How to Create a Sensory Garden

Our five senses are all integral to the amount of enjoyment we get from gardens. But what if one or more of our senses are impaired? Nathan James Dodd thinks we can construct a garden that is enjoyable for everyone, whatever their impairment.

Created by Nathan James Dodd on Thursday, 21st of February, 2013.
Updated on Friday, 28th of August, 2015.


sunflower

In no particular order, lets consider each sense that needs to be accommodated.

Sight

To combat restricted vision you need big plants with vibrant flowers, plants that make an impression both physically or visually.

Sunflowers (Helianthus) are an obvious choice with their large bold, normally yellow, flower heads and broad leaves. Hollyhocks (Alcea) such as 'Summer Carnival' and 'Chater's Double' can grow to 6-8ft packed with colourful rosette blooms.

Rudbeckia are large and loud with yellow and orange flowers. 'Herbstsonne' reaches over 6ft, a little more compact but still with stunning colour are 'Irish Eyes' and the frilly 'Goldilocks'. Heleniums are bushy perennials with masses of daisy like flower heads, 'Wyndley' is an orange yellow while 'Moerheim Beauty' a rich orange red.

The Foxtail Lily (Eremurus robustus) will grow to 7ft with spires of small pink flowers, soaring above the border in the full sun of high summer. At 4- 5ft, the Milky Bellflower (Campanula lactiflora) is an upright perennial full of large, bell shaped violet, blue or white flowers.

Scent

Scent is perhaps the most evocative sense, smell something and it is amazing what pleasure it gives and what memories flood back. Roses naturally come to mind immediately and there is certainly no lack of choice, in fact too much for this short guide, so leaving them aside what other plants are worth considering ?

The Sweet Pea's Latin name, Lathyrus odoratus, gives a clue to what to expect from the flowers of its many cultivars. 'Lady Diana' (violet blue), 'Red Ensign' and 'Xenia Field' will provide colour and scent in abundance. Honeysuckles combine fragrance with beautifully shaped flowers, look out for L. fragrantissimma, L. Etrusca and 'Serotina', the Late Dutch Honeysuckle.

To go with the addictive scent, 'Chocolate Cosmos' has gorgeous maroon flower heads. Centaurea moschata 'Imperalis' is a sweet smelling cottage garden favourite, the 'Ginger Lily' Hedychium gardnerianum is both exotic looking and scented while Crambe cordifolia has a mass of fragrant white flowers.

Argyrocytisus battandieri 'Yellow Tail' is a shrub, native to Morocco, with yellow, pineapple-scented flowers, another one well worth considering is the very sweetly scented Sarcococca confusa and of course the many lilacs including Syringa vulgaris 'Katherine Havemeyer' which has cones of very fragrant flowers in late spring or early summer.

If the foliage of a plant is scented when bruised, touch is introduced as well as the sense of smell.

Crush Lavender between your fingers for a lovely relaxed odour. 'Lemon Verbena' is self explanatory as is Elsholtzia stauntonii or the 'Mint Bush' and Choisya ternata (Mexican orange blossom). Herbs such as Thyme, Oregano, Rosemary, the 'Curry Plant' (Helichrysum italicum), Lemon Scented Geranium (Pelargonium crispum) and many others give a similar experience.

Sound

Water features and other 'man made' sound such as wind chimes can augment birds chirping and bees buzzing. Planting can also create sound when the wind to rustles grasses and leafy stems.

Greater Quaking Grass (Briza maxima) is easy to grow and the wind will make its graceful nodding flower heads sing. Miscanthus oligostachyus or Japanese Silver Grass is an oriental ornamental grass with tassel like flower clusters that turn silvery with maturing seeds.

In addition to various other ornamental grasses, dwarf bamboo (Sasa pygmaea), Sweetcorn also have stems and leaves that sway and rustle in the breeze.

Touch

Touch may be seen as a neglected sense in gardening, as less important than sight and smell, but texture can be as much an attribute of a plant as scent and colour. Leaves for example are incredibly varied to suit particular conditions and functions, and will give interestingly different tactile sensations.

The ragged and scented leaves of the 'Royal Oak' pelargonium can be juxtaposed with the shiny smoothness of laurel. A feathery fern or soft Silver Sage (Salvia argentea) matched against jagged holly leaves. All proving to be individually interesting, doubly so when compared and contrasted with each other.

If you are lucky enough to have a large garden or extensive space, tree bark can be another rewarding texture. There are several Acer and Birches such as the Paper Bark Maple and Paper Birch that have peeling bark and compare the crated bark of a mature ash with the smooth shiny 'Manchurian Cherry'.

Taste

There are plenty of plants that taste surprisingly good enough for culinary use. Although on the other hand there are lots of poisonous ones for example Foxgloves and Delphiniums, wonderful plants but unwise to place in a sensory garden.

Rosemary, chives, mint, sage, basil and all the other familiar herbs can be planted and tasted but from left field introduce peppery nasturtiums that resemble watercress, dandelions that can also be used in salads together with marigold leaves and the flowers and leaves of primroses. Pansies, carnations and clove-like cornflowers can also be consumed, perhaps washed down with chrysanthemum or jasmine tea.

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