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Bernheim Forest sensory garden reopens with more accessible attractions

A creek in Bernheim's Cedar Grove wildlife corridor.
A creek in Bernheim's Cedar Grove wildlife corridor.

Bernheim Forest’s newly expanded sensory garden invites visitors to experience nature through more than just their eyes.

The installation reopened last week after undergoing major renovations. These changes aimed to make it more accessible for visitors with sensory sensitivities or challenges — those who are blind, visually impaired or have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“We were founded in 1929 as a place that welcomes everyone, and our philosophy is it’s not enough to put out a sign that says ‘everyone welcome’ — it’s an ongoing work in progress,” Director of Education Kristin Faurest said. 

The garden includes plant beds catered to each of the five senses. Visitors can see, feel and smell a variety of species, each categorized by the sense they appeal to most.

“By focusing on each sense individually, it’s a kind of mindfulness and connection that keeps you from feeling overwhelmed, which is something that not just people with Autism Spectrum Disorder can experience,” Faurest said. “[The garden] is a place to focus, center yourself and calm down.”

The garden also features a quiet space surrounded by small evergreens, creating a secluded spot to step away. The plants are arranged in an infinity symbol — often used to represent Autism support.

Renee Frith, Bernheim’s director of Horticulture and Sustainable Landscapes, said the garden will likely continue expanding in the coming years. She said they’re looking at adding an audio installation and ways to further improve accessibility.

“Gardens are ever-growing, ever-changing. The natural environment is that way as well,” Frith said.

Funding was obtained through the Crusade for Children, the Kentucky School for the Blind Charitable Fund and Kosair Charities. Numerous advocacy and charity groups who focus on sensory sensitivity and impairment aided in the design process.

“All of these groups spent so much time coming out and volunteering and working with us — telling us what to design, how to do it, how we can do it better,” Frith said. “We don’t have all the answers, and we aren’t afraid to say we don’t know, because that’s how you learn. This whole garden has been a great experience in learning about different communities and how they experience nature.”

Michael is a senior studying journalism and political science at Western Kentucky University and a news reporter with WFPL and KyCIR.