You may have heard about sensory garden design as it becomes increasingly popular on TV garden makeover shows. It has become quite a trendy word to throw about but is mostly misunderstood. You may be left scratching your head about what a sensory garden is? Whether you need a sensory garden? What plants should you use for a sensory garden? Is a sensory garden even the right design style for you?
What is a sensory garden?
A sensory garden is a garden that focuses on the smells, colours and feels that a visitor can experience when in the garden. Surely all gardens are sensory, though? Yes, you are right all gardens have sensory aspects to them. A ‘sensory garden’ however plays on these, exaggerates them and ensures that the garden jumps out to these senses. There is no subtlety or humility in its approach. It’s in your face for all to see, smell or touch!
If it’s the sense of smell then all the plants will be highly perfumed. This then increases the scents and smells throughout the garden making this the sensory experience
If it is texture then plants that are known for their texture or softness could be used. Bark from trees, swaths of soft-leaved herbs like Oregano or delicate lacy foliage may be used. Textured plants such as grasses mixed with hot colours can also be used to create that texture, see the above image.
If it’s the colour palette you’re focusing on, bold bright colours may be used and grouped together. This then increases the visual impact of the garden making this the focus. You’re taking a sense and heightening it, making it pop like an Andy Warhol painting or like a coffee grinder filling the air with the sweet smell of coffee. It’s not subtle its there waving frantically at you for your attention.
Sensory Garden Plant Ideas
Sensory gardens have a very specific set of planting criteria. Plants that are toxic are definitely off the list along with spikes, barbs or thorns. After all, there is nothing relaxing about running your hand through some beautiful, but very sharp thistles! The list below gives you an idea of what characteristics to look out for when choosing plants for a sensory garden design.
Criteria for Sensory Plants:
- Scented plants or those with fragrance
- Smooth stems without thorns or barbs
- Non-toxic plants
- Edible plants
- Plants that show movement with the wind or touch
- Sizes can be carefully managed
- Tolerant of some movement and interaction
- Bright flowers or foliage
Lavender, as seen below, is usually a staple found in sensory gardens for its wonderful scent. Jasmin is also an excellent plant for scent. Herbs are also a staple along with trees that have textured bark. Here’s some example of planting ideas for different zones.
Plants for Hot Colours
- Rudbekia Hirta
- Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’
- Calendula officinalis
- Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Dazzler’
Plants for Scent
- Lavendula officinalis
- Jasmin officinal
- Buddleja davidii ‘Pink Delight’
- Nicotiana sylvestris
Plants for Calm Colours
- Geranium ‘Rozanne’
- Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’
- Lupinus ‘Nobel Maiden’
- Armeria maritima ‘Alba’
Plants for texture and movement
- Stipa tenuissima
- Acer griseum
- Miscanthus sinensis
- Astilbe ‘Deutschland’
- Gypsophila elegans
Sounds, Water & Garden Sculpture
Sounds are often overlooked in gardens. Having items that create a sound whether it be running water, wind chimes or rustling from the wind through grasses can be a real asset. You may be familiar with that barking dog next door, the kids playing in the garden behind or the neighbour who likes to blast music out during the Saturday afternoon. Whilst some of these sounds may be pleasing to you if these sounds aggravate you there are alternatives than to banging on your neighbour’s door to complain!
Water features can provide a soothing and surprisingly sound covering noise just from running water. I think of it as a blanket that can deaden and reduce other noises.
Wind chimes can also be useful if you enjoy this sound, however, take caution if you have an overly zealous set of chimes as this noise can become quite annoying and unsettling!
Water features can provide movement, reflection and a sense of calm. Again, getting the right design and feature are key to successful water features. In a sensory garden, water can help exaggerate features, such as a still pool next to a border or tall bright flowers. Care must always be taken with water features and small children. In a sensory garden, I believe that raised water features are a better option. Like the water blade and pool below.
Using Zones in sensory gardens
Zoning in a sensory garden is sometimes useful to make the most of the different senses you’re appealing to. For example, you may divide your garden into a number of zones and theme the plants and feels to these zones. An example is given below.
This area may use hot colours, such as oranges or reds to give that warm feeling. You may also position this in the sunniest part of the garden to maximise the sensory feel of heat.
In this zone you may plant very floral scented plants, like Lavender, Jasmin or Roses in groups, so when a visitor is in this area the smells really jump out to them.
You could theme plants that are evergreen and have glossy or textured leaves or deciduous plants like Acer griseum that have texture. Then when you’re in this area of the garden you could reach out and touch these plants to get the texture of them, even maybe using textures planters or materials that feel smooth to the touch, like polished steel.
SENSORY GARDEN IDEAS
Be inspired by these ways to design a sensory garden – and advice from the experts – create a yard that both soothes and captivates.
1. TURN YOUR SPACE INTO A WILDLIFE GARDEN
A cleverly planted border can create a stunning focal point as well as a magnet for wildlife. If you find something you like, repeat the planting to create a sense of uniformity. Avoid planting in rigid layers by mixing things up, such as trying tall airy plants at the front of the border to create a veil-like effect.
