BOOTHBAY, Maine — When you stroll into the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in August, you might be struck first by the exotic fragrance of lilies that perfumes the summer air, the sun on your skin or the low, humming sound of the bees that seem to buzz everywhere, punch drunk on pollen.
Mostly, though, you’ll be bombarded by the sight of flowers in a rainbow’s worth of colors, from strange top-heavy blooms that look like they have been lifted out of a Dr. Seuss storybook to banks of old-fashioned, beautiful roses. It’s a sight that draws visitors from all over and can practically take your breath away.
But not if you are visually impaired.
That’s the case for Marilyn Greenleaf, 86, of Southport Island, who has macular degeneration and sees less and less all the time. The vision she has left comes to her peripherally, from the corner of her eyes. Still, her failing sight hasn’t seemed to slow her down much. She keeps a vegetable and flower garden at her house, and she loves coming to a weekly special therapeutic horticulture program in the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses at the botanical gardens.
“We plant, we transplant, we harvest. It’s fun, and we get to meet new people,” she said last week during a therapeutic horticulture session. “Gardens don’t talk back to you. If you pull up the wrong flower, it’s not the end of the world. … I really enjoy the program. You can’t help but enjoy it.”
Greenleaf sported oversized wrap-around yellow sunglasses and a big smile as she dead-headed flowers planted in tall, easily accessed raised beds.
“What we’re all doing is learning, being very honest with you,” she said.
That is exactly the point, according to Irene Barber, who coordinates the therapeutic horticulture program at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. She works with people who have intellectual, physical and visual impairments and said that working in gardens can help people become more confident and independent in other parts of their lives. It can even be transformative, she said.
“It’s not like you’re a miracle worker here, but people can feel motivated to reach out of their wheelchair and grab that cherry tomato,” she said. “Even those with severe dementia react to the space. Coming to the gardens provides a whole excitement back to their thought process. Sometimes it brings tears to their eyes. It gets them out from a typical daily routine, and working with the plants, they can develop more dexterity.”
Working in gardens can be therapeutic for horticulture experts and for people who never gardened before, Barber said. In the weekly therapeutic session for Greenleaf and the other members of the group that calls itself the VIPs, or visually impaired people, there is a wide range of gardening experience.
Alethe Donaldson, 77, of Thomaston is a gardening greenhorn who lost the vision in one eye about six years ago and struggles with the loss of her depth perception. Every week in the summer, she makes the trek down crowded Route 1 to the gardens. On this afternoon, she pulled flowers from a bucket of yellow, red and orange snapdragons and carefully arranged them in bud vases.
“I need to feel the flowers,” she said. “When you lose one thing, you get something else. You think about things differently.”
Across the table from her, Dick Butler, 91, a Southport man with macular degeneration, worked on his own flower arrangement. The World War II veteran ran Butler Twins Florists in Farmingdale for 40 years and clearly still knows his way around a bunch of flowers. But nowadays he is learning to do his arranging by touch instead of sight.
“We’re always learning,” he said. “You’ve got to quit when you say you know everything.”
That’s just what Barber likes to hear.
“Dick is a well-versed gardener,” she said. “But he can learn new tricks to still enjoy the experience of gardening.”
As Donaldson, Butler and others worked on their bouquets, Barber bustled around, using words to describe the flowers they could no longer see for themselves. She brought around containers full of aromatic flowers and herbs and challenged the group to take a deep breath and identify them. For a moment, the air is full of the smell of lavender, as Greenleaf crushes it with her fingers, then the bracing aroma of lemon verbena.
Mollie Moore, 82, of Southport sniffed deeply at a box of parsley but couldn’t immediately figure it out. She lost her sight overnight while on a trip to her home country of England 16 years ago. She had pneumococcal meningitis and wasn’t expected to survive.
“I’m a tough old bird and came back,” she said.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, which she helped to develop, have assisted her in navigating her newly sightless world.
“No matter what your disability, you can still garden,” she said.
Barber said the garden was designed so that people of all abilities can appreciate it and feel able to use it. The raised beds help with that, as does a sturdy railing that runs around the perimeter, and the way that the gardens staff don’t rush to help people when they are faced with doing something new or challenging.
“I resist that sense of urgency to help them and encourage them to help themselves more. They definitely become more free-spirited and independent,” she said. “It is the reason why I do what I do. There’s a sense of hope and opportunity.”