The Sensory Garden
Kristina Valle, Master Gardener
Memories are often tied to our senses and for many of us, our first or favorite memories occurred in a garden. This article will discuss how to create a sensory garden that will enliven the senses, spark old memories, and hopefully make some new ones for first time visitors.
For me, the smell and taste of chives brings up one of my first memories. As a toddler, I would walk around my parent’s vegetable garden and happily munch on a chive that my father handed me as he scanned the garden for ingredients to use in our dinner. The smell of a tomato vine brings me back to when I would visit my grandparents and was asked to go harvest a few tomatoes for the salad we were going to have for lunch. The sound of wind moving through trees, or a slow-moving creek reminds me of time spent playing in a forest, completely carefree.
A sensory garden can be any size and can be created all at once or in stages. Let’s explore the different senses and what we can add to our gardens to create a unique sensory experience.
Herbs can be started from seed or purchased as mature plants and can be grown in either your garden or in a pot. Here are a few examples of plants that will bring taste into your garden space.
Herbs: Basil, Rosemary, Thyme, Mint, Oregano, Cilantro
Vegetables: Carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, spinach, kale, squash, radish
Focus on different textures that you can incorporate into your space.
Lambs Ears: a favorite among children
Succulents: these can be kept in pots or grown in your garden (some are Minnesota hardy!)
Feathered Grasses: run your fingers through the grasses as you walk through your garden
Spongy Moss: resilient, unique texture
Tree Bark: smooth, peeling or textured
Smooth Rocks: stepping stones
Tactile Elements: pots, planters, ornaments
Some plants give off a beautiful fragrance when the wind comes through or when you brush past them on a walk. Even something as simple as fresh cut grass can be counted as an element within this sense.
Lavender: the aroma can help soothe and decrease stress – it is also a great pollinator
Herb garden: rosemary, mint, basil, and many others can produce a scent when you rub your hands over the leaves
Creeping Thyme: you can release the scent of this plant either by rubbing the leaves between your fingers or by stepping on them as they are often used as a ground cover plant
One of the greatest rewards in gardening is being able to sit back and observe a space that you’ve created. There are several ways to bring your garden alive that can be enjoyed through each season.
Spring & Summer
Different types of bird food and feeders will attract a variety of birds
A bird bath or water source with the sound of running water will attract birds
Milkweed will attract Monarch Butterflies to your yard and if you’re lucky, they will lay eggs on this plant. Some other plants that attract Monarch Butterflies include: Goldenrod, Butterfly Bush, Cosmos, Lantana, Lilac, Zinnia, Asters, Purple Coneflower, Yarrow and Coreopsis
Plant climbing plants over arbors and trellises
Include plants with different textures and variegation
Incorporate a bench to observe your garden
Fall & Winter
Some native grasses, like Little Blue Stem, will move from green to blue in the summer and then to red in the fall
Burning Bush is another plant that will signal the changing season, becoming a vibrant red in fall
As the days get shorter, Autumn Joy Sedum will bring a rosy, pink shade into your garden
Enjoy the bright red branches of a Dogwood shrub throughout the cold, gray winter months
If you have hydrangeas that bloom on new growth, consider leaving their stems and flowers intact throughout the winter for additional winter interest
Sound can be added or attracted to your garden.
Water Feature: this will create the sound of water and will also attract birds looking for a place to get a drink and to splash in a bath
Beneficial Insects: planting pollinator plants will attract busy buzzing bees as well as other pollinators throughout growing season
Ornamental Grasses: wind will move through the grass creating movement and a soothing sound
Bird Feeders: attract songbirds by offering a variety of seed mixtures
Gravel Paths: listen to the crunch of the gravel as you walk the path through your garden
Wind Chimes: add a windchime to your garden to create a beautiful tune as a summer breeze blows through
The benefits of creating a sensory garden go far beyond simple enjoyment. These gardens are good for sensory stimulation and development, have calming effects, encourage curiosity and allow for reflection and stress reduction. As Master Gardeners we look for ways to engage with our community and their love of gardening. Master Gardeners have created a program called “Growing Connections” that works hand in hand with the Alzheimer’s Association and focuses on sensory gardening activities. Check out our website for information about Master Gardener events and programs.
Photo Credit: University of Minnesota Extension (1,2,3)