7 Sensory Garden Design Considerations
Social and therapeutic gardening has been around for years, but as research grows, and the benefits are shared, many are looking at gardening in a new light. You don’t have to be a garden designer to create a sensory garden. Whether you’re gardening at home or within your community, or creating an outdoor space that will help to take your mind to a calmer space, these seven easy sensory garden design tips can help you develop your own.
When we think of sensory gardens, we might think about plants that stimulate our senses of sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste. Garden features, textures, objects and surfaces all play a part too.
The award winning Delta Centre sensory gardens in Carlow town are a series of 20 interconnected gardens set on 2.5 acres that highlight many of these elements and are a joy to stroll around at any time of the year. From the limestone sculpture garden to the waterfalls, the giant chess game, woodland walk or the stolen child gardens, they provide ideas and experiences that stimulate our senses in one way or another. They do this in a variety of ways.
Gardening for our Five Senses
To awaken our taste buds, herbs, vegetables, fruit, trees, and edible flowers such as nasturtiums and viola can be planted that are safe to pick and graze upon. Apart from the instant effect on our taste buds, we can bring the plants into our kitchens too.
Our youngest daughter used to love walking through our garden in a warm sunny day, munching on the oregano and fennel, or grabbing a pod full of peas as she did so.
If you sit outside at any time of year, it won’t be long before you can hear the sounds of birds singing to one another. As the days lengthen and the weather begins to warm, you’ll hear insects busily buzzing around, or bees darting from one flower to another as the collect nectar and pollen.
You might hear the silver birch gently whispering in the wind, or ornamental grasses rustling as a blackbird pecks around them. Choosing plants for pollinators will encourage our gardening friends into our gardens and benefit us all. Grasses come in all shapes, sizes and textures and whilst they mightn’t attract insects, they provide habitats for other wildlife.
Bright colours are often used to stimulate our senses in sensory gardens. We can choose vibrant plants on the primary colour wheel such as Dahlias and Sunflowers.
Painting garden furniture in bold and colourful hues can work too. We don’t always have to think colour though, hanging mobiles can catch our eyes too as they spiral in the wind.
If you’ve ever stroked the Lambs Ear plant (Stachys byzantina) you’ll quickly notice what a sensory experience it is. Wander around a garden centre and feel the plants as you do so. Some are prickly, some furry, others velvety, but many can stimulate this sense. It works both ways as plants can react to our touch in what’s known as Thigmotropism in the horticultural world.
When designing for touch, consider the texture of garden pots, raised bed surfaces and perhaps introduce a sculpture, or a safe water feature to let your fingertips linger upon.
Last but not least, aromas in our gardens can be powerfully stimulating. It’s difficult not to think of the heady perfume of a rose or lavender garden when we think of summer gardens. There’s a reason essential plant oils are used in aromatherapy.
Again, herbs such as pineapple sage, lemon thyme or mints can be a wonderful addition to sensory gardens, but also Bergamot (Monarda), Chocolate Cosmos and Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ all provide different scents.
Don’t forget that soil, different types of timber and woodchip carry different aromas too.
Sensory gardens should always be created with mobility in mind, whether that’s the height of beds, or the width and surfaces of pathways.
To avoid trip hazards, avoid using gravel, or slippery surfaces for paving, and single steps which can be hazardous. We are less likely to trip walking up two or three steps than one. Use slopes to accommodate wheelchair users too.
It can be difficult to move a wheelchair around woodchip. If cost is an issue, self binding gravel is one of the easiest surfaces to consider. A blend of gravel particles, dust, sand and clay that bind together when compacted, it can be easy to lay and relatively low maintenance too.
Aim for pathways that are at least one, or one and a half metres wide to allow someone in a wheelchair to have a companion walking along their side.
I advise building or buying raised beds in all the social, community and therapeutic settings that I work with as they help to create very low maintenance gardens.
Raised beds also have the benefit that they can be built to suit all budgets, or none, using a variety of textures and materials. They also come in all shapes and sizes.
The charity Thrive UK provide some excellent advice on raised bed design. The most an adult can reach comfortably is 50cm which means that if we want to move around a raised bed, it should be no larger than 1m wide. If the raised bed is against a wall, 50cm should be the maximum width, including the building material.
Wheelchair users need beds that are 62cm high, if standing we need to be thinking of 90cm to 1m high (unless designing for children, in which case it should be lower). If you’re creating a raised bed that includes seating around the edge, it should be 69 to 76cm high. More information can be found on the Thrive website.
If you don’t feel that you have the skills, space or money to create your own sensory or therapeutic oasis, there are now community gardens in all the towns and cities around Ireland, and in many villages too. Family resource centres, the Irish Wheelchair Association, disability centres and many local charities and not for profits are creating gardens as a means of reconnecting with nature and the community around us.
If you’re looking for more information about how to design a sensory, biodiversity or therapeutic garden for a community in your area, get in touch. You can find some case studies of different projects I have worked with on the tabs above.