Walking through any garden can be calming, educational, inspiring, energizing, or a combination of all of these. A new trend in gardening is creating intentional gardens, or gardens with a specific purpose, for example, a sensory garden. Sensory gardens are areas designed to stimulate one or more of the five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. While often geared toward young children, sensory gardens can be enjoyed by all ages. They can also be therapeutic for individuals with developmental or physical disabilities, sensory processing disorders, or cognitive challenges.
While exploring any garden, you are already connecting with some of your senses, but a sensory garden has a more mindful approach by including and arranging specific plants to engage the senses.
Contrasting color, texture, light, shadow, and form in the garden can stimulate our sense of sight. Warm colors, like red, orange, and yellow, are energizing, while cool colors, like blue, purple and white, are relaxing. The plants selected should be both stimulating and calming. Bright mixes of garden zinnias (Zinnia elegans) or giant yellow sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) towering above the garden make for an invigorating pop of color, and both will attract beautiful butterflies to the garden.
Smell is oftentimes the strongest human sense, with the potential to bring back specific memories and experiences to individuals. Some plants release scent naturally without the need for touch (roses), while others do not release a scent until they are rubbed or crushed (geranium). Catmint (Nepeta × faassenii), a hardy perennial that produces pale purple flowers from May to September, releases a light lavender-like scent when the leaves are rubbed. Fragrant herbs are also great plants to engage our sense of smell and test our recognition of herbs used in everyday products and recipes. These would include English lavender (Lavandulaangustifolia), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), and anise hyssop (Agastachefoeniculum).
Some sounds in the garden occur naturally — wind blowing through the plants, or leaves crunching beneath our feet. Wind chimes and water fountains can add a calming sound, as well. Bird feeders, baths, and plants with berries (serviceberry, Amelanchier spp.), or seeds (Echinacea spp.) can attract our feathered friends to visit the garden to play their song. Ornamental grasses, like switchgrass (Panicumvirgatum), rustle in the wind. Dried seed pods on false blue indigo (Baptisiaautralis) can make natural maracas as the seed rattles against the hard pod.
A variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs can be added to a sensory garden to explore tastes in the garden. Edible flowers, including nasturtium and pansy, also make tasty additions. Flavorful herbs to include in the garden are basil (Ocimumbasilicum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), andlemon balm (Melissa officinalis).Clearly identify which plants are edible in the garden.
A variety of textures to explore, including rough, smooth, fuzzy, and even sticky should be offered through plant bark, foliage, flowers, seeds, and fruits. Tough plants that can withstand frequent handling should be selected. Lambs ear (Stachys byzantine) is a favorite fuzzy leaf plant to include. In contrast, succulent plants, including hens & chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) or sedums (Sedum spp.) offer a smooth, fleshy leaf.
Just like with any garden, select plants that are hardy to your area, and of various color, height, textures, and bloom times. To ensure safety in the garden, plants should be non-toxic and pesticides should not be applied. A sensory garden can be a calming place while also being a great spot for all to explore their senses and interact with the environment and plants around them.
Brittnay Haag is a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.