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Sensory Garden Ideas: Stimulating The Senses

Creating a sensory garden is a rewarding experience no matter the reason. Upgrading a garden to include sensory elements is just as good. And doing so benefits everyone who enters the space. 

Whether you work in a garden that’s public-facing, or one that is in your backyard, incorporating sensory elements is easy. Considering all five senses, and working with them has the benefit of getting you closer to the plants and elements in the garden as well. 

So let’s discuss sensory gardens, and what goes into them. We’ll include a brief look at their history and talk about how you can plan and implement your own sensory space at home or wherever you garden. 

What is a Sensory Garden?

Sensory garden
Whimsical signs can liven up the sensory garden space. Source: kightp

A sensory garden is a space that includes not only sensory garden plants, but also elements that evoke all five senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell). Overall many sensory gardens are designed to make gardening more accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds. They are often created for therapeutic purposes too. Any garden can be a sensory garden. These gardens are inviting gardens where visitors can be more engaged with the plants and features within. 

The History of Sensory Gardens

Sensory gardens were initially developed for people who are hard of hearing, visually impaired, or experience mobility issues. The concept has changed quite a bit since the first was developed. Today, they are focused on inclusivity, inviting, and providing elements that stimulate individual senses and multiple senses at once for all present. Many today are developed especially for children. With more awareness around autism coming to the fore, gardens that provide a sensory experience are more important, especially in a public outdoor space. These spaces provide calm, soothing sensations for people with autism. We can use the excellent examples of numerous public spaces to help us determine how to incorporate sensory information in our domestic spaces too.  

Who Benefits from a Sensory Garden?

As we briefly mentioned, these spaces improve the well-being of anyone in them. It is especially beneficial to provide sensory experiences to people who have learning disabilities. Tactile stimuli have been helpful in therapeutic interactions with children with autism. Covering all the senses allows those who rely on different senses to experience those more readily, even if they have difficulty with one sense in particular. But when we ask the question, who benefits, it’s a wide array of people. Everyone benefits. 

Sensory Garden Considerations

Interesting seating options
Incorporate fun and unusual seating and sounds into your garden. Source: guppiecat

Before we talk about designing a sensory-inclusive space, let’s cover the different elements in the garden. Of course, plants are paramount. Those chosen for a sensory-driven design should include layers of sensation. They should also be non-toxic and non-allergenic. Visitors to the space shouldn’t have to worry about getting chemicals on their hands when they touch the plants. Nor should they have to worry about allergens.

Choose plants that are suited to the climate and soil. Place them adequately so they can thrive. Happy plants make happy garden visitors. This relates directly to how you choose the larger features of the garden. How will they delight and dazzle you and your friends, or the garden attendees? 

Also consider hardscaping elements, like paths and seating. Consider ways to add texture not just in items hands will touch, but also think about pathways. Contemplate how you can create a safe space where the potential for accidents is limited. Lessen potential for sharp corners and tripping hazards while creating a sensory garden.

Using All the Senses

Let’s discuss the five senses and include examples of how to incorporate sensory stimulation for each in your garden space. At any point, an element that can cover more than one of the senses provides more than one that incorporates a single sense. 

Sound

Unusual surfaces and places to sit
Different path types can create different sounds underfoot. Source: School Ground Greening Coalition

In the larger garden features, increase sound through the pathways you design. Crunchy gravel or the reverberation of feet on stepping stones or smooth pebbles are excellent ways to invoke the sound sense. Leaves on the ground crunching under feet instructs visitors about seasonal changes. Bird feeders invite in birds who call to one another, adding an external element of sound into the garden’s interior. A water feature that has consistent gurgling, or trickling water helps provide a source of relaxed stimulation and a habitat for birds and insects. Bamboo clackers (sometimes known as deer scares) add an intermittent audio element that is pleasing to anyone in the garden. 

Some plants are excellent for providing a sound focus in your garden. Ornamental grasses swish as they move in the wind. Other plants like basket flowers make a papery popping sound when their petals are rubbed by human hands. Ground cherries or unopened balloon flowers also have a crinkly texture and sound. Trees that have large, broad leaves create diversity in sound as the wind blows through them. Probably the most obvious forms of sound inclusion are wind chimes or bells that make peaceful sonorous tones as they sway back and forth. 

Smell

When you’re choosing plants, consider not just the visual and auditory elements they provide, but also the smell. Herbs are excellent in this way. They have rich oils with unmistakable scents, and produce a safe sensory experience because they lack allergens. Chocolate Cosmos provide stunning visual stimulus and a strong scent that is reminiscent of chocolate. Lavender is another plant for stimulating scent sensations, and it provides a relaxing aroma to visitors of varying gardens. Some tree specimens have lovely scents in their needles, bark, and sap. 

Outside of flowers, herbs, and trees, you can evoke scent through different large features. Raised beds warmed in the heat of the day emit a soft scent that can be very instructive for demonstrating what healthy soil smells like. The same goes for the smell of a compost pile. Cedar wood chips could be an option as well, though cedar allergies are more common. 

The smell of a wooden fence, or that of water features with plants growing within a designated area have a light odor that gives inhabitants an idea of how a healthy riparian area smells. Even animals incorporated in the garden, like chickens, goats, or rabbits have accompanying scents. 

Touch

Including plants with interesting textures like wooly thyme, rosemary, or even the soft leaves of lavender promote health not only in sensory information but an understanding of how to identify and use them. Include plants with different textures, like ornamental grasses, and succulents. Tropical plants placed under large trees have a rubbery texture that is unmistakable. And the bark of trees is different depending on the species. Those learning about plants can use the touch sensation to identify them. 

