Garden cultivated for blind, disabled

Sunday, May 31, 1998

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FORT WRIGHT -- Here's the remarkable part: Eileen Hastings doesn't know anyone who is blind.

She just thought everyone should be able to enjoy the beauty of a garden.

Her solution is under construction next to Fort Wright City Hall. It may be the only nature spot in Greater Cincinnati designed specifically for the disabled.

Carved out of a gently sloping hillside along Kyles Lane, the garden features plants at counter height along a concrete wall, so people in wheelchairs can easily see them.

For the visually impaired, there are grasses that rustle in the wind, a waterfall that splashes into a pond and plants that invite touching. Eventually, each will be explained with signs in both Braille and regular print.

"I'm just conscious that way, I guess," says Ms. Hastings, a homemaker who leads the Fort Wright Garden Club and the city's Tree Board.

In high school, she dated a boy who wore heavy braces because of polio. She once lived down the street from a deaf couple. And years ago, her mother was an aide in a class for disabled children. Ms. Hastings remembers their Braille American flag, which had stripes made of velvet and satin.

The city's new garden is similarly accessible. There are, of course, colorful flowers for the sighted, but most of the plants were selected with fingers in mind.

"This is just such a soft texture," says Ms. Hastings, stroking a short, broad plant called Silver Mound.

It feels like an Angora sweater. Another part of the garden smells like an Italian dinner.

There are rubbery sedum plants, flat-needled evergreens, oniony chives, fragrant thyme. A plant called Silver Brocade feels like a worn pair of leather gloves. Another is aptly named Lamb's Ear.

"I never thought it would be so neat," says Nancy Baehner, a member of the garden club. "I went in and I almost fainted."

She and Ms. Hastings are in a group that gets things done. Even its name implies action: Members call it the Fort Wright "Dirty Hands" Garden Club.

About half the members are men. Some have Master Gardener certification. Ms. Hastings puts out a first-rate newsletter, and four of the members keep their gardens open to the public from dawn until dusk.

"This is not a white-gloves flower appreciation society," jokes the Rev. Al Hougham, a member for eight years.

Says Ms. Hastings: "We garden."

The group's latest project came to life with $13,500 from an enthusiastic city council and another $3,900 from a state grant. All excavation and stonework was done by the city's public works crew: Tim Maloney, Nick Zumdick and Jason Buhr.

At the Cincinnati Association for the Blind, staffer Paula Jordan was cautiously enthusiastic.

She's been to the Krohn Conservatory before, but has to go with sighted people, because there isn't a convenient bus route.

"It's OK, but so much of it, they don't really want you fingering their plants," Ms. Jordan said. "Touch is critically important, and accessibility. If it's out in Beacoupville somewhere and there's no buses that go there, forget it."

A bus does pass right by city hall on Kyles Lane, officials say. For Lucille Eisman, a senior citizen gradually losing her sight, the waterfall has particular appeal.

"There's a different feeling in the air, according to how much water is in it," says Ms. Eisman, who lives in Cincinnati. Smells are more intense when moisture is present, she says.

These days, Ms. Eisman doesn't get into her own garden much, because she uses a walker and has trouble navigating uneven ground. The Fort Wright club thought of that, too. Its garden is built around a walkway of smooth, flat bricks.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

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