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Kimm Schmidt

Spring planting in the Vanderbilt Museum's Sensory Garden Photo courtesy of Pal-O-Mine Equestrian

Four years ago, Kimm Schmidt and Lauren Ferris of Pal-O-Mine Equestrian in Islandia, working with young adults with disabilities, created the Sensory Garden near the entrance to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Reichert Planetarium in Centerport. They return each spring to replant, and this year their work was made possible by a generous gift from a private donor.

On a bright, recent spring morning, Schmidt and Ferris worked to revive the garden with a half-dozen adults with special needs in their twenties and thirties.

“We plant things that awaken the senses,” Schmidt said. The garden has more than two dozen herbs, including sage, mint, rosemary, basil, anise hyssop, chamomile, yarrow, citronella, rainbow Swiss chard, chives, lemon balm, strawberries, and five-leaf akebia, a vine with chocolate-scented flowers. 

In 2018, Operations Supervisor Jim Munson invited a small group of local gardeners and landscape designers to refresh various gardens around the Vanderbilt Mansion. Schmidt and Ferris responded.

J-STEP team members from Pal-O-Mine in front of the replanted sensory garden at the entrance to the Vanderbilt Planetarium.

“The idea of the Sensory Garden came to mind immediately,” Ferris said. “It is a place that not only looks beautiful, but also has benefits the public can use and learn from.” Ferris, who had recently earned a Certificate in Horticultural Therapy from the New York Botanical Garden, said she thought a sensory garden would be an excellent feature for visitors of all abilities.

“Plants that awaken the senses are a wonderful tool to use in so many ways,” Schmidt said. “They spark conversations, jog people’s memories, and can be very calming.”

“I loved the concept and wanted it to have a prime spot with lots of traffic,” Munson said. “I just knew the front of the Planetarium was the perfect location, accessible to all.”

Lisa Gatti, who founded Pal-O-Mine Equestrian in 1995 as a therapeutic horseback riding program for individuals with disabilities and other vulnerable populations, liked the idea immediately. Pal-O-Mine decided to make the design and installation of the garden part of its J-STEP (Job Security Through Equine Partnership) program. Each week, Pal-O-Mine serves 350 people, in their various programs ranging in age from 3 and up. Schmidt and Ferris are J-STEP job coaches.

“We use horticulture skills at J-STEP to teach vocational skills necessary to secure and maintain a job,” Ferris said. “Some students go on to work at nurseries, and others have jobs at local retail stores.

Caring for the garden teaches proper work habits, personal and domestic maintenance, as well as interpersonal communication and social skills. 

The J-STEP Team also maintains the gardens at Pal-O-Mine’s 13 acres in Islandia, Long Island. “Each student has a personal garden and decides which vegetables they want to plant,” “They keep records and research planting times and the needs of each plant.” The students maintain other gardens on the site, including pollinator and cutting gardens, and a medieval knot garden, a formal design planted with herbs and aromatic plants. J-STEP offers other programs including photography, cooking, and crafting.

J-STEP students who installed this year’s Vanderbilt plantings talked about the experience. 

Meredith said, “Being part of the of the planning and planting for the garden calms me down. I see with my hands, and it feels bumpy and smells good.” Rebecca said, “It feels great to plant the Sensory Garden for people to enjoy.” Tim added, “I love working in the garden and I love the view.”

The group will return throughout the growing season to prune and clean the garden and do a clean-up in the fall.

For Schmidt, who recently joined the Vanderbilt as a museum educator, the attraction of designing and maintaining gardens is captured in a favorite quote from naturalist John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum & Planetarium is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Visit vanderbiltmuseum.org for more information.