GARDENING FOR NON-VISUAL AESTHETICS



Gardens serve many purposes around human 
dwellings.  They function as windbreaks and 
temperature controls.  They provide visual and 
auditory privacy.  But the primary function most 
people consider when planning a garden is the 
aesthetic.  

While most gardens are designed for visual 
aesthetics, a wide variety of other sensory 
experiences can be enhanced by the careful 
selection of plant materials.

The sensory experience can start for any 
gardener with screening.  Dense evergreens 
around a perimeter supply not only auditory and 
visual screening, but also serve as windbreaks.  

Let's not forget the standard of planting 
deciduous trees on the south side of the house.  
They provide shade and temperature during the 
summer, but allow the sun to warm the house 
during the winter.

With these basics for a start, let us see what else 
we can accomplish for enhancement of the non-
visual sensory experience.  We have already 
invoked the senses of hearing and temperature 
sensitivity.  We can also create for touch and for 
the sense of smell.

1.  Sound aesthetics can be the most diverse in 
nature.  We can provide experience in:



2.  We feel warmth through every part of our 
bodies.  The warmth of the sun, especially on the 
face or the hands, the chill of snow, and the cut of 
wind through even the warmest clothing are 
experiences common to most of us.  What we do 
for these senses is often simply to avoid 
discomfort, but we can do more.  We can include 
an appeal to a variety of related sensations here.

3.  The sense of smell is a powerfully evocative 
one.  We often associate smell strongly with 
important experiences in our lives.  Of course, the 
degree to which we do this depends on the acuity 
of our sense of smell and our training of it.  For 
the sense of smell, like hearing, can be trained.

4.  Tactile sensations provide a great deal of 
information about the world.  Blind and visually-
impaired participants in tree and plant classes 
can quickly learn to make distinctions among 
trees that are beyond the knowledge of most 
Americans.  The tactile contrasts available in the 
plant world can provide pleasure and interest as 
well.

SOUND


Screening
The screening effect of vegetation has been 
described.  With the proper selection, evergreens 
can keep out much of the clamor of the cities in 
which most of us live.  However, if you live near 
the runway of a major airport, earmuffs may be 
the only choice.  Good trees for screening are 
those which grow rapidly and retain foliage to the 
ground.  The best thing to do is consult a nursery 
or landscape designer in your area.  You can 
often combine functions here and choose a 
screen that provides shelter, food, or nest 
locations for birds or an interesting scent -- such 
as Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea).

Wildlife
Birds with their variety of songs, chirps, and 
chatter provide a life and movement to the world 
of the garden.  We can attract them with the way 
we design our surroundings.

Books have been written on attracting songbirds 
by planting for them.  The main things to 
remember are that birds, like all living things, 
need food, water, shelter, and places to breed.  
"Most yards," says John V. Dennis in A Complete 
Guide to Bird Feeding, "are too open and lacking 
in the tangles of trees, shrubs, and vines that are 
seen in natural habitats."

How to provide these features without making the 
yard impenetrable to humans is the art of wildlife 
gardening.  We should start with trees, preferably 
those that also serve other functions as well, such 
as screening, temperature control, or other sound 
qualities.  After trees come shrubs and vines, then 
perennials, and finally annual plants.

John K. Terres in Songbirds in Your Garden
provides extensive lists for different regions of 
the country.  Some general types of trees, shrubs 
and vines can be listed here.  Consulting a 
nursery for what is available and will grow well in 
your area is a must, though. For Maine. The best overall 
choices include:


Herbaceous plants include the sunflowers, 
various hummingbird attractors, and local 
specialties.

Nut trees can also attract squirrels which can 
become a problem in crowding birds from feeders 
and chewing insulation and wiring in houses.  
However, care in how bird feeders are arranged 
and protected can minimize the problems and the 
siding of many houses provides a good deterrent.

Insects are also attracted to flowering plants, and 
this can be both a blessing and a curse.  The 
drowsy sound of bees buzzing in the garden is a 
soothing one strongly evocative of spring and 
summer memories.  Being stung by a bee is not 
nearly so soothing.

Wind
We generally think of wind as simply something 
we want to protect ourselves against, but the feel 
of it and the sound of it can be attractive as well.  
The aspens (primarily Populus tremuloides) have 
flat leaf stems that produce a fluttering sound in 
the wind.  Long-needled evergreens such as the 
pines (Pinus spp.) sigh, the exact sound 
depending upon needle stiffness and length.  
Others, such as oaks (Quercus spp.) produce a 
rustling sound.  In warmer the various species of 
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) can be selected for 
year-round production of just about any wind-
related sound that can be produced.   On some 
trees, seed pods can produce a faint sound when 
striking together in the wind, though this is often 
drowned in the other wind sounds.  Some 
consultation with a nursery person or landscape 
designer will be necessary here to find materials 
tuned to your own hearing and interests.

