I think a garden is a great place to lose yourself in the beauty of plants and nature, to relax and re-energise and to plan or work through any problems you may have. Take in the colourful sights and sounds of the garden, touch and work with the soil and the plants and smell the fragrances as well as ultimately taste produce that is grown there. Gardening can truly stimulate all our five of our senses and the result of this for me is tremendous wellbeing and satisfaction. It has created a passion that I love conveying to others – hence the reason why I have become a garden designer!
Having worked with people with learning and physical disabilities for many years prior to becoming a garden designer, I know first-hand of the benefits a garden can provide to all the senses. This is why I now love to create gardens for all types of people and situations taking into account what different plants and elements have to offer to us mere mortals! Whether it is a peaceful haven or a stimulatory learning environment you wish to create it pays to think of the sensory benefits of everything you are going to use in the garden.
So how do you go about creating a sensory environment? Firstly you do not need a great expanse of garden – a series of containers or window boxes spaced in different areas can work very well. Importantly you need to consider who the garden is going to be enjoyed by and structure it accordingly. If children are going to be the main users then the planting and features need to be accessible to them at a low height and any access areas safely constructed. If the space is going to be access by wheelchair users then consideration must be given to the level access of all areas, the width of any paths, the height of features such as arches and the positioning of planting. Lastly I would recommend creating a journey through the garden – a true sensory experience interspersed with places to sit and take in the sensory stimulus on offer.
So here are some ideas of what can be used within a sensory environment.
When thinking about stimulating SIGHT in a garden the first thought turns to colour. Vibrant bright colours can provide stimulus for people with a visual sensory impairment. Bright red flowers such as Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, oranges such as Echinacea ‘Tangerine Dream’ and yellows like Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ are far easier to distinguish for someone with a visual impairment than pastel shades. Think also of the colour contrast and the use of boundary materials. For example, try painting a boundary fence black and growing white or yellow flowers to contrast and ‘pop’ out to the garden visitor. Or plant tall contrasting grasses that move in the wind. Also don’t forget to consider using colourful foliage and plants that have fruits and berries especially through the winter months.
When incorporating SOUND in a garden it is important to remember this is not just about what is in the garden but what is attracted to it and visits it. Placing bird feeders and a bird bath in the garden should attract our feathered friends who joyously flap their wings and calm us with their birdsong. Likewise, bees and other buzzing insects are attracted to nectar rich planting. Sound can also be provided by plants that rustle or create moment with their leaves or seedpods and also by different floor material such as crunchy gravel. Try planting specimens such as Phyllostachys aurea (bamboo), Lunaria annua (Honesty) and Phormium (New Zealand flax) to bring sound into the garden.
SMELL – Having plants that exude fragrance at different parts of the garden can excite or calm. Who doesn’t love a plant that smells of chocolate (Cosmos atrosanguineus – Chocolate cosmos) or curry (Helichrysum italicum – curry plant)? Highly scented planting placed adjacent to a seat or on a paths edge or scaling a walk-through archway can provide pleasurable scent along the garden journey. Try a scented Jasmine such as Jasminum floridum. Herbs which can be touched, crushed or brushed past such as rosemary, mint and lavender are particularly good for providing scent in the garden.
TOUCH – a sensory garden needs to be tactile whether this be through the planting or the construction materials and features. From soft feathery grasses such as Stipa tenuissima ‘Ponytails’ (Mexican Feather grass) to spongy mosses like Stipa tenuissima ‘Ponytails’ (Mexican Feather grass), from smooth pebbles to flowing water, elements should be easily accessible to the inquisitive hand.
And finally maybe the best of all – TASTE! So many edible plants fruits and vegetables can be cultivated in the garden. As well as the usual strawberries and well-known herbs don’t forget to add some surprises like Borago officinalis (Borage), Tropaeolum majus (Nasturtium) or Calendula officinalis (Pot marigold) which can all be picked in the garden and sprinkled on salads.
I hope this provides you with some ideas of how to create a true sensory experience in a garden which calms the mind and body and creates a beautiful place to spend time in.