Freshly mown lawn, twittering birds, brightly colored flowers, the crunch of a mulched path under our feet - these garden components create a more enriching experience by waking up our senses. You can make more of your landscape with a sensory garden.
Most garden designs are based on visual experiences or crop production. Sensory gardens are designed with the five senses in mind. A fuzzy leaf, a fragrant herb, and plants that attract song birds are just skimming the surface of this sensory garden experience.
Gardens and good health
Research has demonstrated what gardeners have always known - working the soil, tending plants, and strolling through a garden are good for your health. This is especially true of sensory gardens. They pull us out of our fast-paced, tech-driven lives and back to nature. This is critical for both our physical and mental health.
The positive effects of gardens, in general, and sensory gardens, in particular, have been found useful in helping people with autism, dementia, and mental health issues. Public sensory gardens incorporate walkways that are accessible to those using wheelchairs. They also tend to use plant labels with Braille or other interactive plant labels. Disabled or not, we can all enjoy the experience of a sensory garden.
Accessibility is only part of the site selection process. You will also want to make sure that your site will be able to support the plants you want to include in your sensory garden. Soil structure, sun and wind exposure, drainage, soil pH, and overall soil health should be considered before selecting plants.
Sensory garden plant selection requires that we consider different aspects of plants than we might otherwise think about. Instead of selecting the meatiest tomato variety, the most prolific beans, or the sweetest melons, we must think about all of our senses. How will a specific variety feel when touched? Is it brightly colored? How will it sound as a breeze passes? Will it attract buzzing bees or songbirds? Does it have an aroma? Is it safe to eat?
Of course, our senses do not exist in isolation. If you walk across a sidewalk, followed by cobblestones, and then over a pile of pinecones, the sounds, smells, and sights will change with each experience. As you look through seed catalogs and your own seed collection, which plant varieties will be suitable to a sensory garden? Let us explore each of the senses for some ideas. Before we do that, however - a word on native plants.
For ease of care and to increase biodiversity, consider native plants for each of your senses. Native plants are already suited to your microclimate and to the local wildlife, reducing the need for irrigation and protection from pests and diseases.
Now let’s start planning a sensory garden!
Most of us rely very heavily on sight, often taking it for granted. But visual aspects of a sensory garden are more than just brightly colored flowers, leaves, and stems. As with any other garden design project, other visual considerations include lines, shapes, and textures.
Fences, pathways, buildings, and hedgerows create visual lines that the eye will follow. The shapes of plants, raised beds, trellising, and the overall space contribute to the experience. Textures of bark, foliage, flowers, and walkways change how we feel about a space. Garden art, tree cages, furniture, and lighting also impact the visual aspect of a landscape.
Some plants that provide bright colors and contrasting shapes include:
Twittering songbirds, a hummingbird in flight, and buzzing bees can bring a garden to life. Water features, such as a babbling creek, a burbling fountain, or the sound of birds splashing about in a birdbath also add a new dimension to your landscape. So can wind chimes, spinning pinwheels, and rustling stems and seed heads. You can increase the variety of sounds in your sensory garden with bird feeders and plants that make noise as they move, or attract insects and birds that can be heard. Cereals, such as barley, millet, and sorghum, and pseudocereals, like quinoa and buckwheat, rustle nicely in stray breezes. Insectary plants, such as borage, lavender, and yarrow, will attract a variety of insects and birds with all their twitterings, chirping, and other sounds of nature.
Scent can trigger powerful emotions, take us back in time, or lift our mood. Scent is so powerful that entire gardens are designed specifically with scent in mind. These scent gardens are a type of sensory garden.
If you brush your hand across a rosemary shrub or rub a tomato leaf between your fingers, there is no mistaking those heady aromas. Think of how tiny white citrus blossoms can fill an area with their sweet fragrance. Many herbs contain essential oils that can fill your sensory garden with a variety of scents. Chamomile, cilantro, dill, lemon balm, mint, and tarragon are just a few of the scented edibles you may already have in your landscape. Other plants with strong aromas include curry plants, lavender, and salvia.
Pet a moss covered rock, stroke the bark of a tree, or hold a ripe orange in your hand. In each case, your finger tips will experience something entirely different. Fuzzy sage, lacy fennel, and ticklish thyme offer unique textures and scents, especially if you close your eyes.
Taste is is one aspect of garden design most often neglected. You wouldn’t go to a public garden and think about tasting the plants, unless you were a toddler. Which reminds me, if young children will be participating in your sensory garden, be sure to avoid potentially toxic plants. You also need to make sure that these plants haven’t been sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals, or come into contact with fresh manure. You want the plants in your sensory garden to look and be good enough to eat.
Choosing plants for their taste, to nibble them where and as they are, can be a lot of fun. My chocolate mint plant always surprises visitors. Tentative chewing of a raw leaf turns into a look of delight as a peppermint patty appears on their taste buds!
Did you know that borage leaves taste like cucumber? Or that nasturtiums are edible flowers? Basil, cherry tomatoes, chives, mint, and parsley can be enjoyed au natural, fresh from the landscape. Fruit and nut trees provide delicious tastes when in season, plus they offer shade from the sun in summer and textural experiences year round.
The goal of your sensory garden, then, is more than just visual appeal. It is an experience that heightens the senses and makes us more aware of our surroundings while slowing our heart rate, reducing stress, and adding beauty to our lives.
I think we could all use more of that, don’t you?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!