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New school landscape helps students grow

Sensory garden designed with Colorado native plants provides unique learning environment.

A new sensory garden in Denver’s Congress Park neighborhood is blooming with low-water use flowers and plants that will help students learn as they grow.

The garden opened May 10 at the Sewall Child Development Center and Reach Charter School.

“The purpose of the sensory garden is to evoke the five senses of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell,” said Heidi Heissenbuttel, CEO at Sewall Child Development Center. “We are two all-inclusive schools and the garden is a great way for all of our children to experience nature together.”

Catharine McCord, University of Colorado at Denver graduate, shows off an allium giganteum, one of the unique plants in the sensory garden.

The garden is the brainchild of Catharine McCord, a landscape architect graduate from the University of Colorado at Denver, who designed the space in collaboration with students, families and school staff, for her master’s degree thesis.

“In addition to being pretty, the plants have many benefits,” McCord said. “The project was aimed at creating a therapeutic garden for kids who have special needs and learn differently.”

With the design in hand, Sewall was able to secure a $75,000 grant from the Colorado Garden Foundation to turn their empty, weed filled field behind the school into a diverse, interactive, water-efficient, learning landscape.

The schools received some additional help from parents including Angie Andrade, a parent who has two children at Reach and is a senior horticulturist at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

“We all wanted to make sure the garden used low-water plants and could be sustainable in Denver’s dry climate,” Andrade said. “We got all the plants donated and volunteers helped plant them last fall.”

A teacher talks with students about the importance of planting trees that can thrive in Colorado's dry climate.

The grounds now include fruit trees and culinary herbs to help students learn about taste; lambs ear with soft leaves for touch; flowers to see beauty; and lavender and mint for smell. All of the plants create a natural environment for birds and bees that provide the sense of sound.

“If a child is having a difficult time, the plants can provide a sense of calm through their texture and their smell,” McCord said. “These plants have so many properties that can help the children in their development and the plants all use relatively little water.”

According to Mark Cassalia, water efficiency specialist at Denver Water, the landscape is an example of how people are developing areas of their property to best fit their needs with water-efficiency in mind.

“In recent years, we’ve seen a trend of homeowners, schools and other property owners taking steps to add more functionality and water efficiency to their landscapes,” Cassalia said. “It’s great to see these two schools promoting important lessons about nature to their students at a young age.”

A student touches the flowers on a Spanish Gold Broom.

Volunteers planted the garden in fall 2017, so it will take a few years before the landscape reaches its full potential.

“We’re excited to watch the garden and our children grow,” Heissenbuttel said. “The garden teaches our children so much and it’s fun to see them all learn together.”