We’re working hard here at Charter House Resource Centre and Sensory Room – with the valuable help of volunteers – to turn some of our outdoor space into a sensory garden for service users.

At the moment, our sensory garden is an ‘evolving’ work in progress, but we’re already seeing some ‘blooming’ fantastic results. If you know of any companies who might like to help with this project as part of their CSR commitment, we’d love to hear from them! Just get in touch.

When it comes to designing sensory gardens, there’s a huge amount to consider and we were very lucky to learn from the advice of specialist Garden Designer Liam Davies.

But first…

What is a sensory garden?

The RHS describes sensory gardens as “places that can be designed with many different purposes in mind. They can be calming with scented plants and restful seating, a community area for growing tasty food or wildlife friendly plants, a therapeutic space for people to recuperate, a learning zone full of exciting things to touch and smell or an accessible garden for people with sight loss or wheelchairs to be fully independent. The possibilities are endless and that’s what makes these gardens so exciting.”

The Sensory Trust defines 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.”

It could be argued that all gardens are sensory gardens, with a range of textures, colours, smells and sounds to explore. A sensory garden differs only in that it has been specially designed to provide a particularly rich experience for people with a range of different needs, and usually includes features that appeal to all five senses.

Much like a multi-sensory room, sensory gardens can be enjoyed and utilised in a wealth of different ways, depending on the individual user. Some people might enjoy exploring exciting smells, bright colours and interesting textures in a safe and welcoming environment, while others who might be easily overwhelmed or over stimulated could find a quiet and relaxing area to wind down and focus.

What are the benefits of sensory gardens?

Sensory Gardens provide a wealth of benefits for everyone, and can be explored in different ways at different times, depending on the season, the weather, and the needs of the individual.

Jackie Edwards (writing about autistic children in particular) believes that sensory gardens are a versatile way to encourage both exploration and relaxation: “a sensory garden allows them to explore their senses in a safe environment that won’t leave them feeling overwhelmed. Children who are extremely reactive to stimuli can benefit from the relaxing nature of the garden while those who are under-reactive to stimuli will enjoy the added stimulation the garden has to offer.”

Accessibility is key when it comes to sensory gardens so that they can be used and enjoyed by everyone. By their very nature ‘ordinary’ gardens can sometimes be inaccessible to wheelchair users or plants might be out of reach or difficult to see. Sensory gardens are designed with this in mind and tend to feature wheelchair-friendly paths and raised beds at different heights to be enjoyed by as many different people as possible.

Creative Spaces, a project of Sensory Trust shows that connecting with nature can be particularly beneficial for those with dementia: “nature can play a vital role in helping people with dementia to rediscover themselves and to connect with others, regain their sense of self-worth and confidence, and feel in control again. Immersing ourselves in nature highlights just how deeply we are connected to the world around us and how important it is to maintain that connection.”

Research into the influence of sensory gardens on the behaviour of children with special educational needs has shown that sensory gardens tend to encourage more interaction with peers, teachers and therapists, and allow valuable opportunities for learning and discussion: “Among social skills recorded were talking about the scented plants and herbs, singing, laughing, cheering, communicating (including via sign language), reading and counting. As such, students’ use of the sensory garden appeared to offer students a stimulating experience, as well as influence their behaviour and development in terms of social relationships.”

More benefits of sensory gardens (taken from Chamberlain, 2005):

  • The use of mirrors can promote self-awareness for people with learning disabilities, while also increasing the sense of space.
  • A calm area with seating (use blue and green planting) is of particular benefit for managing challenging behaviour.
  • An area of lawn (possibly under a tree) – accessible to wheelchair users allows the sensory experience of lying in the grass.
  • Gardens such as this can provide a safe space to explore new things, without being overwhelmed. You could use ‘smell’ in your garden, not just pleasant scents but unpleasant as well, to provide contrast.
  • Interesting routes through the garden can promote a sense of discovery and orientation.

You can read more here.

How to create a sensory garden for all five senses

Specialist Garden Designer (and helpful public speaker!) Liam Davies shared some of his ‘top tips’ with us for creating a sensory garden.

Liam believes that in order for a sensory garden to be something more than ‘just a garden’ there are a number of things to consider.

