Image from: Gardening Know How Online
The Sensory Trust define a sensory garden as “a self-contained area that concentrates a wide range of sensory experiences. Such an area, if designed well, provides a valuable resource for a wide range of uses, from education to recreation.” (Sensory Trust, 2007)
Sensory gardens appeal to all 5 senses and offer a rich therapeutic experience to people with a range of different needs. Some designs may encourage the development of particular sensory abilities like smell, touch. Some create a protected, stimulating place for people with physical disabilities who may enjoy being, working and socialising outdoors.
Multi-sensory design is increasing in popularity, especially in residential homes, hospitals and special schools. Some gardens are designed for passive relaxation and contemplation. Some may be designed to be more engaging, encouraging exploration, touch or taste, and interaction with particular plants, or features and objects. The design process needs to begin by consulting with the people who are going to use the garden.
Many plants make both a wonderful sound and have great visual movement at the same time. Trees such as aspens and willows are good examples here, as are grasses of all kinds. Quaking grass is a particularly good example. Grasses can be positioned where people can brush as they go past so creating movement themselves. Water features are also a great source of sound. Water features built with safety in mind can permit interaction.
The velvety textured leaves of Stachys (Betony, Lamb’s Ears, or Silver Carpet) or the jagged architectural presence of Aloe vera can stimulate interest, conversation, and tactile exploration of the garden. Those without sight can identify plants from their touch, softness or spikiness. Plant scents can be soothing and therapeutic, evoking a sense of ease, e.g. Lavender and Lemon Balm; or they can be stimulating e.g. Rosemary and Jasmine. Scents can also assist orientation in the garden as well. So touch, taste, sound, smell, and visual elements can all add to the sensory garden experience.
(Image 2: Sensory Garden flowers 2, Sheffield. From Panoramio (Google Maps))
Accessibility should be considered in any sensory garden design. This applies to external access such as how people get to the garden from the bus stop or nearby buildings; and internal access, e.g. paths and walkways within the garden itself. The construction of features, seating, paths, and plant beds will affect whether wheelchair users, children or those with mobility issues for example, can utilise the garden. Raised beds may be necessary to bring the plants to the user’s level and wide, non-slip path surfaces which are firm allow for easier wheelchair navigation.
Sensory gardens designed with visual impairment in mind should have Braille and large print signage in weatherproof materials. Making them at an accessible height may be something else to consider if budgets will allow. For people with learning disabilities (for example limited literacy skills), pictures can allow access to the same interpretive information as reading gardeners or visitors.
Sensory Trust Online. Cornwall, UK. http://www.sensorytrust.org.uk/
Feasibility Study into the Renaissance of the WROC (Wokingham Opportunities and Resource Centre) Sensory Garden, Wendy Chamberlain, 2005.
Healing Gardens – therapeutic benefits and design recommendations. Clare Cooper Marcus/Marni Barnes. John Wiley & Sons Inc – 1999
By Andy Patterson