Sensory Gardens

21/07/2012 15:00

A sensory garden should stimulate all of the senses ~ sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. The beauty of sensory gardens is that they can be adapted to a wide variety of users.

Sensory Gardens are created to help relax, stimulate, teach and admire.

A sensory garden will especially have great appeal to children and people with special needs. When we lose one sensory sense, it is often said that the others increase. So a sensory garden for the visually impaired, for example, could include plants that have acoustic (sound), fragrance and textural (touch) qualities. You can see some examples below. Here's a useful link with some fantastic information for gardening with the blind and partially sighted.

SIGHT ~ Some plants are especially attractive for their colour or for their interesting shapes. Plants with vibrant coloured flowers, contrasting foliage colours, and strong, bold architecture, make fantastic subjects in a sensory garden. Plants which change through the seasons can be particularly delightful. Garden paving also provides colour as well as texture -  stone, old brick, gravel or slate. The changes in appearance and colour in rain and sunshine are quite interesting to the eye too. Hanging some bright colourful ribbons from trees to catch in the wind will also add interest in the garden.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is big, bold and beautiful! Sunflowers add a cheery face to the garden and they are so easy to grow too.

Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) have amazing three-toned foliage that smells of lemon.

Bourbon rose (Zephirine Drouhin) is a thornless 'climbing' rose with a heavenly scent. Best trained over an arch or pergola. A very good choice for the visually impaired.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena -'Miss Jekyll' ) Sky-blue, disc-like flowers appear on upright stems clothed in wispy-tipped foliage from midsummer. A lovely Cottage garden flower, thats so easy to grow, just scatter the seeds onto the ground or sow in pots. Stems may need some support, with twigs in windy areas.

Heuchera 'Chocolate Ruffles' have purple leaves with chocolate-coloured undersides and pretty, pale pink flowers.

Swiss chard 'Bright Lights' the brightly coloured stems and foliage are good to eat as well as attractive in the garden.

Herbs serve a practical role and have fragrant foliage and some attractive flowers too. A few herbs with showy flowers are - Borage, fennel, sage, chives, rosemary and hyssop.

For a selection of structural plants consider Palm trees, Cordylines, Phormiums and ferns.


SMELL  ~  Scent in the garden can create a lasting sensory experience. This can be especially meaningful for the visually impaired. A fragrance can evoke long-buried memories. Some plants attract insects with a variety of smells. Flowers, shrubs and herbs can all add a perfume to your sensory garden.

Lavender - (Lavandula angustifolia) the well known variety 'Hidcote' is suitable for borders or a low hedge to surround your sensory garden. Position a bench in a favourite part of the garden and surround it with fragrant lavender.

The Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) with its small, soft rounded leaves, feels good to touch, and when you do 'touch' the leaves of the curry plant, they release a strong curry scent, stimulating both your sense of smell and taste.

Sweet pea - (Lathyrus odoratus) a climber with pretty flowers, this plant gives off a strong, sweet odour. If you cut the flowers regularly, you’ll encourage more growth.

Geranium - Pelargonium 'Camphor Rose' is an attractive plant with rosy pink flowers. The leaves give off a strong smell of camphor and mint when crushed.

Skimmia Japonica ‘Rubella’- smells delightful! Its an evergreen shrub with red flower buds in the Autumn, opening to lovely fragrant white flowers in spring. Its great for adding colour year around.

Akebia Quinata- 'Chocolate vine'. Very pretty climber, this has beautiful maroon-chocolate flowers which have an exotic spicy fragrance with a hint of vanilla, that appear in spring.

 Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) An attractive woody, evergreen climber with rich, dark green leaves which turn bronze in winter. Clusters of fragrant, pure white flowers are produced from mid-to late summer.

 Honeysuckle -( Lonicera) a vigorous climber with green, oval leaves. Its treasured for its glorious scent when in flower.

A tapestry of herbs outside the door makes a welcoming and fragrant entrance to a garden. They have the added benefit that they can be eaten too, consider ~ Rosemary, Mint, Lemon Balm. Lemon-scented Thyme can be used as edging to your garden. When crushed the plant gives off a wonderful citrus scent.

