Everything You Need to Know About Sensory Gardens

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Small bird hovering over a field of purple flowers

From their very earliest days exploring the world around them, children learn through their senses. As a baby a child takes in sights and sounds they react to sudden increases in volume or brightness of lights.

As they begin to crawl and venture out they learn by taste. Everything from their favourite toy to their own foot is tasted and sampled, by way of discovery.

As they touch the roughness of Daddy’s stubble or the warmth of Mummy’s embrace they grow and learn and understand. Their sense of smell is vital too, very early on before they have fully developed their eyesight or gained the ability to understand individual words they know their Mother by the sense of smell.

As our children grow and venture further out, it’s important to continue to stimulate their senses by introducing them to new sights, sounds, fragrances and experiences.

What is a Sensory Garden?

A sensory garden can be as simple as an herb garden with fragrant plants, or an elaborate sequence of lights and sounds designed to stimulate, excite and inspire.

Simply put, a sensory garden is one which is designed specifically to appeal to the senses. A sensory garden, especially in a public space, should be inclusive designed with wide paths and ramps to allow ease of access for wheelchairs.

Clever use of landscaping, water, light, colour and fragrances can engage the senses in a way which brings real joy to any who visit.

Why Create a Sensory Garden?

Sensory gardens may be enjoyed and appreciated by all. However, they are of benefit to people who fall within the autistic spectrum, persons who are blind or deaf, the elderly and children of all ages.

Autism

The calming effect of a garden cannot be understated. Autism can mean that sufferers are overwhelmed by the noise and clamour of their daily lives.

Sensory gardens are a safe, tranquil space which subtly engages the senses without overpowering.

Blind or Deaf

Deprivation of senses should not mean that people are not able to experience joy and pleasure.

In many cases, a blind person will have enhanced hearing and a stronger sense of smell to compensate. It’s important then to engage these working senses by creating a garden which plays to their strengths and gives them an immersive experience.

The Elderly

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are complex illnesses which can be extremely difficult to manage.

A sensory garden does not require understanding or memory recall.  A garden simply brings joy by being beautiful and peaceful.

How to Create a Sensory Garden

As stated, in its simplest form, a sensory garden is one which stimulates the senses. You can achieve this in many ways.

Accessibility

  • Create wide paths with sloping ramps to enable free access to the whole garden

Sights

  • Plan your planting carefully with focal points, height variation and colour
  • Group colours and shades together to create a spectrum of blues or reds.
  • Don’t neglect soft green foliage as it can have a calming effect.
  • Lights and ribbons can bring additional visual stimulation, especially for those with limited vision.
  • Suncatchers and mirrors act well in sunny gardens to bring light and visual engagement.

Sounds

  • Ferns have wide fronds which will capture the breeze, giving a gentle brushing sound
  • Bark on the ground gives a rousing, crunching sound
  • Weeping willow makes an ideal tree for a sensory garden. The willow branches will whisper gently in the wind and may attract song birds in to your garden.
  • Bees are attracted to many flowers but are particularly fond of foxgloves, the whirring of a busy bumblebee will bring particular delight to those with sight impairment.
  • Water features give a delightful babbling sound which soothes the senses and creates an incredibly relaxing environment.
  • Create additional atmosphere by hanging a wind chime to catch the breeze.

Smells

  • The inclusion of herbs such as rosemary, sacred basil, sage, lemon balm, mint or tarragon can create an inspiring concoction of sweet and pungent fragrances.
  • In addition to being useful as an herb, touching the rosemary plant can leave a residue of sweet smelling rosemary oil, which creates a lasting aroma. Plant in rocky or sandy soil, loves hotspots where other plants wilt.
  • Sacred basil enjoys a sunny spot and can be sown by seed or from a cutting.
  • Aloe Vera, despite its spiky leaves is soft to the touch and also gives off a distinct, soothing fragrance.

Touch

  • Experiment with different textures of rough and smooth wood to border your beds
  • Soft grass to sit or lie on
  • Long grassy area to walk through for a brushing sensation on legs and arms
  • Wooden carvings which can be traced with fingers – especially useful for the sight impaired
  • Plants for a sensory garden should have varying textures, hardy shrubs and delicate flowers; let their fingers paint the pictures in their minds.

Taste

  • Grow vegetables and fruits to allow your visitors to taste the garden and enjoy the sweet strawberries, sharp, crisp apples and tart raspberries

Sensory Garden Activites

When designing activities to engage the senses in a sensory garden the important thing is to keep it simple.

  • A simple treasure hunt can be adapted to one entirely conducted by small or sound.
  • Painting can be made more interesting by using fronds of a fern or a dense flower instead of a paintbrush to create exciting shapes and patterns.
  • In the autumn, leaves collected can be used to create a collage
  • Collect reeds together and pack them into a small wooden box to create a bug hotel, a perfect environment for observing creepy crawlies!
  • Where do I live? Collect items from various parts of the garden and encourage your visitors to identify which environment the items came from, e.g. A leaf, piece of bark, a flower etc.

Sensory gardens needn’t be expensive or extensive, by plotting out various sections as different habitats, each with a specific focus, e.g. a sound area or a touch area; you will create a garden which brings joy and tranquility to visitors young and old.

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