Designing a Sensory Garden

Sensory gardens are areas designed to stimulate one or more of the five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. While often geared toward young children, sensory gardens can be enjoyed by all ages. They can also be therapeutic for individuals with developmental or physical disabilities, sensory processing disorders, or cognitive challenges. While exploring any garden, you are already connecting with some of your senses, but a sensory garden has a more mindful approach by including and arranging specific plants to engage the senses.


Contrasting color, texture, light, shadow and form in the garden can all stimulate our sense of sight. Warm colors, like red, orange and yellow, are energizing, while cool colors, like blue, purple and white, are relaxing. The plants selected should be both stimulating and calming. Bright mixes of garden zinnias (Zinnia elegans) or giant yellow sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) towering above the garden make for an invigorating pop of color, and both will attract beautiful butterflies to the garden. 


Smell is often the strongest human sense, with the potential to bring back specific memories and experiences to individuals. Some plants release scent naturally without the need for touch (roses), while others do not release a scent until they are rubbed or crushed (geranium). Catmint (Neptea mussini), a hardy perennial that produces pale purple flowers from May to September, releases a light lavender-like scent when the leaves are rubbed. 


Some sounds in the garden occur naturally—wind blowing through the plants, or leaves crunching beneath our feet. Wind chimes and water fountains can add a calming sound, as well. Bird feeders and baths can attract our feathered friends to visit the garden to play their song. Ornamental grasses, like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), rustle in the wind. Dried seed pods on false blue indigo (Baptisia autralis) can make natural maracas as the seed rattles against the hard pod. 


A variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs can be added to a sensory garden to explore tastes. Edible flowers, including nasturtium and pansy, also make tasty additions. Be sure to clearly identify which plants in the garden are edible.


A variety of textures to explore, including rough, smooth, fuzzy and even sticky, should be offered through plant bark, foliage, flowers, seeds, and fruits. Tough plants that can withstand frequent handling should be selected. Lambs ear (Stachys byzantine) is a favorite fuzzy-leaf plant to include. 

Just like with any garden, select plants that are hardy to your area and of various color, height, textures, and bloom times. To ensure safety in the garden, plants should be non-toxic, and pesticides should not be applied. A sensory garden is a great place for anyone to explore their senses and to learn about nature and plants.

by Brittany Haag, Extension Educator – Horticulture 

Source: Gardener’s Corner Spring 2020: University of Illinois Extension