Author: Montoya, Annette

Mid-Winter Check In

Wow, I haven’t posted in a while! Mary and I have been busy on some projects for adults, working with gardens that target increased cognitive functioning as opposed to gardens aimed at cognitive development in children. As noted in earlier posts, even though the design focus of this garden is on young children, it is meant for everyone. It is a garden for immersion, exploration, thought, experience, and sensory stimulation at any age.

Older children and adults, especially those who suffer from brain trauma, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, can greatly benefit from interaction with nature, the tranquility of a garden, and the cognitive focus of this type of garden in particular, because it is interactive. Many of the principles of cognitive development translate to cognitive functioning and re-engagement or re-connecting of the neural “dots.”

In illness, or when feeling isolated and vulnerable, humans tend to gravitate to non-human elements that demand little of them. Looking to nature to fulfill this human need and offer solace can be healing. I think that, in this technological age, older children tend to turn to electronics rather than nature. It may be because they don’t have a relationship with nature or simply that their electronic devices are so close at hand and easily accessible. To me, this seems counter intuitive and even more isolating. Perhaps our teenagers and young adults who have grown up with smart phones and the like find some comfort in virtual friendships or watching others on a screen to take their mind off their own situation. But those virtual friends or strangers won’t bring us chicken soup when we’re sick.

 Trees, plants, and animals may not bring us chicken soup either (unless your pet is actually a chicken that you’re willing to sacrifice). You can also boil tree bark, herbs, and other healing plants (especially if you’re a vegetarian) to advance healing and save your pet for more dire times. But, seriously, nature does heal. Many studies have shown this. 

By developing a relationship with nature, and giving this gift to our children, we are feeding our spiritual selves and providing a link to our biological heritage (look up biophila!) that can be healing in so many ways. We designed this garden to bring nature into our community so that we humans can interact with it. Lay in the grass, roll down the whale (toward the trees, not the parking lot, please), run through the meadow, sit among the pollinators, run your hands over the herbs, hug a tree or simply sit on the ground and lean against it. Be present, be mindful. Close your eyes and feel nature through all of your other senses. Feel the solid earth beneath you, supporting you. Think back to earlier experiences or create new ones. Give nature a chance to help and I truly believe you will benefit, whatever your age. 

One Step Further

We have been working hard to build the stone “steps” in the shade garden and they are finally done. This stone pathway takes us up the hill from the sandpit and around a small shade garden. Polytrichum (haircap) and Hypnum (fern) moss cover the ground between steps, poking their little heads up, asking to be touched. The rocks and boulders that create this garden have been slowly rolled down the hill by Grasso Tech students and their teacher, Larry Fritch, under the direction and tutelage of Steve Colgan, Master Gardener and Moss Expert.

It took several days to tackle this project. The boulders are quite large and it was no easy task to get them into place. Steve brought long metal rails and long pry bars to dislodge the boulders from the massive (ten ton) pile and roll them down the hill. Many of the boulders took 2-3 people to move. Then we had to dig out the space under the boulders to “set” them. We used heavy plastic between the steps to make maintenance easy and keep weeds out. Felt came next to give the moss something to attach itself to and to hold moisture. Steve taught us that, since moss doesn’t have roots, it doesn’t need soil like most plants. All the nutrition and water are obtained above ground.

Without Steve and Grasso Tech, we wouldn’t have been able to install this feature. Steve applied for grants from local garden clubs to help fund the project. We were awarded funds from the North Stonington Garden Club, which paid for the bulk of the project. The Connecticut Master Gardener Association gave us additional funds, and the Ledyard Garden Club paid speaking fees to Steve for his talks on moss during one of their meetings. Not only was the talk awesome but Steve donated the proceeds. Many thanks to these folks for the support. It is so appreciated!

We also planted blueberry bushes near a cedar fence that we are currently building with the help of Paul Hanlon from UConn’s Office of Veterans Affairs and Military Programs. The cedar trees used for fencing were obtained from the UConn extension office in Norwich. In the spring, we will plant shade plants and hopefully have a few fairy gardens, topiaries, and hypertufa pots to tuck into the small garden beds we have created next to the “steps”.

