To get in touch with nature, create a sensory garden

URBANA, Ill. – For centuries, gardens have provided a unique bridge between humans and the natural world. Gardens were viewed by many cultures as a “reflection of heaven on earth.” Today, most gardens are considered landscape projects. But sensory gardens, with their engaging sights, sounds, smells, scents, and tastes once again connect us with nature.

Throughout history, special gardens have been created to enhance the experience by engaging the senses resulting in a profound positive effect on human well-being and behavior, says Mary M. Fischer, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “Sensory gardens are designed to entice a visitor to view at close range, to reach out and touch, to inhale a fragrance, to listen and actively experience the garden with all their senses,” Fischer says.

These gardens can be designed for spaces of all sizes, from small courtyards or borders, even containers. Garden “rooms” can be designed specifically to stimulate one sense at a time or multiple senses simultaneously.

Sensory gardens are also multi-functional. They can be used for teaching, relaxing, and multiple therapies. Some sensory gardens are design-specific, such as for children, the visually impaired, tactile or kinesthetic learners, and for therapeutic horticulture. Including raised beds and wider pathways allow sensory gardens to be accessible to all.

Sensory gardens often contain additional, non-plant, sensory opportunities. Since people-plant interaction is encouraged, interpretive signs are important. The different textures of hardscapes, like large rocks, are added to provide visual and tactile experiences. Pathways made of various surfaces like sand, woodchips, flagstone, or flat steppingstones craft distinctive tactile and auditory experiences.

Water features create additional sensory experiences through sight, sound, and touch. “Who doesn’t like to run their fingers through flowing water or listen to the musical sounds of splashing water invoking tranquility,” Fischer says.

Bird feeders invite feathered visitors to also enjoy the garden. These birds offer brilliant bursts of color to please the eye and bird songs to entice the visitor to identify the avian guest.

When choosing plants, remember they need to be people-friendly. Do not use poisonous or allergenic plants. Avoid plants that require pesticides. Select plants with contrasting forms and textures to create visual interest. Low mounds of satiny wormwood next to tall spires of flowers work well in terms of shape and texture. Brushing against plants spilling over the edge of a raised bed offers a tactile experience that can be enhanced by a fragrant plant choice like lavender.

Sight: Adding visual interest to a sensory garden can be as simple as adding plants with different color blossoms and habits like creeping, climbing, trailing, busy or upright. Incorporating plants that bloom at different times of the day or season, differing leaf patterns, unusual bark, and stem colors provides visual interest.

Smell: The sense of smell, adds nostalgic stamps to our memory banks. Scents often trigger remembrances of special places or people. Sensory gardens can be full of intertwining aromas evoking emotions. Sweet smelling fragrances of honeysuckle, gardenias, or peonies and more savory scents of herbs like thyme, rosemary, or oregano provide ample occasions for stimulating long ago memories and creating new memories.

Sound: To stimulate the sense of sound, select flora that make noise when the wind blows through them, such as rattlesnake master, false indigo, bamboos, or ornamental grasses. Wind chimes can increase the variety of sounds. Bird feeders and birdbaths draw the attention of feathered friends to enjoy a feast, take a drink and offer their songs as payment. Dry leaves on the ground or graveled walks add crunch when trod underfoot. Water features further add an extra element of auditory stimuli.

Touch: Gardens designed with a tactile experience are wonderful for children and the visually impaired. The sense of touch allows visitors to enjoy the sensory garden in a more personal, tactile way. Select sturdy plants that will withstand frequent handling as well as those with contrasting textures including soft and fuzzy or rough and spiky. The velvety feel of rose petals, the soft, silky texture of wormwood, the fuzzy foliage of Lamb’s ear, the smooth, leathery surface of a Southern Magnolia, the spiky rosette of sea holly, all increase a sense of connectedness with nature. Succulents have leaves with a range of tactile experiences.

Taste: Visitors can entice their taste buds with edible fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Fruit could include strawberries, thornless blackberries, small fruit trees like blueberries, apples, and peaches to name a few.

Find a detailed guide to creating a sensory garden at go.illinois.edu/SensoryGarden. For more information on plant selection or care, connect with your local Illinois Extension county office at go.illinois.edu/ExtensionOffice.

Plant options for a sensory garden

Sight

  • Bleeding hearts, Dicentra spectabilis. Heart-shaped flowers
  • Butterfly weed, Ascelpias tuberosa. Attracts butterflies.
  • Cockscomb, Celosia argentea. Bright flowers.
  • Pinks, Dianthus hybrid. Soft colors, scent.
  • Zinnias, Zinnia elegans. Showy flowers, butterflies.

Smell

  • Creeping Thyme, Thymus Serpyllum. Scent.
  • Catmint, Nepeta mussinii. Cats love this.
  • Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum. Licorice-like scent.
  • Hyacinths, Hyacinthus orientalis. Sweet, strong scent flowers.
  • Lily-of-the-valley, Convallaria majalis. Sweet-scented flowers.

Sound

  • Balloon Flower, Platycodon grandifloras. Popping sound when squeezed
  • False Indigo, Baptisia australis. Rattling seed pods
  • Pigsqueak, Bergenia cordifolia. Foliage squeaks when rubbed
  • Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum. Sound of wind through leaves

Taste

  • Chives, Allium schoenoprasum. Mild onion-like flavor
  • Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus. Peppery flavor
  • Mint, Mentha spp. Peppermint or spearmint.

Touch

  • Lambs’ Ears, Stachys byzantine. Soft, furry foliage
  • Satiny Wormwood, Artemisia schmidtiana. Fine, silky foliage.
  • Wooly Thyme, Thymus pseudolanuginosus. Fine, soft hairs on leaves

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