How to Create a Sensory Garden

An effective sensory garden is one that recognises and caters to all of the human senses: taste, sight, smell, touch and hearing. With a little imagination you can do all of this simply by incorporating herbs into your garden.

Stimulating the Senses

Sadly, many gardens are planned and constructed with only one thought in mind - what they look like. While this is a very important consideration, and probably the most important consideration for those with good eyesight or a feel for design, a much more complete experience can be had by blending stimulation of all the senses. A garden which combines the sounds of leaves rustling with wafts of sweet fragrance and the gentle splash of water spraying onto skin will appeal to all kinds of people, from adventurous children to the visually impaired.    

Choose Plants with Lots to Offer

Plants have evolved to attract animals and insects. They rely on these visitors for pollination and seed dispersal. This is why many plants have grandiose floral displays or bear luscious fruits, and it's why some produce the most wonderful perfumes. But, it's fair to say that not all plants are equal in this regard. This applies to herbs too. Some have extraordinary flowers like Camomile (Chamaemelum nobile), others may have enchanting fragrances like Mint (Mentha spp.), but some have much more to offer. That is, they may appeal to more than one sense or they have a number of benefits.

There are herbs that are edible and smell fantastic like Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), but some are appealing because they have a very unique or different appearance. Some feel smooth to the touch like Sage (Salvia officinalis), whereas others like Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) are twiggier and rougher when you brush your fingers over the leaves. A number of herbs when in flower are attractive to bees, and these include Hyssop (Hyssopus spp.) and Oregano (Origanum vulgare). Others draw in butterflies such as the Cabbage White to Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) and the Australian Painted Lady which is said to like Lavender (Lavandula spp.).      

Whilst a garden can serve up visual stimulation by just being there and being looked at, to rouse other senses we often need closer interaction. Plants may need to be touched, cell tissues broken by crushing between the thumb and forefinger, sounds created by meandering past, and scents released through brushing against foliage.

Bringing a Sense of Smell to the Garden

Many plants exude fragrances. Some give off pleasant smells, but others are quite repulsive. Although scientists don't fully understand how different smells affect our behaviour, it is clear that some smells influence our moods and some can be good for our wellbeing through subtle therapeutic effects on the body. Most likely our appreciation of smells is tied into survival. Thousands of years ago we would have relied more on smell to lead us to ripe fruits and vegetables and to help us avoid poisonous plants or rotten foods. Perhaps this is why some plants contain chemicals which can unsettle our nervous system or even cause illness. It's the plants way of discouraging us from consuming it or taking fruits when the seeds are not yet ripe.

When dealing with plant fragrances, you also need to be cautious of allergens. Some people are more prone than others to allergies and most of us know at least one person who suffers from asthma or hay fever which can be triggered by pollen. Spare a thought for those people when you make your choices about which fragrant plants to include.

Bringing a Sense of Taste to the Garden

There are lots of plants you can eat or taste. You don't have to swallow in order to taste. For instance, you can chew the leaves of Mint (Mentha spp.) without swallowing if you just want to freshen your breath. Many people like to chew dried Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) roots for the same reason. Try positioning edible herbs near garden seating and resting places where they are easy to access for a quick taste sensation.

Herbs can also be used fresh from the garden for flavouring dishes e.g. adding a sprig or two of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) to lamb for roasting in the Weber, garnishing curry with Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) leaves, or adding Basil (Ocimum basilicum) to pasta dishes.  Of course, many can also be dried for later use and you get the added benefit of the wonderful aromas indoors from drying bunches of herbs.

There are also some poisonous garden plants to watch out for, though fortunately most kitchen garden herbs don't fall into this category. That said, some may be toxic if you eat too much of them, or you consume the wrong plant parts. Most people are aware that Apple (Malus domestica) pips contain traces of cyanide, as do the seeds of many Prunus species like Cherry, Peach and Almond. So, if you're going to use a sense of touch and taste in a garden then you really need to make sure that there is no risk to garden users.  Children, in particular, have a habit of tasting plants, especially brightly coloured ones.

Some edible plant parts to beware of are the leaves of Rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) since only the leaf stalk is edible, the leaves and stems of Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), raw Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), and raw Cassava root (Manihot esculenta).

It's not just humans that can be harmed by poor plant choices - pets may also be at risk. For instance members of the Onion and Garlic family (Allium spp.) are toxic to cats and dogs, and Grapes (Vitis spp.) and dogs do not mix. You should therefore make a point of knowing which plants are potentially toxic and inform others of the risks. Think about positioning them out of harm's way. Otherwise it may be a good idea to avoid having them at all, particularly if you're going to grow herbs and edibles amongst other inedible plants which garden users could get confused.