Grasso Tech students also planted about a hundred allium and daffodil bulbs in the pollinator garden and Petie and Rich, from Perennial Harmony, planted a couple of shade trees near the pollinator garden and amphitheater. My son and his friend Seabass have also been a tremendous help doing some of the cleanup and heavy lifting. They are my superstars when it comes to strength and I’m so grateful to them as well for their willingness to volunteer.

Again, thank you to everyone who helped in this latest endeavor and for helping us create something really special for our community!

  • The massive bolder pile!
    The massive bolder pile!

Flying High (or Low if You’re a Drone Pilot)!

There is so much that I want to catch up on, things that I’ve been “saving” to do them justice, but time just flies! I will get to them all soon, but . . .

Speaking of flying, we were incredibly lucky to be referred to Bryan and Leah at AerialScope – Down to Earth Solutions (such a great name!) who have a professional drone company. We were hoping to get some aerial shots of the labyrinth so Waterford High School could enter their group project into the international Oceans Awareness art contest.

Bryan and Leah were referred to us from another professional drone pilot who explained that getting permission to fly in this area is tough as it is so close to the Groton airport. We were told that their company would have the best chance of getting permission from the FAA. They came out for a tour of the garden and generously offered to donate their services to help us.

AerialScope was indeed able to get FAA approval to fly over the gardens. This, they explained, was a big achievement because all drones are prohibited from flying that close to the airport, at any altitude, and they were approved to fly to 150 feet! Amazing! UConn also gave their approval (thanks UConn!) and up went the drone. The photos are stunning and they even created a 3-D model that you can view by clicking the link at the bottom of this post.

Every time we ask for help in the garden, it seems the universe provides. People in our community are so generous and I continue to be humbled by this. I think it is extraordinary that so many people have entered my life to help with this vision (thank you, everyone!). I really feel like this garden is meant-to-be and that it is the start of something hopeful for our community and for our children.

It may be a tiny garden but even the aerial photos make it look “bigger” and it is, on so many levels. It was a “Big” idea to move beyond just having a pretty garden, to having a garden that begs for immersion and physical connection. Getting our children off of their electronics (they start so young these days — even at restaurants so many are strapped into their highchairs staring at screens to keep them quiet) and into nature. Here is an interactive, non-electronic way to keep our children entertained and one that also benefits them (and our society) far more than just a momentary distraction.

So, thank you, Bryan and Leah, for taking to the airspace and giving us your beautiful aerial view of the garden.

P.S. The aerial photos are also helping us get noticed. What an incredible tool. I’ve sent them to a few editors of major magazines and these photos are really “selling” the story.

Click “The Garden” below to view 3D model:

  • Aerial view of the garden, looking toward Field House
    Aerial view of the garden, looking toward Field House

The Amphitheater Colors the Garden

After taking the month of August off (and the last half of September as well for some travel), we are back in the garden. During the first two weeks of September, we installed the amphitheater and created a pathway into the meadow. In short order, we will be installing the moss and fairy garden around and above the sand quarry so stay tuned for that. Steve Colgan, Master Gardener and moss expert, will be working with us and teaching us a thing or two! Very exciting!

Once again, Mary and I called upon our experts: Charlie (our brilliant Pfizer retiree and UConn alum) for help laying out the color wheel mosaic design around the already installed seating, and Coast Guard Vinny for masonry advice to make sure we could level it properly. I forgot how much work that was especially with all the angles and uneven, sloped surface. We got string lines in place then called in the big guns, Mary’s son Jacob (recent UConn graduate) and husband Jeff (another UConn alum!) to help dig out extra road-base from the labyrinth area, build up and tamp the road-base, and get the edging cut and laid out. Thank goodness for Jeff and his power tools. Honestly, I am ever so grateful for the help of friends and family.

Speaking of friends and family, a shout out here to Seabass who did a whole lot of tamping with the crazy commercial compactor. Not only that but he also used his substantial brawn to remove a ton of stone that had been inadvertently spread out on the main pathway (thus making it too deep and non-ADA compliant). Then he tamped the whole pathway a couple of times to make it as solid as possible. You ROCK Seabass!

