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The Enabling Garden

Looking for accessible gardening ideas? An award-winning public garden in Chicago might be the perfect place for inspiration.

Chicago-just minutes away from Canada by air-has enjoyed a resurrection in the last two decades, rapidly growing an international reputation for art, architecture, commerce, cuisine, music, sports and more.

Visitors quickly discover why it won the American Association of Museums Accessibility Award in 2000. On display throughout its 11,000 square feet is a fantastic combination of landscape, structures, containers, tools and techniques that provide powerful testimony to the fact that garden's physical and emotional benefits can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of ability. Many of the same ideas incorporated into the Enabling Garden can be adapted in home gardens to create barrier free opportunities for a lifetime of easy, enjoyable gardening.

As you'd expect, raised beds show that by elevating the soil level, gardeners can care for a garden more easily with very little bending, stooping or reaching. But there's much more. Shallow beds built above the ground allow legroom for gardeners who sit while tending plants. Hanging baskets can be lowered to a gardener's working height, then raised for display. Vertical wall gardens--special wood frames within easy reach on garden walls--make a striking display when filled with colorful annuals or vegetables.

The 3,100 plants in the Enabling Garden were chosen largely for their beauty and appeal to multiple senses. Discover plants with bright colors, pleasant fragrances and interesting textures. A metal grid running across this garden bed provides a planting guide for people who garden by touch. Water is also prominent throughout. Raised water gardens bring plants within easy reach. For sensory enjoyment, the garden also has several fountains and uniquely designed water walls, which create 5-foot-wide sheets of water.

Throughout the garden, a level grade, firm surface, good drainage and color contrasts for visual discrimination contribute to improved mobility in the garden. An elegant gallery garden provides a spectacular view across the lagoon, and a teaching pavilion--a canvas-covered outdoor classroom used for horticultural therapy workshops and classes-is located at the north end.

Visitors are encouraged to use all their senses to experience plants and to sample tools that ease the practice of gardening. Trained volunteers are always on hand to answer questions. The "Tool Shed" information center offers resources and tools that help you try easy-does-it gardening techniques at home.

The Enabling Garden opened to the public in 1999. But according to Gene Rothert, Chicago Botanic Garden's Manager of Horticulture, the design is based on almost a quarter century of experience.

"We had one of the first public exhibits of barrier free gardening here at the Botanic Garden-it was built in '75 and '76," explains Rothert. "The new garden that we're talking about now really built on over 20 years experience we had in what we now call 'the old enabling garden.'" For Rothert, who is himself a wheelchair user, the feedback from visitors is one of the most gratifying aspects of his job. "If you're out there observing some of the visitors that come in-particularly those with disabilities-you can really see the dots connect," he says. "For the general visitor, too, I think it's one of the more beautiful gardens and grounds. So the general visitor, I think, comes away with not only a greater awareness about enabling, but I think a greater awareness of what people with disabilities can do." Rothert adds that the Enabling Garden is much more than a tourist attraction-in many ways, it's designed to be more of an educational facility.

"Anyone who wants to keep gardening a vital and important part of their life can come to the Botanic Garden and learn how to do that." If all this isn't enough to bring out the green thumb in you, keep in mind that the Buehler Enabling Garden is actually only one of 23 gardens that compose the Chicago Botanic Garden. The entire facility occupies 385 acres, with 75 acres of lagoons, nine islands, six miles of shoreline, and 15 acres of prairie. Almost a million visitors annually enjoy the multi-sensory feast of the best plants for the Midwest displayed in a variety of beautiful settings.

The Chicago Botanic Garden is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. For more information, visit: www.chicago-botanic.org or call 847/835-5440.