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Sensory Gardens: Create Your Own Eden

Updated on November 12, 2016
Chantelle Porter profile image

Chantelle has been gardening since the age of 12 when she was responsible for weeding her parents 22,000 square foot garden each summer.

Lilac
Lilac | Source

What Type Of Space Do You Need?

Sensory gardens were initially created for the sight impaired. With an increasing concern for the environment and inclusion for all, many people are now consciously designing gardens that enable the breadth of society, children, the elderly and the disabled, to connect with nature. Care is given to ensure access to all and stimulate all five senses.

While design keeps these groups in mind, the actual garden enhances the experience of all visitors. Colors can be vivid (or cool), touch is encouraged without worry of breaking plants, scents abound and are provided by plants that do not require touch (such as roses) and those that do. Plants with berries, fruit or leaves for the taking provide a delight to the tongue. The sounds of rustling leaves, running water and wind chimes soothe.

The first thing you need to decide is what kind of space you need. A sensory garden bed can provide a range of sensory experiences in one location. A sensory path can connect areas and focus on one or two senses, such as sight and scent. Or, enrich your overall landscape with very specific sensory experiences located in different areas of your yard.



Plan Before You Dig

Many sensory gardens are large public displays at botanic gardens. Home gardeners will plan their garden in much the same way professionals do albeit on a smaller scale. The first order of business is to decide:

Who you will be planning your garden for? Do you have small children or grandchildren? Many sensory gardens have edible plants so if there are or will be little ones about you'll want to make sure none of your plants are poisonous. Make sure you have low growing plants for easier reach and don't include plants with thorns.

Are you interested in creating a garden that spans your life? Back problems and balance are not uncommon as we age. If you plan on staying in your home in your later years, walkways should be smooth and even; adding raised beds will ease back pain and make access easier as you age.

How will you use your space? Will it include fruits and vegetables as well as flowers? Will children need to use the yard to play? If so, you'll want to leave an open green space for them. Do you want to attract specific insects (ladybugs, butterflies, bees) or wildlife? If so, you'll need to design areas that meet their needs, too. Put pencil to paper and draw everything out before you start to dig up your lawn.

What kind of resources do you have? Plants are not inexpensive. Will you be doing the planting yourself or hiring out? Will you need the help of a designer? Think about doing your garden in stages to put less strain on your budget.

How will your garden be maintained? Will you have the edging and mulching done by a professional? Will you be doing the weeding? How much time do you want to spend on that per week? If you have neither the time nor the patience for weeding, start small. Nothing looks worse than a beautiful garden bed filled with weeds.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
A riot of colors in the Sensory Garden at the Chicago Botanic GardenDahliaMarigoldZinniaChicago Botanic GardenHosta gardenSerene Zen garden
A riot of colors in the Sensory Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden
A riot of colors in the Sensory Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden | Source
Dahlia
Dahlia | Source
Marigold
Marigold | Source
Zinnia
Zinnia | Source
Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden | Source
Hosta garden
Hosta garden | Source
Serene Zen garden
Serene Zen garden | Source

Enhance Sight

When designing a garden for sight, not only does it need to look pretty, it needs to evoke a reaction. Do you want to create a sense of excitement with bright, vivid colors? Do you want to feel soothed after a tough day? Maybe both? It can be done. Consider decorating your backyard the way you would your home. Not every room has the same feel nor the same function. So can your yard.

When thinking about designing a serene garden, think of creating a "room" for contemplation. It will probably be best placed in a shady area of your yard so that not only does it look serene it feels serene. Wind chimes or trickling fountains go particularly well in this area. Make choosing lawn furniture that is actually comfortable to sit in your first priority. Function over form. Use a predominantly green landscape with evergreens, hostas and shrubs providing shape and texture.

When planning a stimulating garden area, think plants that are bright, colorful and vibrant. Zinnias, marigolds, dahlias can delight without overwhelming. If you have a very deep yard, bright plants will make your property "pop" and make it feel visually closer than it is. Pale plants will need to be scene up close but bright flowers have much more visual impact.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
LilacMock OrangePineapple SagePolyanthus JasmineVirginia Rose at the Chicago Botanic GardenChocolate CosmosVeined Verbena
Lilac
Lilac | Source
Mock Orange
Mock Orange | Source
Pineapple Sage
Pineapple Sage | Source
Polyanthus Jasmine
Polyanthus Jasmine | Source
Virginia Rose at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Virginia Rose at the Chicago Botanic Garden | Source
Chocolate Cosmos
Chocolate Cosmos | Source
Veined Verbena
Veined Verbena | Source

Focus On Fragrance

Scent is such an important part of so many plants yet it is often overlooked. The sweet perfume of an old fashioned lilac can bring back memories from long ago. Lilacs are a beautiful, fragrant shrub that can survive cold winters and many cuttings for bouquets. Newer varieties that re-bloom are readily available at nurseries. Low maintenance, they require no watering or feeding on your part.

The mock orange, another low maintenance shrub, blooms prolifically for about two weeks following the lilacs. It can grow to 10 feet but survives well if pruned to a manageable 5 feet. The perfume from the flowers is out of this world.