Because the amphitheater uses many small concrete pavers, Mary and I were able to do the next steps ourselves: getting the bedding sand in and screed, and laying down the pavers. With the pavers in place, Mary, Shannon, and I set about arranging and adhering the mosaics onto the pavers. The mosaics on six of the panels were created by the fourth and fifth grade art students at Nathan Hale Art Magnet School last spring. The mosaics by themselves are beautiful but when we put them together to form the panels, they became something extraordinary! They are so beautiful and vibrant! We had initially placed them using the same tones as the six color wheel panels Mary created, but then we realized the kids’ mosaics might “pop” more if there was more contrast. It was fun working the puzzle pieces to make the artwork shine!

Once we had the amphitheater panels completed, Mary and I went to pick up shells to put in the spaces between the mosaic panels. In order to save money, we shoveled, bagged, and hauled a literal ton of shells ourselves. We may be small but we are mighty!

Grasso Tech students once again answered the call and arrived in their Big Blue Bus for an on-site workday. They helped unload and place the shells, dig out the meadow pathway, and set up the benches that were built and donated by Fitch High School, Waterford High School, and the Plant Lot. Everything went seamlessly and the students did such a good job and, hopefully, they learned a lot in the process. We also had a photographer from The Day capturing some photos for an article that was published on 9/21/19.

Interestingly enough, that article was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report and published on 9/24/19. That means the garden went national. Woohoo! UConn Today also published an article on 9/19/19. Charlie Nardozzi, Connecticut Garden Journal, broadcast a piece about the garden on WNPR and it posted it on the WNPR website on 9/27/19. Another article was published in the Waterford Times newspaper on 10/3/19. The garden will also be featured in the November issue of Norwich Magazine. This is super exciting! The press links are below.

  • Jeff helps with the paver edging
    Jeff helps with the paver edging

Cognitive Garden Takes Root at UConn Avery Point

A Break in the Action

I just want to thank all of you for your emails. Mary and I have not been doing much in the garden since the end of June. We are waiting for funds to be distributed from the Pfizer grant as we have run out money and donations. Once we get the funds, we will be able to finish the amphitheater and some of the other things we started. We can’t even put the rowboat in because all the sand, needed to install the pavers in the amphitheater, is being stored in that particular spot. And yes, as many of you have noticed and written to me, the sailboat was removed. That makes me really sad, it would have been a great asset to the site. I’ll explain that in a later email. Thank you, though, for all the emails and encouragement.

In the meantime we had a display at the Waterford Library on their large Art Wall. I’m told that it was very well received and got a lot of attention. I know I’ve received a lot of interest in the garden from it. I hope that we can continue highlighting the garden at the other libraries in our community over the next several months.

We were also lucky to meet with Merrill Gay, Executive Director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance and Jessica Ciparelli, Communications Specialist at the Alliance. This is a statewide organization that advocates for children ages 0-8, the same group that the cognitive garden is targeting. Their focus is on early childhood and their goal is that “families have strategies and capacity for early care and education so that each child is supported by comprehensive and interconnected services including early learning, nutrition, and social, emotional, and physical health.”

We gave Merrill and Jessica a tour of the garden and talked about our hope that it will be a resource to the many families, preschools, elementary schools, daycare facilities, and other organizations in our state involved with early childhood. Many of these are members of the Alliance. You can check out the organization, its goals, its accomplishments, and its membership at

We are hoping to be back in the garden at the beginning of September.  Some of you have had great comments and advice. We will bring many of your ideas up with the campus administration when we next meet. Cheers to a fruitful and happy summer!

Art wall display at Waterford Public Library, July 2019
Informational art wall display at Waterford Public Library, July 2019

Reflection on the IDEA Grant…Significance and Outcomes

As I’ve stated before, young children learn primarily through their senses and a multitude of studies have demonstrated a correlation between sensory stimulation and brain development. The goals of this project were to create a garden that encourages cognitive development and experiential learning through sensory stimulation and self-directed play as well as to establish a garden that draws people outside and creates a lasting connection to nature and their community.

While the garden is in the final stages of the first phase of development, it has already garnered much support from the community. The parents and caregivers who have brought their children thus far have been incredibly gracious. For the past year, I have been the one asking for donations and volunteers, thanking everyone profusely. It is only now that the tables have turned and community members are thanking me. It is humbling. Every time I am there working in the garden, people approach me to ask what the garden is, tell me how beautiful it is, and express their gratitude. It is the children, and their gratitude both real and implied through their actions that touch me so deeply.

