Given a well planned garden, the child in the wheelchair, the child with autism, the child with behavioural difficulties, even a child with asthma, can all benefit from the sights, sounds and feel of nature.

"We are out in the garden everday in all weathers," says Loraine Stewart, deputy head of the RNIB Sunshine House School which cares for 52 blind children aged two to 11 in Northwood, London. "It gives them mobility training and encourages them to use all their senses in a secure surrounding. They learn to feel the different types of ground under their feet; the different smells of plants and the smells that belong to the different times of the year."

If they stray off the crazy-paving path, the feel and scent of the lemon thyme planted at the edge acts as a warning. A pergola covered with climbing shrubs mimics the change of sound experienced when walking along a pavement with overhanging trees. The raised platform of wooden planks bounces gently to marching footsteps, sending vibrations through their bodies. At the end of the garden is an area of chime bars and pipes, suspended from wooden frames, which boom and tinkle. This garden is full of surprises and fun; it's so successful with children that parents visit to glean ideas.

When Paul (not his real name) first became a pupil at The Loddon School near Basingstoke, he had been excluded from several schools and was heading for life in a locked ward. But gardening has turned his life around. Now he helps to tend the vegetable garden at the residential school with a dedication the staff hardly believed possible.

Gardening as a form of therapy was introduced to the school by Karen Rookes, deputy principal, when she realised how much enjoyment the children got from the grounds surrounding the old rectory building. "Because the children are at an early sensory stage, they enjoy the feel of the earth. We started gardening and I saw how the children enjoyed the responsibility and the end results."

The school's allotments are full of vegetables and flowers. There is an orchard, a lavender border (Loddon Pink) which the children harvest to make into bags, a herb garden and woodland full of chimes, organ pipes and swinging rattle-boxes.

"Gardening gives children a sense of purpose. It makes them feel they have achieved something and helps their self-esteem. It also helps with physical skills, gives awareness of seasons, helps communication and provides a place of quiet."

Garden designer Jan Robinson, who has built gardens for blind and asthmatic clients, created a play area for a special needs school and found it a releasing experience: "There was the most regrettable collection of rather grotty plants, some totally unsuitable for children, like berberis and pyracantha. There was asphalt and a large mound - quite drab and awful. So I went mad with colour - none of this worrying about whether or not colours toned.

"I made it fun. My aim was to give the children somewhere they could trundle round, somewhere they could play safely, be stimulated and somewhere they could enjoy being involved with the garden."

She built a yellow-brick road in paviers which circumnavigates the site. Different paving textures act as markers to help the partially sighted children locate themselves in the garden. All pebbles are cemented down, and the bubble fountain just skims smooth stones without providing any dangerous depth of water. Small plots provide digging space for quick- growing plants like lettuce, radish, alpine strawberries and sunflowers. Robinson planted for year-round colour, leaf shape, texture, smell and to attract butterflies. She checked that no plants were poisonous. There are the purple-and-pink flowers of Fuchsia "Mrs Popple"; the spring- and autumn-blooming Choisya "Aztec Pearl", the sweet-smelling Deutzia "Mont Rose", and the perfumed, winter-flowering shrub Viburnum tinus. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, bergamot and chives are planted where the children brush by. They love the feel of the lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina); the scent of Cytisus battandieri (pineapple broom); and the gaudy flowers of Dianthus deltoides - "Flashing Light".

Many of these ideas can be incorporated into ordinary gardens. Disabled children are regularly cut off from the real world, because provisions which are made for their disability often make things suitable for the disabled only. But a well thought out garden increases the disabled child's integration into everyday life. It is a place to share.

Make a GArden that Disabled Children can Enjoy

WHEN DESIGNING your garden, get to know the most sheltered and sunny spots. Disabled children are often sensitive to temperature and light changes.

Consider the security of the site. Fringe the play areas with robust shrubs; avoid leaves with sharp edges or plants that have thorns.

Choose plants for their leaf shapes (Acer palmatum, Fatsia japonica, angelica), texture (Stachys and Ballota), amusement value (the football- size flowerheads of Allium christophii, snapdragon Antirrhinum), sound (grasses such as Cordateria selloana `Sunningdale Silver'), smell (lavender, rosemary, Philadelphus, Phlox, Choisya), and consider plants that have a story to tell - Passionflower.

Create a manageable garden, and make the planting fun, with opportunities for shared gardening.

Thrive, the horticultural therapy charity, runs training courses, conferences and workshops, supports research and gives advice.

Thrive, The Geoffrey Udall Centre, Beech Hill, Reading RG7 2AT 0118 9885688.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, for leaflets on plant and garden safety, call 0121-248 2000

HAPA (Handicapped Adventure Playground Association ) can be contacted on 0171-736 4443

M H Berlyn Ltd produces a range of robust gardening tools for children. For details, ring 01384 896666

The RSPB has booklets on how to attract birds to the garden. Write to The RSPB Wildlife Enquiries Unit, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 2DL

Amy's garden has been created for public viewing at The National Garden Centre, Capel Manor College, Enfield, Middlesex. Call 0181-0366 4442 for details

Gardening design consultant Ian Christoper-Poole can be contacted on 01189 772701; call the garden designer Jan Robinson on 01789 269954 or e-mail