Even the smallest terrace or courtyard can be transformed into a wildlife-rich garden. Plant foxgloves and lavender in borders as they are a magnet for nectar-seeking bees. The inclusion of natural rustic elements like wood piles and bird baths, plus choosing the right plants, will help to attract birds, butterflies and bees to your yard.
2. ADD THE SOUND OF WATER FOR TRANQUILITY
If you love the idea of creating a sensory garden, a pond is a must as it’s one of the best places to immerse yourself in the soothing sights and sounds of nature. Introduce a garden pond and it will soon become a favored spot for quiet contemplation.
The design doesn’t have to be complicated. A modern reflection pool, often accompanied by a water blade or rill, will work well. For small yards something smaller like a freestanding stone or concrete basin is a good choice. If informal backyards are more your thing, a natural pond will sit well in the space.
3. GET THE PLANTING MIX RIGHT
Plants with interesting textures and shapes are key. Try including a mix of contrasting forms to create visual interest. Towering spires of flowers work well juxtaposed with low mounds of feathery ornamental grass, for example. Although opposites in terms of texture and shape they knit together well.
‘In this design Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) works well along the front of the border and is so tactile you want to bend down and stroke it,’ says Åsa Gregers-Warg, head gardener at Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens(opens in new tab). ‘The muted tones and hair-fine foliage provides the ideal foil for taller perennials. Here it’s teamed with the burnt-orange spires of Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ (foxtail lily).’
4. CHOOSE TEXTURED SURFACES FOR THEIR TACTILE QUALITIES
Consider contrasting ribbed and molded finishes with smooth surfaces to add an interesting tactile element to your garden design. Textured wood can be contrasted with smooth paving, for example, to create a striking juxtaposition.
The bespoke wooden screen in this garden design takes center stage. Made of Sussex-grown sweet chestnut, it invites exploration. ‘This garden is meant to be tranquil, relaxing and inviting. I want people to look at it and think “I just want to sit there,”’ says Amelia Bouquet(opens in new tab) of this garden she designed in support of Mental Health UK(opens in new tab). ‘Getting into green spaces is so important for our wellbeing.’
5. DESIGN THE LAYOUT FOR AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
The design of a sensory garden can feature separate zones to stimulate individual senses at different times, or be a multi-sensory mix where everything is enjoyed simultaneously.
It should ideally include an area designed to entertain friends, where you can dine alfresco and enjoy the sights, sounds and scents close up. Meanwhile an outdoor kitchen should sit alongside fragrant herbs and vegetables for easy access. Think of the layout in terms of creating zones of enjoyment.
A well-placed table and chairs is an invitation to spend time relaxing in the yard. The sculptural qualities of this eye-catching wooden set fit perfectly with the naturalistic planting aesthetic. A tumble of flowers spill from tiered planters constructed in aged brass. These raised beds make the planting accessible, which is ideal for brushing against the foliage and enjoying the scent.
6. TAKE A MOMENT TO PAUSE
Every garden needs a comfortable place to sit, somewhere you can enjoy being immersed in all it has to offer. The materials and textures of seats can add to the tactile experience of the garden, offering a restful interlude.
Comfort is often overlooked in favour of design but it’s key to your enjoyment, offering a chance to pause. Choose elegant seats that are low level, modern in design and made of natural wood and with deep cushions.
Colors are best taken from a simple tonal palette that’s chosen from nature. It’s another way of introducing textures into the fabric of the garden, too.
7. USE ORNAMENTAL GRASSES FOR LANDSCAPING
Handsome architectural grasses add texture to the yard for a naturalistic effect. Rhythmic planting of airy grasses creates interest all year round, adding an understated elegance in a range of eye-catching colours, everything from rich gold and luminous silver to inky black and zingy green varieties.
The trick is to plant one type of grass in a big loose block to maximize the impact. The rippling grass becomes the star of the show, a blaze of bright foliage, plumed flowers and interesting seed heads.
Grasses are good for landscaping, too, especially when combined with water. ‘We often integrate ponds in a way that adds visual impact so they feel intrinsic to the character of the garden,’ says Harriet Farlam, creative director of Farlam & Chandler(opens in new tab).
8. PLANT FRAGRANT LAVENDER IN BORDERS
The scent of lavender and the soothing buzz of bees hovering over the flowers on a summer’s day are a heavenly addition to the yard. Plant lavender near a path or doorway so you can brush your fingers through the scented bushes as you pass by. It will fill your garden with fragrance and color all summer long.
Set the scene by framing doors and windows, both front and back, with pretty lavender borders. As you walk up your path one of the most welcoming sensations on arriving home is being hit by a waft of delicious fragrance so lavender borders will give your entrance the standout factor.
The best variety to choose is English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), which is strongly scented, and covered in masses of purple-blue flowers with silvery-grey leaves.
Who are sensory gardens suitable for?
Sensory gardens can be suitable for everyone but there most common applications are in the use of accessible gardens or gardens for people with health issues, especially in care homes. This is because a sensory garden is not just nice to look at but is designed to evoke the senses of smell and touch too.
When used in a care home setting, where accessibility maybe is restricted, a sensory garden can provide a much more inviting and immersive experience for the user. This is why care homes, health care, hospitals and specially designed disabled access gardens will lean towards sensory design. It’s far more engaging for patients which provide more stimulus.