A sensory garden is a specially designed outdoor space incorporating features, surfaces, objects, and plants to engage and stimulate the five basic senses: touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing. The goal is to create an immersive experience that promotes well-being, relaxation, and mindfulness.
What is a sensory garden?
A sensory garden is a purposefully designed outdoor space that transcends traditional gardens by incorporating features to engage all five senses: touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing. It serves various roles, from providing a calming atmosphere to acting as a community space or therapeutic retreat. The focus is on creating a rich sensory experience, promoting well-being and mindfulness. Such gardens cater to diverse needs, benefiting children, individuals with disabilities, and those facing mental health challenges. In essence, a sensory garden is a visually appealing and carefully curated environment where each design aspect considers the stimulation of the five senses, contributing significantly to overall health and well-being.
What are the benefits of a sensory garden?
Our senses and how we interpret the world through them are unique to each person. Certain sounds may induce a sense of tranquillity, while specific colours and movements can be invigorating. The design of a sensory garden can serve various purposes, aiming to create a peaceful retreat or an educational space filled with captivating textures and scents. The following are diverse ways in which a sensory garden proves beneficial:
- Promoting Enjoyment of the Garden: For individuals who may face challenges in participating in traditional gardening activities, a garden incorporating sensory elements allows them to engage with and derive pleasure from the outdoor space.
- Enhancing Mental Wellbeing: Including sensory elements in a garden elicits emotional responses, fostering feelings of calmness, happiness, and being present in the moment. Our senses become a gauge of our gardening success, from admiring blooming flowers to savouring the fruits of harvested crops or finding stress relief in the embrace of nature.
Specifically geared toward individuals with dementia, sensory gardens offer the following benefits:
- Memory Stimulation: Experiencing various stimuli in a multi-sensory manner aids in recollecting old memories and forming new ones, similar to the effects of reminiscence therapy.
- Fostering Independence in Care: Particularly within a care home setting, sensory gardens promote independence among individuals requiring care.
- Clarity of Mind: Engaging with sensory elements in a garden can lead to a clearer and more focused state of mind.
- Improved Mood and Emotional Wellbeing: The multi-sensory experiences provided by a sensory garden contribute to elevated moods and emotional well-being.
- Stress Reduction: Sensory gardens’ immersive and calming nature helps reduce stress.
- Enhanced Physical Health: The overall well-being of individuals is positively influenced by the therapeutic aspects of sensory gardens.
Tips for creating a sensory garden
The layout of your sensory garden can take on a thematic approach, either arranged to engage individual senses at specific times or designed as a multi-sensory blend. Explore the journey through various senses by segmenting your garden into distinct zones, focusing on aspects like sight, smell, or taste. Alternatively, create a harmonious fusion of different elements to captivate multiple senses simultaneously.
Many sensory gardens feature pathways adorned with low-scented plants, such as herbs, nestled between stepping stones. Opting for a winding route can enhance the experience by encouraging a leisurely pace and providing opportunities to appreciate the surroundings.
Consider the unique design of a keyhole garden, characterised by a narrow entrance leading into a larger space where visitors can relax amidst lush plantings. Regardless of the chosen design, ensure the inclusion of comfortable seating in a shaded area of the garden.
Incorporate tactile elements into the landscape by selecting materials like smooth pebbles. Integrate a water feature for its visual appeal and to stimulate the senses of touch and sound.
For auditory experiences, explore options like wind sculptures and sound fences. Rows of tubes that create a melody when a stick is drawn across them or Asian-inspired deer scarers, known for their rhythmic water features, can contribute to a Zen-inspired garden atmosphere.
Indulging the five senses
Chard and beetroot boast vibrant colours in the off-season, while Heuchera, a low-ground perennial with crinkled heart-shaped leaves, ranges from yellow to deep purple. Cyclamen, especially Cyclamen hederifolium, features uniquely patterned silvery-green leaves, similar to ivy and Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Variegatus’ shrub with holly-like leaves. Variegated shrubs and snake bark maples (acers) also provide winter interest.
Enhance your garden visually by incorporating diverse plant colours, shapes, sizes, textures, and patterns. Opt for bright flowers like purple coneflower, pelargoniums, tulips, or alliums, or go for a rainbow of native wildflowers like common poppies, ox-eye daisies, ragged robins, and corn marigolds, attracting pollinators for added visual interest.