Firstly, you should start with an overarching design in mind. Having ‘a plan’ will ensure a sense of cohesion and unity for the garden and will prevent costs from spiralling as the project goes on.

Gardens are extremely versatile environments that can be designed to suit different purposes. Cleverly considered planting can be used to produce an open sense of space and freedom, or to create ‘hidden dens’ that comfort and cocoon.

1. Sight
Colour is the obvious element to appeal to sight, and shades can be selected from the colour wheel for maximum effect – either to stand out and contrast with each other or to ‘harmonise’ with each other.

Blues are traditionally restful and calming, while orange and yellow are energising and red impactful.

Choose colours carefully, especially for users that are highly sensitive to visual stimuli. You can incorporate vibrant tones without going ‘OTT’. Strong, clashing colours planted in a haphazard fashion can create a sense of ‘visual chaos’ which is likely to be distracting and disorientating.

Shape is another visual consideration, you could create a ‘rhythm’ by repeating geometric shapes and patterns. Or take advantage of Fibonacci’s ratio to pay homage to the most beautiful forms in nature and architecture.

To enjoy seeing movement – consider grasses that will sway and wave in the wind.

Paths can be cleverly considered, with lines that draw your eye forward – to make you naturally want to move through the space. Wider areas encourage people to slow and stop, whereas narrow paths encourage people to hurry through a space (and can cause congestion).

2. Sound
Introducing sound doesn’t always have to come from an expensive water feature! The easiest, cheapest (and cheeriest) way to introduce sound into your garden is to plant habitats for buzzing, pollenating insects and birds.

If you do use water, consider all the different ways it can sound – you might play around with the surface material onto which it falls, or use different heights to create a different type of splash. You may rather it ‘bubbled up’ or ‘meandered slowly’ rather than ‘dropped’.

Gravel areas make a delightful crunching sound when walked on.

3. Scent
How do your chosen plants produce scent? If the scent is released through touch – like lavender – make sure it’s within grabbing distance near the path.

What about plants that produce scents at different times of day? Honeysuckle, for example, releases a sweet fragrance as dusk begins to fall.

4. Touch
It’s easy to incorporate elements of touch into your garden with various textures such as smooth pebbles, rough stones, and soft, tickly moss.

Textured leaves and things to touch, hold and interact with should obviously be close to paths – accessibility is key.

Texture can be appreciated with our eyes too, so plants that are further away can still show off their smooth, almost metallic bark, fuzzy stems or spiky leaves.

5. Taste
Consider VERY carefully whether you want to include ‘taste’ in your sensory garden.

Edibles tend to be seasonal and can be labour intensive to look after, and – more importantly – you may not want to encourage the eating of fruits and berries from the garden if there is a chance that users may then attempt to eat unsafe fruits or poisonous berries in other environments when unsupervised.

Instead, perhaps include an area well suited to picnics, and bring the food to the garden!

Important considerations

  • To be cost effective – opt for more clever planting rather than expansive paths, patios and pergolas.
    ‘Hardscaping’ is much more expensive per square metre than planting, due to the work required in digging, ground prep etc, so plan it conservatively.
  • When you design your garden, remember that you will need to look after it even once it’s established. Try to choose low maintenance plants to save work in the long run.
  • Consider the microclimates you might create with the shape and direction of your walls and planters etc.
  • Don’t forget! The planting scheme needs to ‘work’ (and should be interesting and beneficial) all year round, not just in spring and summer.

  • Make sure it’s practical! Make it easy for people to want to use the garden; there’s little point putting an interactive display or musical area in a spot that looks good but is tricky to access.
    Hazreena Hussein’s research reminds us that aesthetics should be somewhat secondary to function: “What the site or behaviour settings look like visually is much less important than how it feels, sounds, smells and tastes, as users getting access to the behaviour settings is very important. The fact that users can get access to and engage with them is the key point when designing for a sensory garden. It is more to do with where the behaviour settings are sited rather than what they are.”

Interested in learning more about creating your own sensory garden? The Sensory Trust has some great advice and resources. Or try these suggestions from RHS.

You can see more of Liam’s work here.