Pineapple sage, one of the top three favorite plants of hummingbirds, has bright red flowers and a distinctly pineapple scent. It grows to three to four feet high and is a tough little plant.

Polyanthus jasmine, a vine that can reach 20 feet, has a sweet floral scent. Can easily be grown in a container or as a ground cover.

The Virginia rose, which closely resembles a Rosa Rugosa, but with a wonderful scent. Also known for their fragrance are the bourbon, china and damask variety of roses. Some roses can be temperature sensitive so make sure you choose a fragrant variety for your zone.

Chocolate cosmos do smell like chocolate and are easy to grow though in Zone 5 and up you will need to treat them as an annual. They love full sun and are a big hit with kids.

Veined verbena is by far the best smelling flower I've ever tested. They are drought resistant, love full sun and well-drained soil.




Click thumbnail to view full-size
Water feature in Coconut Grove, FLChicago Botanic GardenWind Chimes
Water feature in Coconut Grove, FL
Water feature in Coconut Grove, FL | Source
Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden | Source
Wind Chimes
Wind Chimes | Source

Design With Sound

The rustle of leaves, the cooing of a mourning dove, the trickle of water soothe but have you ever thought of designing your garden to maximize sound? Probably not. Sound is the most overlooked aspect of garden design.

So why not consciously include sound in your landscape? Plant a flowering tree to add visual interest and to double your pleasure when the wind whistles through it. Ornamental grasses rustle, too, while adding visual interest. Add a small fountain to soothe your soul after a tough day at work. Both trees and fountains attract song birds. Add a wind chime. Many people actually pipe in stereo to their backyards allowing them to change the mood at any time.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Green Ball Sweet WilliamPink Zazzle Globe AmaranthSerpents Blue Chalk Fingers
Green Ball Sweet William
Green Ball Sweet William | Source
Pink Zazzle Globe Amaranth
Pink Zazzle Globe Amaranth | Source
Serpents Blue Chalk Fingers
Serpents Blue Chalk Fingers | Source

Reach Out And Touch

How often have you been at a formal garden and found a plant calling to you to touch it? How many times have you done it? None? Most formal gardens have an unwritten "No Touch" rule. Not sensory gardens. They are designed for touching and connecting with nature.

For a change of pace, plant a Green Ball Sweet William. While it may look like it feels picky it is not. It feels like a dried flower and has such an intriguing appearance and color it would make a great addition to your garden.

Pink Zazzle Globe Amaranth is such a stunner. Again, it is not picky but feels like a dried flower. It grows up to 16 inches, loves full sun and is an annual here in the Midwest. Plus, birds and butterflies love them.

What about adding a Serpent's Blue Chalk Fingers? To the touch it feels like a succulent coated in chalk. Evergreen, drought-tolerant, low-growing and a spreading plant that, Chalk Fingers loves sun and looks great in containers. Grow as an annual in Zone 5.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
ChivesPurple Flowering Raspberry at the Chicago Botanic GardenMintStrawberriesThai Basil
Chives
Chives | Source
Purple Flowering Raspberry at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Purple Flowering Raspberry at the Chicago Botanic Garden | Source
Mint
Mint | Source
Strawberries
Strawberries | Source
Thai Basil
Thai Basil | Source

Tickle The Tastebuds

Planting for taste is easy and satisfying yet is an often overlooked aspect of the garden or segregated to the "backyard". Mixed borders with flowers, vegetables and fruits can still be lovely. Some people like to create a separate keyhole garden for "the little ones" with low-growing edible plants that surround a small circular stepping-stone patio interplanted with "steppable" plants. The plant possibilities are endless but here are a few to get you started.

Chives are a full sun perennial that is easy to grow and reaches a height of about one foot. A member of the allium family, the purple blooms, that will turn brown, can be removed to encourage re-blooming.

Raspberries plants are easy to grow and readily available for purchase at your local nursery. They do have thorns and can spread under the right conditions, but supermarket raspberries cannot compete in the taste category with homegrown.

Who doesn't love strawberries? They, too, are easy to grow, thrive in full sun but can invade your yard. Why not consider growing them in a strawberry pot?

Herbs are a great edible to add to your garden and can save you money at the supermarket as well. Both mint and basil love full sun and are easy to grow plants. Cut basil back and it will regow many times a season. Mint is very invasive and should be grown in a container.





Additional Design Considerations

  • Choose a color scheme before you make any purchases. You will avoid buying things that don't match.
  • Seriously consider putting in raised beds. Your back will thank you down the road.
  • Divide your yard into "rooms". Focus on giving each room it's own feel while maintaining a cohesive theme.
  • Your gardens should complement your house not clash with it. Zen gardens and bungalows don't mix.
  • Impulse purchases lead to plants that die because they're not suited to your location or they can clash with your home.
  • Take the long and broad approach when designing. We are a part of nature so your gardens should include everyone.
  • Remember to use all five senses.
  • Buy furniture that is as comfortable as it is cute. It will encourage you to spend more time outside.
  • Initially, stick to fountains as your water feature. From personal experience, ponds are A LOT of work.
  • Don't give yourself so much garden work that it becomes a chore. Enjoy your yard.

