What is a Sensory Garden and how do you make one?
A sensory garden is a space (usually outdoors) that has been designed in order to allow people to interact with the garden in a way that engages their senses. It is thought that sensory gardens provide many positive benefits such as providing an interesting space to explore, promoting cognitive and physical engagement, creating a relaxing and stimulating experience as well as improving participation and creating a community space.
A sensory garden can be big or small and is suitable for most settings whether rural or in the city. The most important factor about the location is that it is a safe space, ideally with some sort or clearly defined boundary or fence which can enclose the garden and create a sanctuary.
We see a lot of sensory gardens with bright colours and a few sensory elements, such as tactile plants or a giant xylophone to play some sounds on... but we believe that sensory gardens can go above and beyond this, that they can create and immersive sensory experience stimulating all 5 of the senses. Sight, Touch, Sound, Smell AND Taste. So read on for advice and ideas to create the perfect sensory garden!
"I think what really distinguishes a sensory garden from an ordinary garden environment is the inclusion of plants, materials features and objects with particular sensory qualities, used with the intention of stimulating our Senses, Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Touching and Tasting." (www.flowerpotman.com)
Often the first way we register a space is through our eyes, by sight, we enter a space and before we have touched anything our eyes are receiving visual informtation. So, at Natural Design Studio this is one of the first things we consider when making concept plans for a sensory garden. The layout must be produced in a visually readable way, drawing the eyes in, creating focal points and areas of interest - the visual layout should invite the user into the space and should lead them around the space from area to area, giving clues about how to engage with the space and highlighting features to make them more obvious. Tools we use to stimulate sight are, shape, colour, pattern, mass and void, contrast. Planting and objects can be used to complement each of these tools, colourful foliage or textured shrubs and grasses.
Our sense of touch helps us to map the world around us, we receive tactile information about our environment every second of the day and this information is sent to our brain which helps us to make sense of external objects. "Touch consists of several distinct sensations...and are all attributed to different receptors in the skin." - livesceince.com. Using different objects, textures and tactile surfaces we can stimulate our brain through touch. Natural design Studio recommend using as much variety as possible with regards to touch, rough, smooth, soft, fluffy, and bumpy textures just to name a few. And we would also avoid using anything too spiky or sharp... after all our sense of touch helps us to register pain as well, so make sure that all the touchy feely objects are 'pleasant' to touch!
... Cue the giant xylophone! Yes, large musical instruments are a great way of stimulating the sense of sound, it is also a very fun and interactive way of engaging people too! We suppose there are a lot of instruments that could be interpreted for a sensory garden space such as giant strings to play notes like a guitar, keys to push like a piano, large drums and gongs and how about tubes and flutes played by people or the wind? If the budget allows then these are a great option, but they can be costly as they are often bespoke pieces and must be designed to weather the elements. BUT fear not there are MANY effective low-cost ways of bringing sound into a sensory garden. Firstly, consider the sounds that are already produced by existing features, the crunch of gravel, the tip tap of feet on a hard surface, the sound of running water or a fountain, look for ways to draw attention to enhance this. For example, adding a strip of noisy gravel or flooring... it will catch people’s attention and people will instinctively explore the surface perhaps tapping their feet or jumping to produce varied noise. Or place a stick or percussion mallet next to a set of wooden or metal railings, and watch what people do! At Natural Design Studio one of our favourite ways of using sound is to add a set of gentle windchimes or bells simple, yet effective.
Often Overlooked in a sensory garden is stimulating the sense of smell, and yet it is one of the easiest features to achieve given the fact that so many plants and flowers are fragranced! Humans have 400 smelling receptors and may be able to smell over 1 trillion scents, according to researchers. Some of our favourite flowers to use are Choisya, Honeysuckle, Roses, Dianthus, Jasmin, Lavender and Gardenia - (but there are hundreds more so if you'd like some more ideas then do get in touch!) Using scent in a sensory garden helps to elevate the experience, making it more immersive as the nose sends strong signals to the brain when it experiences an array of pleasant aromas. This can help stimulate emotions and relaxation within the garden, familiar smells often make people feel good. So, by all means use as many scented plants as you can, and also think of other ways to use scent such as smell boxes where people lift the lid and there is a fragrance or nice smelly substance inside.