I want to give our children a path to explore nature in a safe and beautiful environment. I want them to “get off the path,” “smell the flowers,” go into the waterfall and get soaking wet to really feel the essence of water on their skin. Life is about joy, childhood is about exploration and learning. I want our children to love being outdoors, to feel like they are a part of this biome, to find peace and tranquility in nature but also excitement and a sense of adventure for the possibilities it holds. Every educator I spoke with along this journey has given me resounding praise for tackling this issue. But again, it is the children, with their simple words and actions that make me realize how great of an impact this garden can have.

One little boy looked at me so sincerely the other day and asked with awe, “This was your idea?” Yes!!!!! That’s why they call this program the IDEA Grant! The opportunity to take an idea from a thought to an action is such a powerful prospect. The fact that this kind of program exists and is available to so many students each semester is incredible. The sky’s the limit and the benefits to our students and the global community are endless. Having the ability to participate at all is significant and I believe the outcomes will speak for themselves as people discover this jewel of a garden and children experience its many benefits.

  • The pollinator garden in late spring
    The pollinator garden in late spring


It looks like a crab!

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity trying to get the labyrinth finished. The Navy came through again for us and sent more strong young men to help move materials. They hauled dirt out of the bio-stream and then filled it back in with rocks; they moved pea stone from the pile to fill in the sailboat surround; and they lugged sand from what remained of that pile to the rowboat site near the waterfall, staging it for use in the amphitheater. All that activity also cleared the stockpiled material from the front of the site so we could finish planting that part of the garden with even more donated plants from Judges. People continue to be so generous!

The most laborious thing the sailors moved, however, was concrete. Using wheelbarrows, they moved brutally heavy concrete from a Tilcon concrete mixing truck UPHILL to fill the claws and legs of the crab labyrinth. Knowing my own core strength is not what it could be, I would have split like a seam up the middle had I attempted this feat. Just balancing a wheelbarrow full of heavy material is hard enough. These guys did it again and again, lining up side by side to fill up, dumping the cement, then lining up to fill them again. It was a sight to see with the huge truck and concrete coming down the chute filling up each load as they worked. At the steepest grade, sailors were running up the hill to gain momentum. WOW! Not easy work, but the men worked hard, they were super nice, and they seemed to take it all in stride. They were wonderful.

Tilcon had donated a truck full of concrete and the driver looked at me cross-eyed when I initially explained the plan. He asked me if I had any idea how heavy a wheelbarrow full of concrete was. I brightly chirped “No”, smiling widely and knowing full well that I can’t even lift a seemingly small (but very compact) 80 lb. bag of concrete myself.  (At one point later, when Mary and I loaded a few bags into hubby Jeff’s truck, we just about dropped the bags each time and practically dissolved into fits of giggles. Concrete is so heavy!) But in truth, I couldn’t even imagine how heavy a whole wheelbarrow would be. I just figured they would only fill it half-way. Plus, I reasoned, those young men are so much stronger than I am!

It’s occurred to me in the past that there are perhaps various reasons why landscape designers don’t build structures like this on a diagonal going uphill but I really wanted people to see a huge crab, this big shiny jewel made of tile, climbing up the hill in all its mosaic glory! Being a novice, getting concrete up that kind of slope actually didn’t cross my mind until well past the design stage. I was more concerned with the concrete pouring out of the claws than actually getting it into the claws. I naïvely thought a concrete company could just run a hose over the stone wall and down the hill or something simple like that.

Adam Bechta, the Regional Sales Manager, did pay a site visit to work out the details before the Navy was scheduled to arrive. He immediately set me straight and let me know that we would need sturdy metal wheelbarrows, 8-10 strong and willing workers, and at least one experienced concrete handler for the finishing work. I was still in my little “can-do” bubble so I didn’t consider the immensity of this project until after it was finished. My mantra has been “hakuna matata,” no worries, it will all work out in the end. My lack of experience was particularly obvious when the driver asked me, prior to the pour, where he should wash out his truck and chute. I suggested he take it back to his shop to wash it. Needless to say, I learned a lot that day.

