A sensory garden is a garden environment that is designed with the purpose of stimulating the senses. This stimulation occurs courtesy of plants and the use of materials that engage one’s senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. These types of gardens are popular with and beneficial to both children and adults, especially those who have sensory processing issues, including autism and other disabilities. To get the maximum use from a sensory garden, it is important to take into account for whom the garden is primarily intended. It is also important to understand what plants and features will best achieve the atmosphere that is desired.
Kids who have sensory processing disorders tend to have extreme reactions to sensory stimulation in that they are either stimulated too much or too little. This can be caused by a number of factors, such as autism, brain injury, and premature birth, to name a few. As a result, the individual will often have developmental issues. A sensory garden can be very therapeutic for people who suffer from sensory problems. It may be used as a calming place and as a gentle way to stimulate the senses. This type of environment can become a place where children with autism and other sensory processing disorders feel safe and comfortable in exploring their senses without feeling overwhelmed by them. Depending on the child’s needs, a sensory garden can primarily focus on one sense, or it can incorporate all of them. For children who are hyper-reactive to stimuli, the sensory garden should provide a relaxing environment, and for children who tend to be under-reactive to stimuli, the garden is a great way to stimulate the senses. For children who do not suffer from a disability, a sensory garden is beneficial in that it is a fun educational tool that allows them to explore and learn about their senses and nature. While in the garden, they are encouraged to touch, smell, taste, and generally interact with the environment around them. In people with dementia, sensory gardens can help keep them calm and interested, and these gardens also help to keep all of one’s senses aroused.
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When planning a sensory garden, it is important to feature elements that appeal to all five senses. For visual stimulation, or sight, color is an important consideration. When designing a garden, people should be creative in their use of color stimulation. Colors may be seasonal, placed for maximum contrast, or grouped in clusters. Color doesn’t only pertain to plants, either. Choose colors carefully when adding brick, gravel, or stone to the garden. When adding color, create a balance between energizing colors and restful, soft colors to avoid overstimulation. Colorful butterflies and birds are also attracted to the nectar and colors of plants and add to the visual interest of a garden.
Sound is another fun feature of a sensory garden, and it is crucial to creating a calming environment. Certain ornamental grasses create unique sounds, and the rustling of leaves is also soothing. Man-made additions such as wind chimes and water fountains, for example, also add to the sounds of the garden. Smells can trigger a wide range of emotions, and plants should be chosen with care. Some plants release scent naturally without the need for touch. All types and varieties of roses, for example naturally release scent into the air. Other scents are released when the leaves or petals are crushed by hand, such as geraniums. Consider a combination of scents that range from subtle to more intense in order to produce the greatest variety and interest. Plants to consider for their scent include honeysuckle, lavender, violets, mint, and chocolate cosmos, which release a chocolate-like scent.
Explore taste by planting edible herbs and other plants in the garden. Examples of edible flowers include nasturtiums, evening primrose, hibiscus, and pansy. Fruit trees and plants that produce vegetables are also a natural and obvious choice when it comes to taste in the sensory garden. When planting edible flowers, take care to differentiate them from other non-edible flowers. This is of particular importance when the garden is for children. Place edible flowers together in a designated area or simply stick with recognizable fruits and vegetables. For touch, use plants that add a variety of tactile stimulation in terms of texture. Examples of plants that are good for tactile stimuli include lamb’s ear, which feels wooly to the touch and soft. Cape sundew is a sticky and colorful plant that is also carnivorous. Yarrow is another plant that is good for touch, as its flowers are stiff and its foliage is soft. Feather grass, coneflower, and borage are other additional examples of plants that are good for touch. Water features such as backyard ponds and water gardens are also good additions for touch, as is bark for ground covering.
A sensory garden is a wonderful way for children to explore their senses and learn about the environment around them. It is also a healthy place of discovery and gets children outdoors. Children with disabilities also greatly benefit from exposure to sensory gardens, as they provide a therapeutic and safe way for them to explore their senses. When creating a sensory garden, use care in choosing the elements that go into the garden, and also consider the layout in terms of the height and reach of the plants and walkways so that it is accessible to the children and/or adults for whom it is intended.
Read the following pages to discover more about sensory gardens and their benefits:
- What is a Sensory Garden?
- Types of Gardens – Sensory Gardens (PDF)
- Kids Gardening Tools and Planting Kits
- Sensory Garden Factsheet
- Garden of Sensory Delights
- Early Introductions to Sensory Gardens: Infants and Toddlers
- Gardens for the Senses
- Ready to Plant Heirloom Seeds
- The Influence of Sensory Gardens on the Behavior of Children with Special Needs (PDF)
- The Planet Natural Guide to Organic Gardening
- Gardening for Life: A Guide to Garden Adaptations (PDF)
- How to Build a Sensory Garden at Your School
- Sensory Plants
- Choosing Plants for a Sensory Garden
- Plants for a Sensory Garden