Bringing Visual Sensations to the Garden

You can stimulate sight in numerous ways with plants. The most obvious way is through the use of colour but it doesn't have to stop there. Different textures, sizes and shapes can add to the visual palette.  

  • Flower colour - blues, lilacs and white will create a relaxing and cool ambience e.g. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Lavender (Lavandula spp.) and Basil (Ocimum basilicum). Yellows, oranges and reds will create a busy and warm ambience e.g. Rue (Ruta graveolens), Marigold (Calendula spp.) and Bergamot (Monarda didyma).   
  • Foliage colour - there is great variety in leaf colour of herbs. For something other than green consider the silver-grey leaves of Lavender (Lavandula spp.), or why not try one of the Sage (Salvia spp.) cultivars with variegated leaves?    
  • Texture - some leaves are narrow and pointy e.g. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), some are long and grass-like e.g. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), a few have delicate leaves e.g. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), and some have curly leaves e.g. Curly-leaved Parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum).  
  • Size and scale - many herbs are low growing groundcovers which are ideal for growing in pockets in and around paving e.g. many Thyme species (Thymus spp.), Prostrate Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus') and Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Others are much taller growing e.g. Giant Italian Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Angelica (Angelica spp.) and Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.).

You might also consider growing herbs in interesting pots or brightly coloured ones. Perhaps grow some in window boxes to provide visual stimulation from indoors.

Bringing a Sense of Touch to the Garden

Many plants beg to be touched. Who could resist stroking the downy leaves of Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina)? Some other herbs you could include for touch are:

  • Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – leaves have crinkly surface.
  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) – leaves can have a soft, velvety feel.
  • Aloe vera – the leaves have a hard, stiff surface and toothed edges.

Touch not only involves you reaching out to touch a plant, but it can be that the plant touches you as you walk past. For example, you could position herbs either side of an archway so that if someone walks through it they inevitably brush against the foliage. Likewise they can be used to edge garden paths.
Other ways of bringing a sense of touch to a garden can be through introducing hard and soft surfaces. An expanse of brick paving may be broken up with pockets of ground cover herbs, or stepping stones could be introduced across a Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) lawn.  

Bringing Sounds into the Garden

Sounds enter gardens no matter where you are. They may be created by distant aeroplanes or nearby traffic, by bees, animals or birds. The sound of water has long been recognised to have a calming effect. Other sounds may have the opposite effect so think about what sort of sounds you enjoy and try to promote those where possible.  

  • Many herb plants will attract singing birds.
  • Those with blue and yellow flowers will be irresistible to bees.
  • Grasses e.g. Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus) planted en masse can create a gentle rustling sound in wind.
  • Herbs overhanging a path will make a sound as you brush past
  • Plants you walk on may make a crunching sound.

There are other ways of bringing sounds into a garden – such as wind chimes, cascades of splashing water, or an outdoor sound system.
Not all sounds are welcome. The sound of the neighbour's whipper snipper or barking dog can decimate the ambience you are trying to create, but there are ways to control these intrusions too.
Sound barriers can be created through thoughtful plantings. Denser trees like conifers work well as do bamboos but opt for Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) which is not invasive like some others.

Bringing It All Together
The key to an enjoyable sensory garden is to create a balance between stimulation and relaxation. You need to avoid overpowering or confusing the garden visitor. Whilst it's tempting to go overboard, too much of any type of sensory stimulation can be overwhelming. The idea is to enjoy the garden, not to feel compelled to evacuate it! Here are some ways you can create sensory harmony:

  • Keep different plant species with strong fragrances apart - if different scents are close together, they can combine and you may not be able to differentiate one from another.
  • Don't plant species with strong fragrances next to those with weak scents - some plants can stimulate the senses very strongly but others are much more subtle. When strong and weak scents are brought together; the value of the weaker one can be lost.
  • Avoid using clashing colours - some colour combinations can be quite shocking. Also, muted colours don't sit well alongside bright colours, and warm colours don't blend well with cool colours.
  • Create a route – where space permits, it is useful to break up stimulation. An area of strong stimulation should be separated by an area of relaxation.
  • Control the air flow, heat and light intensity through and within a garden – to provide variability in the sensory receptors on the skin.

Now that you are aware of how to stimulate the senses through a herbal garden you'll hopefully have a much greater appreciation of what to plant where. All that remains is to put some of this into action!