What is a Sensory Garden?

Sensory Garden - Barefoot Girl Stands Holding a bag of colorful flowers in a garden

If you want to transform a typical backyard into a piece of paradise, a sensory garden is right for you. Sensory gardens are relaxing, exploratory spaces where you can enjoy and learn more about nature. 

This landscaping technique utilizes the abundant beauty of nature alongside creative hardscaping to soothe, delight, and invigorate the senses. Many garden designs are multi-sensory experiences already, but a sensory garden intentionally amplifies all five: touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight. 

Child holding fresh carrots
Kindel Media | Pexels

How does a sensory garden work?

A successful sensory garden inspires all of the senses using a variety of organic and inorganic elements. Whereas traditional gardens usually have a “look, don’t touch” policy, sensory gardens are made to be touched and actively experienced. 

Nature is full of interesting sights and aromas already; sensory gardens capture and elevate these so they’re easier to notice, and include spaces to rest or play in the outdoor space. 

Some common techniques for building a sensory garden include:

  • Taste: Vegetable gardens, herb walls, and edible flowers. 
    • Nasturtiums and pansies are great options for edible flowers. 
  • Touch: Perennials with interesting textures and hardscaping that amplifies your sense of touch, like smooth rock surfaces and water walls. 
    • Lamb’s ear and blue chalk stick are fun to feel. 
  • Sight: A cutting garden with beautiful blooms, native plants that invite butterflies, and plants that provide visual interest year-round.
    • Native butterfly milkweed, bee balm, and trumpet honeysuckle invite flying pollinators. 
  • Sound: Trees that attract birds, water features, and wind chimes. Even a dried seed pod can provide music. 
    • Oak trees, dogwoods, elderberry, and holly trees are prime sites for songbirds.
  • Smell: Fragrant shrubs, flowers, and trees. 
    • Magnolia trees, honeysuckle, and lavender are fantastic places to start for creating a stunning olfactory experience.  

Another essential aspect to a sensory garden is designing places to actually experience it! That means well-placed benches, outdoor eating areas, and footpaths. There’s plenty of room for creativity, and executing your own personal twist is key to actually enjoying your yard. 

Benefits of a sensory garden

A sensory garden has all kinds of benefits for you, your neighbors, and your environment. Here are just a few of the benefits of sensory gardens:

  • Attracts pollinators that benefit the local ecosystem. 
  • Discourages the use of harmful pesticides. 
  • Increases biodiversity, which benefits soil conditions. 
  • Supports young childrens’ cognitive development and nature education.
  • Safe place for elderly people to experience the outdoors. 
  • Beautiful backdrop for social gatherings.  

Who can benefit from a sensory garden?

A sensory garden makes the healing and educational benefits of nature available to people who might otherwise struggle to enjoy it. 

  • Kids learning about the outdoors: A sensory garden appeals to the way kids like to learn, which is often through their hands, ears, and eyes. A dried seed pod can become a maraca; a lamb’s ear leaf is like their favorite stuffed animal; a juicy cherry tomato is a sweet treat.
  • People in wheelchairs or with limited mobility: A hike up a mountain might be the familiar way to immerse yourself in nature, but that isn’t always easy for everyone. A sensory garden can give you all the delights of a weekend trip in the woods with the comfort and control of your backyard. 
  • Seniors with dementia: A sensory garden provides a safe, enclosed space to enjoy nature. Consider designing a walkway that starts and ends at the same point for people to travel on without getting lost. The sensory stimulation helps improve mental well-being and keeps people with dementia engaged and calm. 
  • People with autism spectrum disorder: People with sensory issues can greatly benefit from the safe exploration of a sensory garden. As exemplified by the space at the Els Center for Excellence, a sensory garden specifically for ASD features a soothing layout, predictable patterns, and places to rest from overstimulation. 
  • Everyone: We can all benefit from a sensory garden’s ability to ground us in the present moment through our five senses. 

How to mindfully enjoy a sensory garden

You’re welcome to enjoy your sensory garden however you’d like — even a brief stroll through to check on the plants can be pleasant, or an outdoor dinner party with friends. 

If you’d like to make the most out of your immersive experience, try taking a mindful moment while walking through or sitting still to center yourself before the day begins or melt your worries away at the day’s end. 

Mindfulness can help:

  • Increase our ability to learn new things and behave in new ways via neuroplasticity.
  • Recover better from injury, depression, and even illness like the flu by lowering cortisol levels.
  • Amplify creativity by thickening the prefrontal cortex.
  • Improve memory by thickening the hippocampus.

A simple, 5-minute moment of mindfulness can greatly improve your mood and stress levels. Try this exercise to begin or end your day with a sense of calm and gratitude. 

  • Start by noticing the sensation of your own breath, setting aside any tasks or anxieties that might be buzzing around in your mind. 
  • With your eyes closed or open, notice a sound that brings you joy, like a bird chirping or fountain gurgling. Explore its unique texture and quality. 
  • Next, notice a sight that brings you joy, like a vibrant flower. If you have your eyes closed, remember one you saw earlier. 
  • Notice a smell – a fragrant blossom or the scent of soil. 
  • Notice a sensation. Maybe it’s the cool stone beneath you or the air on your skin.
  • Finally, notice a taste. For this one, have a piece of something edible nearby.

You also can do this with one particular object, like a cutting of sage. Take a moment to appreciate any happiness, calm, and gratitude you feel afterward. If you enjoyed it, invite a friend to join you next time. 

Coral Honeysuckle
Coral Honeysuckle | Sarah Nichols | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

FAQ about sensory gardens

Do I have to redesign my whole landscape to create a sensory garden?

Absolutely not. Work with what you have! A sensory garden can start as small as adding a few bird feeders or adding a pot of chives to your windowsill. 

Can I still have a sensory space if I have a small garden?

Yes. There are lots of ways to get creative with small spaces, like vertical gardens, gutter shelves, and tiered flower carts. 

Can I create a sensory garden in any climate?

hat suit the weather. For example, a rain garden is appropriate if you’re no stranger to afternoon showers. A xeriscape is great for desert-like conditions. 

What are good sensory garden plants to start out with?

The best plants are ones that multitask. These options can give you some ideas of what to look for:

A fragrant shrub like honeysuckle is a lovely way to activate your sense of smell and attract beautiful pollinators. 
Coneflower (also known as echinacea) does double duty as a bright flower and an edible plant (try it in a tea). 
Ornamental grasses with seed heads like quaking grass provide visual interest and a pleasing soundscape. 
Fruits and vegetables like strawberries, kale, and dragon fruit have fun tastes and textures. 

Get help starting your sensory garden

If the idea of installing water features and flower gardens sounds overwhelming, hire help. A professional landscaping team can design, build, and install your garden from hardscaping to plant installation. That way, all you have to do is practice relaxing. 

If you want to really kick back, hire a Lawn Love pro to mow, edge, and maintain your lawn. 

Main Photo Credit: Jill Wellington | Pexels

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.