A Sensory Display

Insightful gardeners combine fountains, ponds and waterfalls with plants, grasses and art that engage the senses to enhance outdoor places across the state
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Peter Griz sculpture
Crafted by Michigan artist Peter Griz, copper and stainless steel kinetic sculptures that twist and turn in the wind add attention-getting spins of character. // Photography by Jeff Garland

Water spraying from a fountain in the pond alongside the home of Elizabeth and Gary Clous certainly turns heads, just as the Traverse City couple intended. But their sparkling water display provides a few other sensory surprises, too.

“Our neighbors across the street can hear it when their windows are open,” says Elizabeth. “The frogs are quite lively as well.”

Both pursuing second careers as landscape designers, husband and wife have outfitted their yard with other ponds, waterfalls and a bubbler, too, that’s so close to the kitchen window Elizabeth can see birds tipping their heads back to swallow.

Janis Glassner garden

Glassner Garden
A faux heron guards a goldfish pond (above) and a waterfall cascades (below) in the Glassner garden. // Photography by Coreene Smith

Insightful gardeners like the Clouses combine water features with plants, grasses, structures, art and other elements they know will delight the senses to heighten enjoyment of green space. Orchestrated with a strategic mix of textures, scents, colors and sounds, these so-called “sensory gardens” are often tailored for children and adults with impaired vision and hearing — and those simply needing a shot of nature’s restorative power, “Vitamin N,” to promote health and well-being.

Clouses Garden
An enticing fountain draws the eyes and ears of those passing by the Clouses’ haven. // Photography by Coreene Smith

Scientists view Vitamin N seriously: Looking at natural settings for as little as five minutes can positively affect stress indicators like blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the brain’s electrical activity, says Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., a Swedish researcher renowned for evidence-based healthcare design (healthdesign.org).

But natural settings can engage the senses and work their magic without being complex.

“To me, all gardens are sensory,” says Art Cameron, Ph.D., horticultural professor at Michigan State University

From the Horticultural Gardens overseen by Cameron at MSU (see pages 44-45) to the Clauses’ homegrown oasis, gardens both public and personal are prime spots to stock up on Vitamin N — and plenty of sensory inspiration.

Craig Michael Smith artwork
Often made in collaboration with metal artists, Craig Michael Smith’s unique kiln-formed glass creations (above and below) stop visitors in their tracks and emphasize surrounding garden beauty. // Photography by Joan Magnotta (top); Randy Blankenship (bottom)

Elements of Attraction

Janis Glassner’s private garden, featured with five others including the Claus retreat last July during the Friendly Garden Club of Traverse City’s Annual Garden Walk, is a legacy of her 22-year union with husband Jerry, now deceased.

On three occasions, Jerry reconfigured the waterfall higher not only to make a bigger splash, but also so the couple could view it better from their back deck. He also made several birdhouses that adorn the plot and the trellis embraced by yellow trumpet vine. Janis added wind chimes, a duck decoy and a heron statue to deter real birds from savoring the “regular 15-cent Meijer goldfish” living in her pond.

A five-foot Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick is another garden keepsake. Left in place by the couple when it died four years ago, the shrub’s convoluted branches provide architectural interest, and its light tan hue contrasts beautifully in snow.

“It’s a piece of art,” Janis says.

Art crafted for the garden by hand is the forte of Lansing-based glass artisan Craig Mitchell Smith. The former painter draws inspiration for his 3-D work from his own garden, then lets his imagination flower.

“I’m not limited by reality,” he notes.

Cadillac Sound Garden
Natural tones made by striking rustic wooden chimes and xylophones with a mallet lend all-ages appeal at the Sound Garden in Cadillac. // Photography by Jeff Garland (bottom); Photograph Courtesy MSU Horticulture Gardens/Art Cameron (top)

That’s why 63 poppies he created for a pop-up playground at Epcot Center in Florida to promote Disney’s 2013 movie, Oz: The Great and Powerful, “grew” to 18 inches in diameter and why a dandelion at Midland’s Dow Gardens — “Making a Wish” — stands 16 feet tall.

Even though Smith sets his imagination free in his work, he also pays attention to real-life details like the direction of prevailing winds in the settings for his pieces. So the towering dandelion bends as individual seed heads hang from trees downwind from where it “grows.”