Fragrant creeping herbs such as creeping thyme and sweet woodruff grow well between stepping stones, walking or wheeling on them will release their aroma. If your garden is for the visually impaired, then be sure to include plenty of scented plants. The pathways could also be bordered with aromatic plants, whose scent is then released when brushed against.

Some plants release their fragrance into the air with the heat of the sun, while others release their scent only when crushed. If the garden will be used in the evening, include night bloomers like flowering tobacco plant (Nicotiana ) which is delightfully fragrant near a garden bench to be enjoyed on a summer evening. However, it pays to note that while the white flowers are usually highly fragrant, those in red, pinks or green have very little perfume.


SOUND ~ Almost everyone enjoys birdsong or the rippling of water in the garden. But don't forget the sound track created by plants themselves. There is something quite special about sitting in the garden just listening. Various plants move in the wind and create a soothing natural sound. There are many plants you could consider using to create sound and movement in the garden.

The stalks of Greater quaking grass (Briza maxima) bend under the weight of the flower head and nod gently in the breeze. As well as having attractive foliage, bamboo whispers in the wind while its stems knock together, creating a hollow sound. Sweet corn is another plant with a rustle and a delightful taste to add to the evening meal too.

Sound comes into play most prominently in the autumn when plants dry out. Love-in-a- mist (Nigella damascena 'Miss Jekyll') has bright blue flowers which form puffy seed-heads that rattle when shaken. Honesty (Lunaria annua) is easy to grow and produces fragrant flowers, which then turn into papery disc shaped seed heads that rustle in the breeze. The crackling silvery seed pods of Honesty are also great used for dried arrangements.
Another source of garden sounds comes from the wonderful birds and insects, attracted to the gardens by plants, birdbaths and feeding tables. To make your garden more wildlife-friendly be sure to plant groups of dense shrubs that will offer shelter to small birds. Here are a few ideas to Bring them flocking and ways to Create a buzz in you garden.

Hanging a few wind chimes to help identify a particular area of the garden would be quite beneficial for someone with sight problems.

A water feature is highly desirable in a sensory garden. The gentle trickling of water is a delight to listen to. Although a garden pond is not a really a great idea if your garden is intended for the blind or visually impaired, because of the danger that they may accidentally stumble into it, but a water fountain, or a bird bath would be just as delghtful.

Loose surfaces such as gravel, shingle and even cobblestone, bring a very different sound to your garden. The scrunch of gravel underfoot on paths or a driveway can be a wellcoming sound, or even alert you that visitors are approaching. A good choice for the visually impaired.

TASTE ~ Nothing tastes greater than food you have grown yourself. There are many edible plants that are decorative as well as productive. If you don’t have a lot of space you could consider smaller varieties such as cherry tomatoes and salad crops. Stick to fruit and vegetables you know are safe if children are using the sensory garden unsupervised.

Welsh onion (Allium fistulosum)is stronger than a chive, milder than a regular onion. The blue green foliage of this plant can also be eaten. Parsley is an attractive and useful plant. Bright green and delicious! It can be used as an edging to a border. Peppermint has a strong scent and makes lovely tea. The peppermint spreads rapidly, so if you don't want it to run wild and take over, plant in a container. Other herbs such as basil, chive, fennel, mint, dill, and rosemary are good choices too. They are good for flavouring many types of food as well as providing colour and texture in a sensory garden design.


Hanging baskets of cherry tomatoes provide bite-sized nibbles, as do edible pod peas which also have pretty flowers.

Nasturtiums are colourful as well as edible, they have a deliciously spicy-peppery tasting flower. The leaves have a taste similar to cress, a great asset to any salad.

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) produce orange or yellow flowers, which come in a range of flavours - spicy, bitter, tangy or peppery. Petals can be sprinkled on soups, pasta, salads and rice.

Wild Strawberries are small, sweet, delicious! Children and adults  will love hunting for these little juicey treats in the garden!

 TOUCH ~ The outdoors is full of naturally occurring textures. Textures to include in the sensory garden are flowers, seed pods, bark - particularly those with flaking bark - Eucalyptus, and Silver Birch. Also mosses and lichens, stones, leaves, twigs, walls - there are so textures to touch all around the garden.


