Scents and sensibility

Connie Skillman nurtures ornate container gardens and teaches others the art of gardening in very small spaces. But she has taken on a tougher challenge with her new class, "Gardening with Fragrance and Texture," specifically created for the blind and visually impaired.

Though she's been teaching classes at Pot Luck Container Gardens for more than two years, Skillman incorporated extra preparation for her current class.

Her new students, who have little or no gardening skills, will need as much attention and care as the plants they tend.

"I made sure I put all the plants I would use in one area along a few rows, then I blindfolded myself and planted a container," Skillman said. "I did everything from start to finish without using my eyes."

Skillman said her process of preparing for the class helped to ensure the students could navigate the rows of plants, measure the soil, and easily plant the large pots.

"It was the best way to prepare," she said. "I wanted to make sure everyone just had fun. There is so much that we sighted people take for granted."

Karen Barlow, who is legally blind and teaches computer classes for the visually impaired, helped Skillman put the class together.

"Gardening isn't just for the sighted," Barlow said. "I want people to know that the only thing you can't do is what you stop doing."

The class is planned as the first of many geared to people with visual impairments. Skillman emphasizes, however, that she does not want the class highlighted as a course for the blind.

"We're not speaking to the attendees' blindness," she said. "We want to focus on the gardening and all the enjoyment gardening gives people, regardless of whether or not they can see."

The class seems more akin to a party, with seven students and a teaching assistant planning meals with their soon-to-be made herb gardens while exclaiming over the fuzzy-leaved rose campion plants and smelling scented geraniums.

"This is a full house," Skillman said. "Usually I only have three or four students at a time."

Barlow expressed her own delight in the excitement generated by the class.

"This is a lot of fun," she said. "I like to see people wake up to their abilities rather than focus on their disabilities."

Organizing the class involved skilled planning by Skillman and Barlow. They did not want the class to be seen as a charity event, but did want to subsidize materials for the blind students, most of whom are on a fixed income. When Skillman explained the project to Ryan Porter, manager of Legends Pottery Outlet in Central Point, he donated several large ceramic pots.

"I think Connie's class is a great idea," Porter said. "You can really get in touch with your senses in a garden."

Porter kept the idea of tactile pleasure in mind with the Vietnamese clay pots he donated.

"I tried to give items with lots of texture, the pots have swirls and patterns on them," he said.

Skillman then contacted local nurseries and growers for advice on which scented and textured plants grew best in containers. She said everything fell into place after Porter's donation.

"Karen (Barlow) and I had talked about doing this for years. It all just came together," she said.

Keeping in mind that each student would be leaving the class with a large planted pot, Skillman and Barlow arranged transportation through RVTD's Valley Lift, a public transportation service for those with disabilities.

During the class, Skillman offered tips on choosing a location for the container, watering and pest control. She then invited the students to browse the tables loaded with plants, and to consider size, texture and scent as they chose their plants. The many choices included edible flowers, fragrant herbs and a variety of fuzzy and bumpy-leafed plants.

"Everyone loves the lambs ear," said Skillman's friend and assistant Carole Chapman, holding the silvery plant with soft leaves. "It's soft to the touch and really hardy."

Chapman was also impressed with response to the class.

"Gardening is a whole sensory experience," she said. "It's wonderful &

everyone should stick their faces into plants, breathe them and touch them."

Corinne Vieville, who has been blind all of her life, was proud of her large pot of basil, oregano, chocolate mint, lemon thyme, and other herbs.

"This is my Italian garden," she said. "I came to learn more about Connie's shop, but I've learned so much more about gardening and plants."

Stan Littrel, who has been blind since birth, chose a variety of fragrant plants.

"This is lovely," he said, inhaling the scent of sage. "I love things like this. Blind people have hobbies like everyone else. I never thought about it, but gardening is a natural. We can all do this, we're not victims of our own drama."

Skillman and Barlow plan to organize more classes at Pot Luck Container Gardens, which is located on Applegate Road behind Valley Equipment Rental at 2195 Hwy 66. For further information or to get on the waiting list for the next fragrance and texture class, contact Connie Skillman at 482-6154.

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