If space is limited, consider container gardening for architectural diversity. Different tree and shrub species, ornamental grasses like pampas grasses, and plants with striking natural designs such as Persian shield, fan plant, and plantain lily contribute to varied textures and patterns. Explore various presentations like creeping, hanging, straight-standing, or miniature plants.
Introduce a water feature like a pond or fountain to create reflections, fluidity, and attract wildlife. A bench or seating area is perfect for relaxing and appreciating the natural surroundings.
‘Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon‘ and mint, with their lemon-scented foliage, are ideal for a sensory garden, thriving in light shade. However, while beneficial for such gardens, their rapid spread can be limited if the leaves are frequently touched. Chives, with a mild onion scent, can be planted in shady areas and feature attractive pink to purple flowers.
Incorporate a mix of aromatic plants, such as roses, honeysuckle, jasmine, lavender, rosemary, mint, and sage, to elevate your sensory experience in the garden. Freshly cut grass, earthy aromas, and floral scents add to the delightful ambience. Explore the multi-sensory pleasure of deliciously scented herbs, stimulating your sense of smell and taste.
Plants like Lamb’s ears, Rose campion, and Salvia argentea boast felt-like grey leaves, while grasses such as Pennisetum provide rabbit tail-like seed heads. Mexican orange blossom and false castor oil plant offer scented and hand-like foliage. Sempervivens and succulents are robust and pleasant to touch.
Create a tactile experience by incorporating diverse surfaces and textures, including hard, soft, smooth, rough, solid, or fluid elements. Lamb’s ears, ornamental grasses, and succulents offer soft and soothing textures, while seedpods, tree bark, and mosses provide a variety of fun sensations.
Enhance your garden with smooth pebbles for pathways, rough stone boulders for texture, and textured walls, sculptures, or structures made from stone, brick, glass, or metal. Water features add a refreshing touch as fluid water flows over your hands. An idea I like most is adding in a border split into several sections, filled with different materials to walk over, including woodchips, gravel, stones, sand, mud and any other texture you would like to add.
Delight your taste buds with fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits, whether you have a dedicated vegetable patch, balcony space, or a windowsill. Explore options from carrots, chilli peppers, and tomatoes to apples, strawberries, and blackberries. For added taste variety, consider growing basil, coriander, mint, parsley, and edible flowers.
Create auditory contrasts in your sensory garden. Incorporate a waterfall or fountain for the soothing sound of trickling water. Enjoy the diverse rustling of wind through leaves on trees, bamboo stems, grasses, and plant foliage.
Attract wildlife with native wildflowers to savour the buzz of bees and other pollinators. Foster bird presence with a bird bath and feeder, adding the delightful melody of bird songs to your garden.
Introduce textures with crunchy gravel or stones, offering a contrasting auditory experience as you walk.
Sensory garden ideas
Choose Textured Surfaces For Tactile Qualities:
The example features a sensory garden with a fountain, flower beds, and various outdoor plants and flowers. The landscaping is designed to create a peaceful and sensory-rich environment, enhanced by the mix of textures in the fence, flower bed borders and gravel pathway.
Add The Soothing Trickle Of Water:
This example depicts a stone fountain surrounded by colourful hydrangeas. This is a great example of sight, sound and textures all working together.
Invite Night-Friendly Focal Points:
This example is of a sensory garden at night with a structure in the background. It features trees, landscape lighting, grass, and various plants.
Introduce a sensory space in a small garden.
Creating a captivating and health-promoting garden doesn’t necessitate vast expanses of land. Small gardens can be just as enchanting and beneficial to well-being. Ideas for embellishing your garden, such as a fragrant hanging basket, an assortment of touch-friendly plants in containers, or a straightforward herb-lined pathway, are equally adept at delivering invigorating experiences in compact spaces.
Even with limited space, crafting a sensory garden is entirely possible. Engage the senses by incorporating a scented hanging basket, positioning a calming water feature beside a cosy seat, or establishing a raised garden bed (or using containers) filled with distinctive-smelling flowers and herbs.
Don’t underestimate the impact of a few pots filled with your favourite plants and flowers!
In some smaller sensory gardens, simplicity prevails with paths or walkways. Integrate scented plants or herbs between stepping stones, and choose between soft grass or crunchy gravel to determine the textures you’d like underfoot.