We all use our senses when enjoying a garden, whether intentionally or not. We can't help but admire a particularly vivid bloom or enjoy the sound of a pollinator as it travels across a border. The difference with a sensory garden is that there is a conscious effort to appeal to all five senses.
What is a sensory garden?
In a sensory garden the five senses are considered in every aspect of the design, landscaping and planting. All gardens have elements that appeal to the senses, but the aim of a sensory garden is to maximise the impact on your five senses: sight, scent, sound, touch and taste.
Sensory gardens can have many uses, from educational spaces to teach young people how to connect with nature, to spaces for rest and recuperation. The stimulation provided by a sensory garden can be beneficial to people with mental ill health or those with cognitive impairment. Children with autism can hugely benefit from a sensory garden, as it provides a space for them to explore their senses in a safe and controlled environment. The emotional response to a sensory garden can make a positive difference to the health and wellbeing of us all.
When designing a sensory garden, it's important to consider who the space is for and what their needs are, for example if children will be making use of the space make sure the plants they are encouraged to touch are not toxic. If wheelchair users will be exploring the space, ensure the hard landscaping is accessible and the plants are at a suitable height.
If you're designing a garden for people with a visual impairment, consider bold and contrasting colours. Focus on design aspects that feature touch and sound in particular. For garden users with hearing loss, a sensory garden with lots of colours, textures and smells, can help to reduce stress caused by a loss of hearing.
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You don't need a big space, either, the sensory garden ideas below can be implemented whatever your growing space, whether that be a window box, balcony or garden.
When considering what will visually appeal in a sensory garden, it's important to think about the textures and shapes of different plants, as well as the flowers they produce. Choose plants with a range of growing habits, from low ground cover to trailing climbers, as well as a range of foliage types.
Colour is also crucial when planning the visual impact of a garden, choice of colour scheme will have a significant impact on the space. A muted cool palette will create a calming atmosphere whereas a warmer palette, with vibrant colours, will bring more energy to the space.
In addition to plants, the visual impact of the garden can also be impacted by other choices such as hard landscaping decisions or features like ponds. Don't forget to add a seating area so you can relax and admire your space.
Scent is one of the most evocative of all the senses, the scent of a flower or freshly mown grass can instantly conjure up memories. Filling a garden with aromatic plants is one of the best ways to enhance the sensory impact of your space.
There's a plethora of fragrant plants to choose from in the summer, from the iconic scent of sweet peas to the heady aromas of a Chinese lily. But it's not just the summer that fills our gardens with scents, there are fragrant blooms to choose from throughout the year, from witch hazels in February to viburnum throughout the winter. Herbs are also a wonderful choice, with their highly scented foliage which will also stimulate the tastebuds.
In a sensory garden, sound is crucial, it helps you to focus on your immediate surroundings and tune into nature. When designing your space, consider what will create sound, whether that be the gentle trickle of a water feature or the rustle of grasses.
Attracting wildlife into your garden has many benefits, and the sounds they create is just one. Plant wildflowers and other pollinator friendly plants, then sit back and enjoy the buzz of insects. Feed the birds and let the glorious sound of bird song wash over you.
Hard landscaping can also impact the sounds that fill your garden, whether it be a gravel path crunching underfoot or autumn leaves crunching on a brick path.
Encourage exploration through touch in your sensory garden by including lots of different textures and surfaces. From the silky soft foliage of lambs' ears (Stachys byzantina) to the leathery feel of sedums, or the appealingly wispy foliage of carex, choose plants that you will want to touch and enjoy the differing textures. It's important not to plant anything toxic or with thorns in a garden where you encourage touch.
Touch can also be stimulated through hard landscaping decisions in the garden, consider the materials used to create walls, seating areas or decking. Water is also a wonderful addition to the garden, dipping your hand in a cool pond on a hot summers day and feeling the flow of the water over your hands is a wonderful sensory experience.
Taste buds shouldn't be forgotten in a sensory garden, whatever the size of your space, you can grow vegetables, fruit or herbs. There's a huge variety of crops to choose from, so grow ones that you love to eat so that you can really enjoy your harvest. Most crops will require cooking before you can have a taste, but with fruit you can have a nibble as you wander around your garden.
Herbs are also a great addition to a sensory garden, as well as making a delicious addition to your meals, they contribute a wonderful scent.
Advice on buying plants for a sensory garden
- There's always a range of plants available at your local garden centre or nursery, but you will have more options online
- Always check plants for signs of damage or disease before planting