Do you think now that you've read about them you will visit a sensory garden?

See results

Sensory Gardens Open To The Public

show route and directions
A markerChicago Botanic Garden -
Deerfield, IL, USA
get directions

B markerDenver Botanic Garden -
Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York Street, Denver, CO 80206, USA
get directions

C markerMissouri Botanical Garden -
Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard, Saint Louis, MO 63110, USA
get directions

D markerWickham Park -
Wickham Park, 1329 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester, CT 06040, USA
get directions

E markerBeech Creek Botanical Garden -
Beech Creek Botanical Garden & Nature Preserve, 11929 Beech Street Northeast, Alliance, OH 44601
get directions

© 2015 Chantelle Porter

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    • Chantelle Porter profile image
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      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      I'm so glad you liked it. Your garden sounds wonderful.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Chantelle, this is a fantastically beautiful hub visually and the information about sensory gardens is extensive and inspiring. We have gone some way towards creating a sensory garden with plants like jasmine, honeysuckle, roses, pineapple sage and various other herbs, succulents, aloe vera, iris, hibiscus, frangipani, wisteria etc. We need to do much more however but water limitations make it a little difficult. I wasn't aware that pineapple sage was a hummingbird attractant but I look forward to seeing those wonderful little birds in my garden. Thank you for sharing and inspiring.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you. It is too bad we can't plant all year.

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 2 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      What a fabulous hub! It takes me back to all the times I've visited a sensory garden (whether they knew it or not!) There's also a wonderful a large sensory garden in New Hampshire you should know about: http://www.rosalysgarden.com/ it's fantastic on all fronts!

      What a great topic, and you've included so much info. that it makes me wish we weren't going strongly into Autumn up here now.. :) Following.. great work :)

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you both for stopping by! I am glad you enjoyed it.

    • profile image

      praireflower 2 years ago

      Beautiful pictures and very inspiring.

    • profile image

      izzezm 2 years ago

      Fantastic article. Loved every bit of it.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      I have lilac and mock orange in my yard. I wish they bloomed longer because they smell so good. Thanks for reading!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Wow, I never knew about any of this! What a fabulous and restful idea, as it would MAKE people want to stay home to enjoy their surroundings. I grew up with lilac and mock orange and I can testify to the aroma. A man used to come from MA when I was living in ME, just to buy the purple lilacs to sell in his shop and have for spring weddings.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you!

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 2 years ago from India

      What a wonderful idea!

      It is a great way to connect with nature...

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      If only they tasted as good as they smelled!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 2 years ago from south Florida

      A sensory garden? What a neat idea. Thanks, Chantelle, for all this how-to-do-it information. The idea of planting some chocolate cosmos appeals to me. Hmmmm, wonder why!

    • Sumi-Main profile image

      Sumi 2 years ago from India

      Yes inspiring and very informative..! I live in Bristol, Connecticut and here it's mostly moist and fertile land. I have grown veggies which have come out so well.. Have plenty of space in front for which I Will check this hub for tips.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      I have a friend who lives out in CA and the drought appears brutal. Is there and end in sight? I hope so. I have been to San Diego but not the park. I'll have to check it out the next time I'm there. Sorry you guys are having such a hard time of it. we have had too much rain. Figures, doesn't it?

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 2 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      This reminds me of the Botanical Garden in Balboa Park in San Diego. They have many of the plants you mentioned. My own gardening has been curtailed this year due to the sever drought in California, and our well being affected.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for stopping by. I hope I inspired you!

    • Sumi-Main profile image

      Sumi 2 years ago from India

      I love flowers and gardening too. In fact it's very interesting to grow our own garden. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for the feedback and stopping by. It feels so good not toil in obscurity! Maybe you can do your own article documenting your process?

    • EsJam profile image

      Essie 2 years ago from Southern California

      Chantelle,

      Your hub really got the little wheels upstairs turning! We bought our house last year and have a whole back yard to fix up! I will bookmark this page for future reference. I LOVED all the information you provided on the plants.

      Your videos were informative, and helpful.

      Awesome concept of using all five senses.

      Congratulations on a wonderful, informative, hub :) essie

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 2 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      I've been to the sensory garden in Missouri and plant to visit ours in Ohio. Thank you for this Hub. I'd be happy with a one-room bungalow filled with books that gave onto a patio and then a massive sensory garden. You have me dreaming!

    • Chantelle Porter profile image
      Author

      Chantelle Porter 2 years ago from Chicago

      Billybuc - You are ahead of your time! LOL. When you give a fancy name to something you've been doing all along, THEN it becomes fashionable, right?

      Sallybea- I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for stopping by.

      Jill- Thank you for the pat on the back and the share. Glad you liked it.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 2 years ago from United States

      What a lovely hub! And your photos are gorgeous. Shared & pinned. All the best, Jill

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 2 years ago from Norfolk

      Good job, I love this Hub. I have seen many sensory gardens over the years and love the idea of having one myself. I would not be at all surprised to see this one make HOTD, Thanks for sharing.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love your approach. I think we've done this without really giving it any thought. lol Now that I'm aware I'll plan for the future. Thank you!