With all of our incredible Navy volunteers (who actually didn’t even know what they were volunteering for, by the way) and our wonderful friends, Dean and Charlie on concrete finishing duty, we succeeded in our mission. The crab’s claws and legs were now visible and useful as mowing strips! Adam came out to the site to check on our progress. I’m pleased to say that he gave Dean and Charlie high marks for their craftsmanship, despite being amateurs.

The next day Mary and I went back with my son Christian and removed all the edging. The crab looked great! After Butler Landscaping workers mowed the area, the claws and legs really popped from the hillside. We had also poured a half sphere with some of the excess concrete using a concrete mold.  Jeff has since poured a few more.  Two full spheres will soon be the crab’s eyeballs. Super exciting! I love the adventure and our jeweled crab, made possible, once again, thanks to our amazing community!

  • Jacob and Christian edge the claws and legs with The Beast edging.
    Jacob and Christian edge the claws and legs with The Beast edging.

Go Navy!

We are so fortunate to have not only the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in our community but also the U.S. Naval Submarine Base. Both of these organizations have a strong belief in volunteerism and are willing to help with community projects. In fact, they are really busy volunteering most weekends so I was delighted when they were able to help us on a Saturday. Unfortunately, that was the weekend I was committed to the New London Family Festival but Mary rearranged her schedule and Shannon Aiello came to help. 

We had received a donation of TruGrid Eco Pavers to make our pathways handicap accessible and to help with drainage and migration of stone. These are honeycomb-shaped 4’x4’ plastic grids that Mary’s son Jacob, our fabulous foreman, was able to install. This was a little tricky because of the many curves in the pathway and the cutting involved, but he completed the whole thing the day before the sailors came. The company TrueGrid is so great not only for the donation but also for the support in figuring out the linear footage with all the curves and advising on other questions. The founder sent me a personal message telling me that he loved this project’s mission to get kids in nature, saying that he has young children of his own so he “gets it.” Yay!

The sailors who helped (and will be pitching in again to help us get concrete into the crab labyrinth’s claws and legs) are students at the submarine school. I was able to meet them at the garden before the festival, giving them a tour and showing them the things we needed to get done. They were super hard workers and immediately got to work filling in the main pathway with beautiful brown half-inch stone donated by McClure Construction. A sincere thanks to Gene McClure as well for his generosity of spirit. I am always humbled when I request a donation and companies give so freely. I know they are mostly small businesses and this takes from their bottom line, so my admiration for their generosity is heartfelt.

The sailors did quick work of the projects. They worked so hard and fast! They also helped us problem-solve with their myriad of expertise. They brought ingenuity to the table in helping us stabilize the sailboat and put in steps at the top of the labyrinth. Their strength will be an asset this week as they haul heavy concrete. It just amazes me that we have these local assets to help. Help from groups of volunteers like the Coast Guard and Navy, as well as Pfizer and the Boy Scouts, make such quick work of huge, overwhelming projects. Tasks that would have taken us weeks to accomplish are finished in three hours. That absolutely blows me away.

I really think the universe smiles at things like this. It knows the power of people working together for the common good and the fulfillment we all get from it. It shouldn’t come as a shock to me, but it does, mostly because I don’t take the time to consider such a thing. But people helping people benefits everyone involved. Knowing you are doing something good for the world, the community, or even a single person, and doing it with others as a team is such a feel-good thing! As the recipient of that good, I feel great! And for that, I shout out a resounding, “Go Navy!”

  • Navy work crew busy at work
    Navy work crew busy at work

Field Trip Fun

We had our first field trip at the garden with sixty 4th and 5th grader students from Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London. They came to see how the mosaics they made contributed to the garden design. From a classroom, it’s hard to see how an individual’s tiny piece of artwork will fit into the whole, but it makes sense when they are all together in the garden. While we weren’t able to install the mosaics in the amphitheater in time for their visit, we were able to grout their works of art and shine them up for the kids to see. They found their mosaics on the table and “oohhhed” and “ahhhhed” over them. We took them on a tour of the garden and showed them the amphitheater space. We had even carved their school name of a piece of granite and named the space the Arts Amphitheater in their honor.

