Four years ago, Kimm Schmidt and Lauren Ferris of Pal-O-Mine Equestrian in Islandia, working with young adults with disabilities, created the Sensory Garden near the entrance to the Reichert Planetarium at the Vanderbilt Museum of Suffolk County in Centerport. . They return each spring to replant, and this year their work was made possible by the generous donation of a private donor.
On a beautiful recent spring morning, Schmidt and Ferris worked to revive the garden with half a dozen special-needs adults in their twenties and thirties.
“We plant things that awaken the senses,” Schmidt said. The garden has over two dozen herbs, including sage, mint, rosemary, basil, aniseed hyssop, chamomile, yarrow, lemongrass, rainbow chard, chives, lemon balm, strawberries and five-leaf akebia, a vine with the scent of chocolate flowers.
In 2018, Operations Supervisor Jim Munson invited a small group of local gardeners and landscapers to spruce up various gardens around the Vanderbilt Mansion. Schmidt and Ferris responded.
“The idea of the sensory garden came to mind immediately,” Ferris said. “It’s a place that’s not only beautiful, but also has benefits that audiences can use and learn from.” Ferris, who recently earned a certificate in horticultural therapy from the New York Botanical Garden, said she thinks a sensory garden would be a great feature for visitors of all skill levels.
“Plants that awaken the senses are a wonderful tool to use in so many ways,” Schmidt said. “They spark conversations, jog people’s memories and can be very calming.”
“I loved the concept and wanted it to have a prime location with lots of traffic,” Munson said. “I knew that the facade of the Planetarium was the ideal place, accessible to everyone.”
Lisa Gatti, who founded Pal-O-Mine Equestrian in 1995 as a therapeutic riding program for people with disabilities and other vulnerable populations, liked the idea right away. Pal-O-Mine has decided to incorporate the design and installation of the garden into its J-STEP (Job Security Through Equine Partnership) program. Each week, Pal-O-Mine serves 350 people, in their various programs, aged 3 and over. Schmidt and Ferris are J-STEP coaches.
“We use horticulture skills at J-STEP to teach the job skills needed to get and keep a job,” Ferris said. “Some students continue to work in nurseries, and others have jobs in local retail stores.
Caring for the garden teaches good work habits, personal and household maintenance, as well as interpersonal communication and social skills.
The J-STEP team also maintains the gardens at Pal-O-Mine’s 13 acres in Islandia, Long Island. “Each student has a personal garden and decides which vegetables they want to plant”, “They keep records and research planting times and the needs of each plant.” The students maintain other gardens on the site, including pollinator and cutting gardens, and a medieval knot garden, a formal design planted with herbs and aromatic plants. J-STEP offers other programs including photography, cooking, and crafts.
J-STEP students who installed this year’s Vanderbilt plantings spoke about the experience.
Meredith said: “Being part of the planning and planting of the garden calms me down. I see with my hands, and it’s lumpy and it smells good. Rebecca said: “It’s great to plant the sensory garden for people to enjoy.” Tim added: “I love working in the garden and I love the view.”
The group will return throughout the growing season to prune and clean the garden and do a clean up in the fall.
For Schmidt, who recently joined the Vanderbilt as a museum educator, the allure of garden design and maintenance is captured in a favorite quote from naturalist John Muir: “When you shoot a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
The Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium of Suffolk County is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Visit vanderbiltmuseum.org for more information.