The gustatory sense is usually broken down into the perception of four different tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Taking things up a notch is to include taste in a sensory garden, our favourite way to do this is to use edible plants and flowers. We will add a NOTE OF CAUTION here as the edible flowers should be correctly identified and verified as non-toxic/safe to consume! So, plan this element carefully and think about how to distinguish edible from non-edible plants! Herbs are generally a safe bet, things like Sage, Rosemary, Basil, Parsley and Lemon Thyme. if you'd rather use flowers then Violets, Roses, Bergamot, Elderflower and Nasturtium all have edible petals and as such would make great additions to a sensory garden.
So that's the 5 Senses Covered... But interestingly research suggests that we could have a lot more than 5!
"Neuroscientists are well aware that we are a bundle of senses. ... many would argue that we have anywhere between 22 and 33 different senses." Alina Bradford (LiveScience.com)
Some of these newly defined senses are not perceivable to us on an everyday level (such as detecting levels of oxygen in the bloodstream) but some of them are quite obvious to our attention. Whether or not science supports the categorisation these phenomenon as 'new senses' they are certainly helpful for us to enhance and inform the creation of excellent sensory gardens. Let take a little look at these 'other senses' and see how they could help!
Equilibrioception – a sense of balance. This could be applied to sensory gardens with the addition of a balancing walk or rope.
Kinaesthesia – sense of movement. A great feature to add would be a a water fountain or a wheel to spin, even moving plants that sway gently in a breeze.
Thermoception – Sense of temperature. This could be an interesting element to add! It is not a dynamic we have ever used in a sensory garden and we would be interested to see if it has been done before, so get in touch if anybody has achieved this feat!
Propiocenption - The Sense of space. This one we would argue is essential to include in a sensory garden (big or small) think about how you can create spaces and zones, or defined areas to create different feels and experiences within the garden.
Now for the sensible bits! Sensory gardens require a high degree of planning, so take the time to think through all of the space and elements and start from the ground up - grass, wood or gravel floors add to the sensory experience (touch, sight, smell and sound) If you have tarmac or concrete base for your sensory garden consider whether it's possible to add areas of these other natural, softer materials. Failing that paint the concrete with a design, refer back to section 1. Sight for ideas on that!
We recommend putting adaptability and accessibility high up the priority list, different adaptations for different groups and communities are important. Think about who will be using the garden, will it be children, mixed groups, people with additional needs or using wheelchairs or walking adaptations. Will the garden be closed to a private community or open to the public? All of these will have bearing upon your design and the core planning such as main routes and paths will need to be appropriate, and seating will ned to be sufficient and well placed. Adaptations for different ages are also key, for example children will require lower down activities. The theme of the space can also be adapted to different groups, for children fun and bright gardens work well, for adults more mature and quieter contemplative spaces could be more appropriate, so get to know your audience and do a bit of research on what would best suit your group.
How do we do it at Natural Design Studio? Bearing all of the above in mind we LOVE designing sensory gardens because they can enhance and improve people’s wellbeing, and thats what were all about! Integrating scientific and psychological theory can help to support and inform the development of successful sensory gardens to make them better spaces for people, we always look to develop the concept and apply recent research.
PLANTS we believe that nature is at the heart of wellbeing and plants offer us so many of our sensory elements - soft arching plumes of flowers like Astilbe, Interesting shapes of flowers like Allium or Helenium Lollipops. We are always seeking out the most interactive plants and interesting foliage such as Stachys Byzantina which is soft and fluffy to touch. We have already mentioned scent, but overall to us plants are the most important element in a sensory garden.
Our secret on taking things to a whole new level? The element of surprise! We like to integrate a little bit of a journey with meandering paths and screening elements such as hedges or room like zones. This creates a little world full of mystery where people are invited to explore and curiously wander around all of the elements. Our favourite kind of surprise is to have installations with cause and effect, such as a lever or handle which lifts or moves something! Nothing better to engage and excite!
We hope this post has been helpful in guiding you on the subject of sensory gardens, please do get in touch if you have any questions or would like any further advice. If you would like to hire us to design a sensory garden for you then we look forwards to hearing from you and you can get in touch via our contacts page!
We recommend that you run a health and safety check for all elements of a sensory garden to ensure maximum safety and wellbeing of all of the visitors.