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Cape Cod Home  /  Spring 2020 / , , ,

Writer: Elizabeth Shaw / Photographer: Dan Cutrona 

2020 welcomes the second year of the Universally Designed McGraw Family Garden of the Senses at Heritage Museums & Gardens

Strolling through a garden, basking in the warming sun, and sniffing the beautiful surrounding blooms is the epitome of a glorious spring day. But for some people, that perfect day isn’t necessarily an option. Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich is known for their 100 acres of sprawling gardens and trails, but working with the undulating landscape of Cape Cod means that some of the trails and gardens can be a challenge for even the most athletic visitors. So in 2017, Heritage, in partnership with Dirtworks Landscape Architecture and the Horsley Witten Group, set out to create a space for anyone and everyone to enjoy. July 2019 saw the opening of the McGraw Family Garden of the Senses, the first wellness garden introduced on Cape Cod. 

“We want to invite people of all ages, abilities and mobility levels to connect with nature, and to allow everyone to engage in the garden experience,” Anne Scott-Putney, President & CEO of Heritage explains, “Our goal is to create a welcoming space for everyone. The McGraw Family Garden of the Senses offers a rich sensory experience with accessible and easy terrain.” The garden was designed to provide universal access to visitors of all physical and mental capabilities, and has been awarded bronze by the International Association of Universal Design Awards Program. Wheelchair accessible boardwalks wind through the two acres of gardens, bypassing the difficult terrain and offering visitors access to the gardens. The plants are there to be smelled, touched, and fully experienced, while water features and stunning vistas add to the experience. Some of the land used in the garden was not previously open to the public due to the surrounding landscape. But now it is open to every visitor, and has the added benefit of making existing features like the 1800 Old East Windmill and the Hart Family Maze Garden easier to access. The Garden of the Senses acts as a thread, connecting separate features while discreetly accommodating a wide range of abilities.

“Universal Design expands opportunity and enhances the experience for people of all ages, abilities and cultures.  Design is a powerful and influential tool in improving our daily lives, helping to enhance experience, build confidence, provide comfort and offer control.  Variations in individual ability are simply a part of life; at some point we will all have to address such variations.  Universal Design accommodates that,” says David Kamp, FASLA, LF, NA, Founder of Dirtworks Landscape Architecture, “This garden is a natural expression of Universal Design. It seeks to provide opportunity and choice for each visitor to engage with nature on their own terms, in their own way and at their own pace. This is achieved within a series of unique settings, each with distinct character, different interests and degrees of activity. Designed to offer varying levels of sensory engagement, the configuration, materials and details focus on tactile, auditory, visual, olfactory and gustatory experiences. Beyond the five senses, the garden seeks to engage and improve upon range of motion, vestibular, motor planning, proprioception and cognition skills. The garden also reflects considerations of safety and security, strength and stamina, awareness and orientation, privacy and respite, sequences and transitions, interest and activity, and flexibility for changing needs.” 

Elevated water features and lower gardens are perfect for those in wheelchairs, quiet areas with relaxing scents and sounds are perfect for those who are easily stimulated, and sections of the garden focus mainly on the other senses, engaging texture and smell, which not only makes the garden accessible to those with sensory issues, but the scents can help evoke memories. “Plants in that area have an interesting or distinct scent or texture, like rosemary and basil,” describes Les Lutz, Director of Horticulture and Facilities management at Heritage, “As you walk down the boardwalk, you encounter an area that’s much more colorful; it’s really meant to just be a riot of color.” The smallest details add to the overall experience. “We chose a lot of plants that will trail over walls,” explains Lutz, “the garden has about 250 feet of linear walls and we want to soften some of them with the trailing plants, like sweet potato vines.” Lutz and his team added 11 new species of trees, 15 species of shrubs, 62 species of perennials and 25 annual species, resulting in over 20,000 new plants for visitors to experience throughout the garden.

Heritage worked closely with various national and local organizations that serve individuals with physical and cognitive challenges, including Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Sight Loss Services of Cape Cod, Avita Assisted Living Memory Care communities, and many more, to ensure that every aspect of the garden was as inclusive and accessible as possible. In turn, these organizations are welcome to use the garden with their clients, ensuring that the collaborative planning process is leveraged to its maximum potential. 

The McGraw Family Garden of the Senses is a true testament to what can happen when groups come together to create a welcoming, more accessible world. Bringing together Heritage, Dirtworks and Horsley Witten resulted in a space that will surely stand the test of time, and inspire others to bring more of that magic to the area. “One aspect that made this project unique is the level of collaboration.  In order to create a universally accessible garden that preserves the qualities of this beautiful setting, we needed to find a sensitive balance between the needs of the users and the demands of the site. We had to address a challenging terrain, historic structures and mature plantings while also accommodating the varied physical and psychological needs of visitors. This was achieved with a sustained collaboration with Heritage’s horticultural and program staff, a terrific engineering team, and community partners representing the region’s health organizations.  This collaboration began with the garden’s programming and lasted through design and construction,” says Kamp of the experience. 

“The Collaboration also included the great generosity of Dave and Missy McGraw and a number of individuals who shared our vision to create a stunningly beautiful and accessible space for all people to engage with nature at their own pace and in their own time,” added Scott-Putney, “we simply could not have achieved this vision without their support.

For more information, visit heritagemuseumsandgardens.org or wander the gardens at 67 Grove Street, Sandwich

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth Shaw is a former assistant editor, photographer & videographer for Cape Cod Life Publications. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Elizabeth spent many summers on the Cape, before she and her family moved down full time in 2016. She graduated from the University of Rhode Island as a double major in Writing & Rhetoric and Film Media, and started at Cape Cod Life the following fall. In her free time, she takes as many pictures of her dog, Watson, as possible, in between beach trips.