Water
Running water holds a fascination for human 
beings.  The variety of fountains in public places 
carry their musical message to visitors.  Water 
recirculating to splash and gurgle over rocks is a 
familiar part of the individual garden also.  Here, 
consultation with an experienced person is vital.  
Once you have the waterfall or fountain, though, 
wildlife will make use of it.  It is here that you will 
find your main source for amphibians.  All frogs 
and toads have their distinctive call.  The 
American toad sounds like a thumbnail run down 
an old fashioned comb that was of quality to 
produce a musical trill.  Wood frogs quack.  
Peepers peep.  Others bellow, belch, squeak, or 
even roar.  The sounds may not be as pleasing as, 
for example, the song of the Hermit Thrush, but 
they are sounds of nature and add something to 
the evenings of spring and summer.

Here also we can mention such completely 
manmade devices as windchimes.  These are a 
matter of taste, but should not be selected to be 
so loud as to drown out all other sounds.


WARMTH AND SIMILAR SENSATIONS


We have already touched on the feel of sun, wind, 
and snow.  We can add cold water to the 
contrasts we can feel.  A garden with alternating 
shade and sunlight will be a place where we feel 
in contact with the world.  Even shade can have 
different qualities.  The shade under a dense, 
heavily needled evergreen is usually warmer and 
more humid than that under a light, high-canopied 
hardwood.  Good trees for these contrasts can be 
found in the lists of food and screening trees.  
Pines (Pinus spp.), Spruces (Picea spp.), and Firs 
(Abies spp.) often produce a warm shade, though 
the more columnar forms, unless tightly grown, 
may produce too little to show the effect.  Maples 
(Acer spp.), Oaks (Quercus spp.), and Beech 
(Fagus spp.) are among those which can produce 
a high canopy with a cooler shade, partly because 
of air movement.  Consult your nursery or 
landscape designer.


SMELL


Here again your nursery is your best friend.  A few 
general comments can be made, though.  Some 
cherries (Prunus spp.), apples (Malus spp.), and 
other plants in the rose family produce a sweet 
fragrance every year.  Some do not. Ask.  The 
common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is quite fragrant 
while other lilacs may not be.

Many common kitchen herbs such as sage, 
wintergreen, mints, and others can be grown 
throughout much of North America.  These are 
generally perennials and will provide their 
particular scents in increasing abundance year 
after year.  Pick your favorites. And then you can use them for
fragrance in your kitchen -- and in cooking. Roses provide a 
wide range of choices of fragrance. 

The Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), where it will 
grow, produces the scent commonly associated 
with the north woods.  'Pine' some people call it.  
Of course, most people don't distinguish between 
pine and fir or spruce, anyway.  

In producing fragrance, the choices are almost 
unlimited.  Get what you like that will grow in your 
area.  Try to select plants such that a changing 
kaleidoscope of scent will greet you each time 
you step into your garden throughout the year.


TOUCH


The sense of touch can be stimulated by 
differences in leaf texture.  Each species of plant 
has its own characteristics so that it is impossible 
to cover the whole gamut.  However, some 
evergreens have long, more or less flexible 
needles.  These are mainly the pines (Pinus spp.) 
Others, including some pines, but more often 
spruces (Picea spp.) and firs (Abies spp.) have 
shorter, stiffer, and sometimes sharper, needles.  
Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) can draw blood if 
you grab it too firmly.  Here, as with the various 
thorny plants, the tactile can be a liability.

The bark of trees can be profoundly interesting.  
Trees are sometimes called the structural units of 
the ecosystem or garden. As such they provide a 
feeling of solidity and should be a major focus of 
your efforts.

The various textures of bark are endlessly 
fascinating.  The white pines generally have 
smooth bark when young but blocky and platy 
near the base of older trees.  The oaks usually 
have deeply ridged and furrowed bark.  Some 
ashes (Fraxinus spp.) have an almost diamond 
shaped pattern as does Norway Maple (Acer 
platinoides).

Beech (Fagus spp.) is smooth.  So is young Red 
Maple (Acer rubrum).  Some bark is shreddy like 
the Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and 
Northern White-cedar or Arborvitae (Thuja 
canadensis).  Some is smooth and fluted like 
American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).  
Much birch (Betula spp.) is smooth with horizontal 
peels, but several species are not like that. Betula 
papyrifera, Canoe or Paper Birch and Yellow Birch 
(B. alleghaniensis) shred, but Gray Birch (B. 
populifolia) and most of the European species do 
so much less, though they are still smooth and 
interesting.

In short, the bark of any tree trunk will provide 
interesting tactile sensations as well as a feeling 
of stability and permanence.  Take your pick.

SELECTION AND CARE


Unless you have the services of a gardener or are 
an enthusiast yourself, pick minimum 
maintenance plants.  For myself, I like to plant 
them and then appreciate them.  For intensive 
care, talk to somebody else.  But everybody is 
different.

Seasonality
Different seasons produce different effects. Try to plan for the times when you will be in the garden -- or when wildlife you have invited will. Birds need a year-round food source because some remain in even the harshest winters. The only fragrance you will get in winter is from up- close contact with such trees as firs, but plan for changing scents for the spring through fall.

And have fun.  There is a lot more to gardening 
than meets the eye.