Take your outdoor refuge to the next level with an immersive sensory garden. We’ll guide you through every step of creating a space that invigorates all five senses and elevates your mood, dinner parties, and connection with nature.
The easiest way to create a sensory garden is to think about each sense and choose some softscaping (living things) and hardscaping (nonliving things) elements that amplify it. A lot of techniques will address multiple senses, which is great! After assessing your unique needs, we’ll give you tips for sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
Assess your landscape
The options for a sensory garden are endless, but your existing landscape conditions will help guide which of those options are best suited for you. Elements to consider include:
- Size of your yard
Size of your yard
Whether you have an acre or a balcony, there’s a garden design for you. All you need is a little creative thinking.
If you have a larger yard, you may want to have some areas reserved for turfgrass. This would be suitable for an outdoor kitchen or dining area, or a play area for kids. Plan to divide your landscape into sections with pathways, trellises, and shrubs or trees. A keyhole garden or enclosed rock garden creates a contained space in a big landscape.
For landscaping with smaller yards, make sure all your garden elements multitask for at least two senses and zero in on vertical gardening.
Vertical gardening techniques include:
- Hanging baskets
- Window boxes
- Tiered flower carts
- Gutter gardens
- Herb walls
Before you choose your plants, get to know your climate. What USDA Hardiness Zone do you live in? This determines which plants will thrive as perennials in your landscape. Do you get a lot or a little annual rainfall? If you live in desert-like conditions, xeriscaping will be your friend.
Your yard’s microclimate is important, too. A microclimate just describes the specific conditions of a more localized area. Where do you get the most sun or the most shade? Is the afternoon sun intense? Do you have any slopes in your yard that collect water? These questions will help guide you to the plants most suitable for your home.
Sensory gardening works on any budget. If you have the means, you can certainly overhaul your landscape with waterfalls, rose gardens, and ornate hardwood pieces.
You don’t need an endless budget to create a successful sensory garden, though. A few bird feeders, a window box of herbs, and a set of chimes covers all the senses. A set of camper chairs and string lights creates a cozy ambiance to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds.
Who is your sensory garden for?
Another key step in planning is considering who will be enjoying your sensory garden. While sensory gardening has benefits for everyone, if you’re designing a garden with a special needs group in mind, you’ll want to anticipate what they will benefit most from.
A sensory garden for kids can inspire opportunities for education and play. The space can pique their curiosity, creativity, and even aid their cognitive development.
Sensory garden ideas for kids:
- Keyhole gardens are enclosed gardens off a path. They provide a “secret” place for kids to explore and feel independent in.
- Climbing trees with low, strong branches are a fun way to get physically active.
- A play area like a sandbox or a grassy clearing provides space to play with flowers and other garden treasures.
- Nontoxic plants ensure young children are safe to nibble and touch any plant they see.
- Include kid-friendly edible plants like wild strawberries, grapes, and melons.
Seniors can greatly benefit from the physical and mental benefits of sensory gardening. Gardening provides an opportunity to get sunshine and vitamin D, light exercise, and promotes regulated sleep patterns.
Older people experiencing a form of dementia like Alzheimer’s can be calmed by the safe stimulation of a sensory garden. It’s a chance to experience joy and the benefits of nature in a controlled environment.
Sensory garden ideas for elderly people:
- Armrests for benches are great for making sure seniors can comfortably relax.
- Smooth, paved pathways allow for wheelchairs and lower the risk of tripping.
- Loop walkways that begin and end at the same point eliminate the chance of getting lost.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
For people with sensory issues, like individuals with ASD, a sensory garden can be a fantastic way to experience sensory stimulation in a safe way. While the everyday world holds chaotic and unpredictable noises, movement, and smells, a sensory garden offers the chance to take in as much or as little stimuli as you want.
Sensory garden ideas for people with ASD:
- Predictable walkways encourage exploration without the fear of being surprised.
- Patterned plant installation soothes the mind.
- Quiet places to calm down or be alone allow people to retreat if overwhelmed.
How to activate each sense
When we think of the beauty of a garden, the first thing we think of is what we see: blooms as small as twinkling stars and as big as bells, marbled leaves, and every shade of the rainbow. Although the right flowers are showstoppers on their own, their beauty benefits from artfully contrasting colors and heights.
- Trees with peeling bark like crape-myrtle, birch trees, and silver maple
- Trees and shrubs with bright berries like elderberry, hollies, and inkberry
- A butterfly garden to attract monarchs and more (plant bee balm, native butterfly weed, and purple coneflower)
- A cutting garden for the perfect bouquets (plant zinnias, yarrow, and garden phlox)
- Plants with seed pods and foliage that provide winter interest like witch hazel, maiden grass, and walking stick
- Wood benches and trellises with carved detailing satisfy a sense of sight and sense of touch.
- Hanging rainbow makers refract sunlight into your own mini rainbows. Try hanging this so its reflection will land on a smooth surface like a patio or stone pavers.
- Mirrors or ponds double the visual elements you already have in a delightful way.
- Rock features with different shapes and colors like pebble paths and rock walls are beautiful and fun to touch.
Taking a deep breath of fresh air is much more appealing when the air is full of beautiful fragrances. Skip the perfume shop and opt for a garden that contains scented plants with notes of citrus, spice, and sweet vanilla. When installing your plants, don’t overcrowd plants with different fragrances. Give them space to shine on their own without overpowering each other.