“It appears,” he says, “to be responding to the wind.”

Another Michigan artist, Peter Griz of Oxford, creates copper and stainless steel pieces that do move in the wind. His kinetic art marries skills he refined during years working in Ford Motor Company’s fabrication shop with inspiration he found on a cruise ship.

“At least 20 years ago I took our children on the Disney cruise line and we were sitting down by the pool,” he shares. “I noticed all these wind meters.”

Like those meters, Griz’s works — including a carousel, fish and pineapple among other as well as abstract shapes (see page 40) — twist and turn in the wind. “If you want attention to go to a certain location,” he says, “this movement draws eyes.”

Fernwood Botanical Garden
A fragrant dogwood, custom dovecote (raised home for pigeons) and nestled bench invite lingering at Fernwood Botanical Garden. // Photography Courtesy of Fernwood Botanical Garden

Ornamental grasses like those at the Display Garden on Suncrest create kinetic interest of another kind. While varieties featured here on the grounds of the Lapeer County Medical Care Facility including Fescue, Fountain, Miscanthus, Ravenna and Giant Reed — which grows to over 20 feet — act as outdoor room dividers, they also create rustling music.

“Of all things, ornamental grasses pull a garden to the end of the season, because that’s when they bloom,” says MSU’s Cameron. “It’s a way to design a textural as well as a sound garden.”

A garden founded on sound is just what school band director and musician Frank Youngman created in Cadillac. Twenty years ago, inspiration struck when he, his son and daughter became engaged by sounds ironwood logs made being tossed into a pickup. The trio — after striking some they laid out on the ground — had discovered an ad hoc musical instrument.

“The pitches were so clear, like a xylophone,” Youngman recalls. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to make something like this in the woods, and as we ski by we could stop and play them?’ ”

The resulting multi-generational, rustic sculptural Sound Garden at the Headwaters of the Clam River Greenway includes two wood xylophones and chimes made from cast-off brake drums and scrap metal. Mallets lay nearby.

“Hands on” also sums up visits to the Stan Beikmann Herb and Sensory Garden at the Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles. But this destination rewards noses, not ears, with a soft hand swipe over lavender, rubs of apple leaf between thumb and forefinger and wafts of chocolate-scented geranium released in the breeze.

“Basically, the scent function in that garden makes the enjoyment a little more interactive,” says Steve Bornell, manager of Fernwood’s plant collections. “Some (plants) don’t have a scent until they are crushed.”


Sensory Buffet
Photography courtesy MSU Horticulture Gardens/art cameron

Getting Started: A Sensory Buffet

While the unbiased results of Michigan State University’s Trial Plant studies are posted online at trialgardens.hrt.msu.edu, home gardeners can indulge their senses more by exploring the 14-acre Horticulture Gardens at MSU in person, attending the annual plant sale in mid-May and discovering best practices for enhancing gardens at MSU’s 2014 Spring Program, led by industry experts.

A few top sensory picks to peruse on-site at MSU include those featured from left to right, starting above on the opposite page:

  1. Salvia (Sage). As the largest genus of plants in the mint family, this versatile, aromatic favorite comes in a diversity of forms and sizes.
  2. Salvia Summer Jewel ‘Red.’ Wave after wave of bright red blooms attracted hummingbirds and goldfinches during MSU’s 2013 Plant Trials.
  3. Dill. Featuring wispy, fernlike leaves that taste sweet and even more flavorful seeds that attract beneficial insects, this annual wins points in and out of the kitchen.
  4. Salvia (May Night, foreground), Achillea (Moonshine, middle) and Nepeta (Six Hills Giant/Catmint, back). While May Night and Moonshine draw butterflies with their fragrant foliage and bright hues, the aroma of Catmint’s cloud-like blue spikes ward off rabbits and deer.
  5. Blue Salvia and Pennisetum (Foxtrot). Durable and drought-tolerant Blue Salvia lends vivid color all summer; MSU pairs it (top right) with the smoky-rose plumes of Foxtrot, an oriental grass that turns gold in fall.

Learn more at hrt.msu.edu/our-gardens.

— Lisa M. Jensen


Freelance writer Ilene Wolff resides in Royal Oak.

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