Despite forgetting their picnic lunch back at the school (oops!) the kids had a blast running around the site and getting a couple different tours of the Avery Point sculpture walk and the art gallery in the Branford House. We had great weather, too, so it was a perfect day to be out of school and in nature! I went with the group that did the sculpture walk and loved seeing the joy of freedom as they ran up the boulders, touched the different sculptures to figure out what they were made of (one of the questions on the scavenger hunt created by my psychology mentor, Jamie Kleinman, and Christopher Platts, Curator and Director of the Alexey von Schlepp Gallery at Avery Point), and viewed the grounds and setting of the Art Walk. They were amazed to learn that the Branford House was once a private residence and the grounds were once someone’s yard.

The other group saw some of the artwork in the gallery and then took an expedited walk back along the water, passing the sculptures on their way back to the bus. Alas, there wasn’t enough time with so much to see and do that day but hopefully they will come back on their own later, perhaps bringing their families to share the experience. Most didn’t know that the Avery Point campus even existed or that it is open to the public. Hopefully this was an opportunity to see something beautiful and extravagant and to spread the word that this is a community space.

Fast forward to last Friday at the Connecticut Family Festival in New London where many of these same children performed on the stage, singing a cappella and dancing. I was there as a featured author, reading a children’s book that I wrote, “How Nature Makes My Brain Grow.” When I went up to read, several of the kids from the Art Everywhere class recognized me and filled the seats to listen to my reading. They were such a great group of supporters, with many of them waving at me from the audience. It made me so incredibly happy to see their smiling faces.

Designing the garden, building the garden with volunteers and donations, and publicizing the garden is a lot of work. Going into the schools with the kids to create the artwork for the space is also a lot of work but comes with these extra special experiences that make all of it worthwhile. In the end, we will have created not only a fabulous garden and a stronger community but, at least for me, cherished memories that will last a lifetime.

  • Students greeting Luci in the garden
    Students greeting Luci in the garden

A “Hole” Lot of Dirt

The last few weeks we have been super busy digging, hauling (dirt, sand, aggregate, and mulch), and planting. Thanks to my son for starting the hole where the rowboat will be installed, Jamie’s son and husband for expanding the hole, and Mary’s son for (almost) finishing the hole. There was a whole lot of dirt in that hole!

I believe I’ve already consumed enough dirt this past month to cover the next couple of years. I know, I know, as a horticulturist I should say “soil” not “dirt” but my clothes are full of dirt, even my nostrils and ears are full of dirt from the constant wind at Avery Point and all the digging we’ve been doing. There is a saying that we all eat a peck of dirt before we die. Farmers say we should eat a pound of dirt a year for good health. In some cultures, people eat dirt for its mineral nutrients (clay soils) and for self-vaccination against some disease. Lord knows there are a lot of bacterial strains in soil. Some say that’s why kids instinctively eat dirt but it’s still rather alarming to see your toddler put a handful of the stuff in their mouth.

I’m not too keen on ingesting soil these days, especially with all of the contaminants we put on and around our plants in most urban areas . . . pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, etc. We spray so much toxic stuff that it is “literally” sickening. I’ll try and stay off my soap-box about bioaccumulation and pervasiveness in the environment but let’s just stop this practice please, especially since I’m one of the ones eating it.

Playspaces for children should be pesticide-free so our children don’t have to worry about ingesting chemicals. I’ve always told my son that dirt isn’t dirty, it’s the germs he brings home from school that cause sickness. I think washing your hands after being in public spaces is a higher priority than washing them after a bout of nature, but then again, I use organic growing practices. Children love to get dirty not “soil-y” and that is their right as children—let them be filthy little nature urchins!

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had children visit the garden and they love it! Tiffany, a dedicated Coast Guard volunteer, and mother, brought her children for a day of gardening. She and her girls helped me plant and mulch sedum around the waterfall. Tiffany had brought little gardening gloves for each of them. They even did some planting, hauling hoses and helping give the tour to the Grasso Tech students that showed up to check on the progress. Those gloves were off “lickety-split” though, once it was play-time. They ran, they rolled, they splashed, and they delighted in dirty hands and feet. Success!

  • Christian preps a load of sand to haul uphill to the site of the rowboat
    Christian preps a load of sand to haul uphill to the site of the rowboat