- Fragrant vines like jasmine, honeysuckle, and wisteria
- Flowering shrubs like roses, andromeda, and gardenia
- Herbs like lavender, rosemary, and Thai basil (for an anise-like smell)
Your aromatic plants will be the star of the show, but you can amplify their effect by placing essential oil stones at key points around your garden. You can either use store-bought oils or create your own by soaking your plant material in oil for two to three weeks and then straining it.
Pro Tip: If you live in an area prone to mosquitoes, use a mosquito-repellent oil like lemon eucalyptus, lavender, or citronella.
There’s no need to look up “nature sounds” on YouTube to relax. With the right sensory gardening techniques, you can compose a symphony right outside your window. Craft a masterful soundscape by layering musical hardscaping and plants within a songbird habitat.
- Rustling plants like trembling aspens and ornamental grass
- Plants with berries that attract songbirds like elderberry, winterberry, and inkberry
- Trees and shrubs that provide shelter for songbirds like dogwoods, oaks, and holly trees
- Bird baths and bird feeders create a source of water and food that attracts birds to your yard. Include multiple types of feeders and feed to appeal to a variety of species.
- Water features like fountains and waterfalls provide a soothing backdrop. For a more budget-friendly option, install bubbler irrigation for specific trees and shrubs.
- A simple set of windchimes adds twinkling music with every breeze.
Instead of wandering to your pantry for an afternoon snack, how about strolling through your backyard? It’s incredibly rewarding to watch a tiny seed turn into a glossy eggplant or plump strawberry, and it tastes delicious! Edible plants encourage mindful eating and connecting to your food in a whole new way.
- Colorful veggies like rainbow swiss chard, peppers, and squash
- Fruits like wild strawberries, tomatoes, and figs
- Edible flowers like calendula, nasturtiums, and pansies
- Herbs like oregano, mint, chives, lavender, and parsley
You’re not likely to be munching on a trellis, but there are a few ways to make edible gardening easier.
- A raised garden bed makes it easier to reach your harvest
- A window box outside your kitchen makes adding a sprig of rosemary to dinner a breeze
- Below-ground fencing will keep out other peckish creatures like rabbits and gophers
You might be used to walking around traditional gardens with your hands in your pockets, but sensory gardens are different. You’re meant to engage with your hands as well as your eyes. To fully enjoy your tactile elements, make sure the plants you choose for the sense of touch are within easy reach of benches and pathways.
- Plants with velvety textures like lamb’s ear, sage, and African violets
- Succulent ground cover like blue stonecrop, creeping sedum, and blue chalk stick
- Moss in shady areas for a cooling surface
- A rock garden with boulders and stones of all shapes and sizes provides a place to rest and a plethora of textures
- Build a water wall to experience the cool sensation of running water in your backyard
- A dry creek made with smooth pebbles is a great way to divide a space and provide interesting textures
Plan places to enjoy your sensory garden
Picking out all your unique plants and creative hardscaping is important, but so is including spaces to actually enjoy it! A key part of sensory gardening is designing seating areas to immerse yourself in all the beautiful sights and sounds.
A bench along a walkway is a simple and useful way to take a rest and soak up the sound of chirping birds. If a morning sun salutation is up your alley, set aside a flat area or patio for yoga or meditation. For the hosts and hostesses, build a clearing surrounded by small trees and fragrant shrubs to house your outdoor dining setup. A trellis covered with blooming vines provides the perfect entryway to a magical space.
How to care for your sensory garden
You’ve planned and designed your paradise, but it won’t take care of itself. In addition to maintaining your hardscaping with regular cleaning, the living elements of your yard will need special care, too.
To keep your vines, trees, and flowers looking great, stay on top of:
- Seasonal pruning and deadheading (especially important for a cut flower garden)
- Adjusting your watering for the season and weather
- Amending your soil with compost for beneficial microorganisms and nutrients
If you encounter a pest problem, put the pesticide down. Broad-spectrum insecticides might get the job done, but they’ll also harm the pollinators you worked so hard to welcome. Not to mention, you don’t want toxic chemicals on plants you’ll be touching and potentially tasting. To ensure a safe sensory garden for all, try an organic pest control method.
FAQ on how to create a sensory garden
Native plants are the ultimate botanical multitaskers. They sport showy, vibrant blooms and attract plenty of pollinators, which covers sight and sound.
These plants are native to most of North America:
• Black-eyed Susan
• Bee balm
• Purple coneflower
Herbs are another heavy hitter, stimulating your sense of taste, smell, and sight all at once.
Water features activate your sense of sound and touch. Rock gardens and carved benches are tactile and aesthetically pleasing, as well.
Organic pest control methods can be effective against pests when combined with good practices like pruning, proper watering, and ensuring plenty of air circulation.
Instead of a broad-spectrum insecticide, try:
• Neem oil
• Beneficial nematodes
Perennials are usually more expensive up front, but they save you money in the long run because they can last for several years, if not more than a decade. While planting perennials is less effort, annuals are great if you want flowers that prefer a narrow USDA Hardiness Zone (like marigolds). Plus, annuals allow you to experiment with new garden designs every year.
Get help from a pro
If the planning phase seems exciting, but the actual installation feels overwhelming, hire a professional landscaping team. They’ll help you design the perfect layout, build and install hardscaping, and place your new plants.
If you want to secure even more free time for kicking back and enjoying your outdoor paradise, call a Lawn Love pro to help with regular lawn maintenance like mowing, edging, and seasonal cleanup.
Main Photo Credit: Katya_Ershova | Pixabay