The rough seedpods of purple coneflower provide stimulation in a seasonal sense, especially if those visiting your garden had a chance to touch them while the flower was still in bloom. Feeling the difference between varying seeds is also a great way to promote and invoke feeling as a sense. On the opposite end of the spectrum are lamb’s ears, which are soft most of the year. 

Foliage with a certain texture is great. So is feeling the difference between the border of a flower bed and the soil within. Plant leafy stems next to woody ones to provide a comparison. This is a superb way to stimulate and engage garden inhabitants. Vegetables with waxen skin can be touched during and before harvest. Even a water feature that is accessible is another way to engross. 

Celosia
Celosia, while not edible, has brilliant colors and texturally-fascinating flowers. Source: guppiecat

Taste

Directly related to smell is taste. If you’ve grown anything for food, you know this is one of the best parts of gardening overall. Allowing visitors to taste vegetables and edible plants that grow in the garden is fun and instructive. Flowers like nasturtium provide a spicy treat along with stunning colors. Herbs are an obvious way to engage through taste. But so are trees, like western flat cedar, or citrus for their leaves. Chocolate mint is a fun way to engage the sense of smell and taste alike. 

Create an herb garden surrounded by edible flowers, and lettuces, placing all the edible foliage in one area. Include herbs like lavender, thyme, oregano, basil, and varying edible flowers. Design an edible plant area surrounding a water feature to give visitors not only an example of how foliage differs in water-dominant areas, but also to create a sense of how their texture differs. 

Consider how each plant acts in the taste buds of varying inhabitants. Think about how edible flowers or herbs might be spicy, sweet, astringent, or bitter. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) flower annually, attract pollinators, and give inhabitants a little snack along the way. 

Sight

This might be the easiest part of building a sensory garden. Using plantings that flower in energizing colors or even soft colors, and combinations of both is an excellent way to dazzle the eyes and engage the sight of garden attendees. Choose those with foliage or flowers that have a visual appeal all summer long, or find those that change significantly throughout multiple seasons. 

Think about every level of your design. If you’re looking for something to border pathways or serve as a stunning ground cover, creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is an excellent option. That backed by Echinacea purpurea makes for a stunning monochromatic design. Both are suited to many different climates and put on a impressive display when their lavender flowers bloom. 

Plantings that encourage external sight sources are excellent. Certain types have a flower that attracts butterflies and also a delightful sense of smell. An entire garden oriented toward monarch butterflies, for instance, is a spectacular way to provide pollination to nearby vegetables, and also instruct visitors on the pollination process. 

Similarly, planting shrubs to attract birds, or those that produce seeds they enjoy eating can have the same function. Everyone knows birdlife and butterflies in a garden provide an entertaining sight. They also provide information on how to local ecosystem functions. 

Consider how to provide visual interest with water features and pathways as well. You can use different colored materials and plant flowers that accentuate or contrast your path material. Choose butterfly weed or Echinacea purpurea as a way to bring insects right to the pathways inhabitants wander. Stations with succulents like sweetheart hoya with its leaves like downward-facing hearts give inhabitants an idea of the wide botanical varieties among flowers and leaves.  

Building Your Own Sensory Garden

Different textures of plants in a sensory garden
Adding in edible plants, aromatic plants, and textured plants is ideal in sensory gardens. Source: guppiecat

Now let’s talk about how you can create your sensory garden. We’ll walk through the process of planning to implementation in short form so you can get started as soon as you’d like. 

Planning

Draw out your blank canvas space or garden either with paper and pencil or in a digital format. Before you add elements to your design, consider what you want to do with the space. Are there large features that should be added, and need significant planning? Or are you simply incorporating flowers and plant life that is more stimulating than what already exists there? Do you need to remove any poisonous foliage or quarter those off so they’re inaccessible? Should you create pathways, or simply hang wind chimes? 

Once you’ve decided what the purpose of your space is, include those elements in your design.  

Acquisition

Make a list of the items and materials you need to acquire to put your sensory garden into effect. This includes large feature elements like stones, gravel, dirt, soil, and even plant life with flowers that make the experience invigorating and exciting. It could also include the tools you need to get the job done.

Implementation

Then write a list of the tasks you need to complete. If you’re working in the public, consider eliciting help from volunteers or employees of the organization you work for. Or if you are working on your home garden, invite your friends to help you knock out each task. Start with the large construction projects and finish up with planting. 

Maintenance

Finally, keep the space in good condition so it remains inviting to those who will visit. Pathways should remain free of tripping hazards. Plants kept in good condition are inviting to people and wildlife alike. Keep up a pond so it doesn’t get overgrown with algae. Prune each tree appropriately, and remove any weeds that overtake an area as needed. Harvest and remove vegetables and fruits as needed too. This will help your space remain stimulating, and energizing. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Tactile plants and bright colored flowers
Add soft plants around aromatic flower beds to give variability. Source: gmeador

Q: What should a sensory garden include?

A: It should include elements that focus on all senses. It could be heavier in one sense based on who is most likely to visit. 

Q: What is a sensory garden for dementia?

A: It’s a garden focused on sensations that stimulate memory. Not only is being outdoors great for people who live with dementia, but it also increases the quality of sleep and self-worth. 

Q: Who benefits from a sensory garden?

A: Everyone benefits! See above.


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