Some plants just cry out to be touched! Here's a few Touchy-feely plants.


Lamb's Ears (stachys byzantina)' Big Ears' delightfully Velvety-soft, grey leaves, that are very popular with children.

Silver Sage (salvia argentea)  makes a large rosette of fuzzy, silver-green leaves.A great foliage plant. Place it near the front of the border where the leaves can be admired and touched.

Woolly Thyme is soft and silver, and with its tight knit growth makes a great filler for borders and between paving stones.


Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi)intriguing papery lanterns which enclose bright orange autumn fruits. The stems of vibrant lanterns add winter interest as they slowly become ornate skeletons.

Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) has fern-like foliage and ruffled, papery flowers.

Honesty (Lunaria annua) their seed pods are parchment-like 'Coins'.


Phormium -(New Zealand Flax) plants with a selection of varieties in a range of colours.

Festuca glauca - Densely tufted true azure-blue grass.
Sisyrinchium- These plants produce clumps of grass-like or sword-shaped foliage and small starry flowers in low clusters or tall spikes, usually in shades of blue or yellow.


 ~ LACY ~
Love-in-a-mist  (Nigella damascena).
Purple cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestric 'ravenswing') this has pretty clusters of tiny, creamy-white flowers in late spring and early summer, highlighted by the lacy, deeply cut dark purple foliage.

Soft shield fern ( Polystichum setiferum)an evergreen fern, with soft, dark green fronds that emerge upright before unfurling and falling softly open.


 ~WAXY ~  
Sempervivums (Hens & Chicks) can make an excellent miniature collection of textures, the rosettes of each varying in form and feel.  

Wintersweet - (Chimonanthus praecox) Wonderfully fragrant, waxy, yellow flowers drip from bare woody stems. On the darkest of winter days, this beautiful specimen plant is in full bloom while most other plants lie dormant. An elegant winter flowering shrub.


Pennisetum Orientale is a very pretty grass, it produces masses of long thin mauve- pink flower heads all summer and autumn. Flowers appear from midsummer on tall stems topped by a bottlebrush or foxtail of pink hairs. Their name derives from the Latin words 'penna' and 'sita', meaning 'feather bristle' which is probably a reference to their flowers.

 Clematis tangutica is a hardy, fast growing, deciduous climber grown for pendent yellow flowers in summer and autumn, followed by large fluffy seed heads. Attractive to wildlife. The growth provides nesting places for small birds and the flowers are pollinated by bees.

 Stipa tenuissima 'Ponytails or'Mexican Feather Grass' wonderful, wispy, pale yellow-green leaves topped with fluffy plumes of silver-green flowers, maturing to blonde-buff. This versatile deciduous grass is ideal for a sunny gravel garden, large container or new perennial border. It's perfect for introducing movement into a planting scheme since the fluffy flower heads and foliage billow in the slightest breeze.

 Salix Caprea - The Pussy Willow, also referred to as Goat Willow, has been loved by generations of children, and is often associated with Easter. It is particularly noted for its silver-white, furry catkins, which open to yellow in spring.


Bergenia - Commonly known as 'elephant's ears' because of their large, leathery, oval leaves. Bergenias are low maintenance and will grow in sun or shade and tolerate a wide range of soils. They make lovely edging plants, their huge leaves contrasting with the delicate fronds of ferns (in shade) or the tiny leaves of thymes (in sun).

Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica). This is a large tropical looking plant. That has large leathery, glossy leaves.


 ~ SPINY ~
Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) has rosy-purple thistle-like flowers and ripening seedheads are a magnet for bees and goldfinches.

Eryngium ( Sea Holly) Easily recognised by their ruff of spiky bracts surrounding a prominent, cone-like centre of tiny flowers.

Globe Thistle (Echinops) ever popular for their globes of blue flowers that attract hoards of insects.

 * Plants that may be dangerous to the visually impaired, such as spiny agaves or roses, need not be excluded from the sensory garden. Design can accommodate these plants by placing them out of accidental reach, toward the back of planting beds.

D. Moss