The silky petals of a fragrant pink shrub rose; the crunchy texture of a gravel path; a nook where grass rustles and a stream runs. What we smell, see, hear, touch and taste can make a garden walk a wonderful sensory experience.
If you’re designing a garden, consider creating one that’s a feast for one, several or all of the senses.
Public examples that can provide inspiration include the William T. Bacon Sensory Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses at the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden in Boothbay.
At the Bacon, a large sycamore tree with mottled bark sits at the center, while a crab-apple meadow bursts into a cloud of sweet-smelling pink and white in spring.
At the Lerner, a labyrinth path made of smooth stones is a reflexologist’s delight. Weeping larches flank the entry, and vertical cage planters called “flower towers” are stocked by garden staff with a variety of flavorful plantings. Stone sinks offer water to cleanse the palate.
In California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys, there are wine sensory gardens; the Kendall Jackson Wine Estate has a pinot garden where visitors sample the strawberries, cherries and blackberries that inform the varietal’s flavor.
If you want to create your own sensory garden, consider two things: your area’s hardiness zone and which senses you want to focus on.
The former can be ascertained at www.garden.org; knowing your zone will help you choose plants that will thrive. If your regional public garden has a sensory exhibit, representatives there can help with sources and inspiration. And even if you find something you love that’s a bit tender for your zone, you can still plant it, just use a container so you can move it to a warmer, protected area when weather threatens.
As for the senses, think about what attracts you to a garden. Is it mostly the scents, or is it the visuals? Perhaps you’re moved by how elements in a garden sound. Or are you a tactile person who likes to touch every plant, rock and tree?
Make sure guests to your garden can linger and enjoy its sensory pleasures, says Margie Grace, a garden designer and owner of Grace Design Associates in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“There should be places to sit; places to slow down; places to feel the warmth of the sun, drink in the fragrant flowers, and hear the trickle of a stream or the music of wind chimes,” she says.
Sensory gardens are also a great way to involve kids in gardening, says Emily Jackson of the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project in Asheville, N.C. Plant herbs such as mint and lemon that are easy, prolific and have familiar scents. Or think about the ingredients of kids’ favorite foods: the oregano, tomatoes, onions and basil that go into spaghetti sauce, for example.
Try growing some unusual things, too: carrots and potatoes in unusual colors, purple beans that turn green when you cook them, or watermelon radishes.
“Radishes are very easy to grow. Kids don’t seem to like them much except for these watermelon ones, which are colorful and less spicy,” says Jackson, who works with an initiative called “Growing Minds: Farm to School,” which helps schools build gardens.
And make a sensory garden for kids as circuitous as you can, she says, with winding paths and structures that double as hiding places. Bean tepees and sunflower houses are a big hit.
A swath of cool blues, purples and whites provides a soothing, tranquil atmosphere. Warm yellows, oranges and reds are more energetic. Varieties of green — pines, grasses, ornamental shrubs — can bring a Zen vibe to the garden.
You may want to add some artistic elements as well, especially if you have small children: hanging ribbons or mobiles, or ornamentals that attract wildlife. Consider bee balm, red columbine, lantana and trumpet vine to draw hummingbirds. Echinacea, buddleia, black-eyed susan, Joe Pye weed, coreopsis and violets will call the butterflies.
How is the garden experienced at night? Grace asks.
“Think of white blooms and foliage to reflect moonlight, lights under water with a rippled effect,” she says.
Consider plants with an interesting feel. Fuzzy lamb’s ears, soft mosses and succulents, cottony silver sage, prickly or spiky thistles, broom, conifers and other trees with intriguing bark.
For the hardscaping, you’ll want pebbles, stones or gravel, or a padded path of grass, fine mulch or sand.
A metal bench that warms in the sun and cools in the shade provides additional tactile interest, as does fencing, and vessels made of textured or smooth materials.
Put seating near rustling grasses or hard-stemmed plants such as bamboo that make knocking noises in a breeze. Deciduous tree leaves whoosh, and pine trees whisper.
A little portable trickling fountain makes even a small garden feel grounded in nature; a water feature of any sort will likely attract songbirds and small animals or reptiles. A wind chime may play a tune in the slightest breath of air.
Plant edibles such as nasturtiums, mint, pansies and berries that can be eaten right off the bush as visitors walk your garden.
Jasmine, geranium, rose, honeysuckle, gardenia, lavender. If your zone allows for one or two of these heady scents, you’ll have a featured performer in your sensory garden.
Herbs, including lemon balm, thyme and peppermint, are aromatic and easy to grow. Consider blending scented plants such as chocolate cosmos and mock orange; pineapple sage and vanilla-scented clethra; curry plant and ornamental pine or cedar.
Besides jasmine, Grace suggests Fringe Tree, Lilac and Carolina Jessamine as fragrant botanicals that grow in many zones.
“Low herbs like thyme and oregano in the pathway will give off their aroma when walked upon,” she says.
Night bloomers like tuberose, moonflower, white nicotiana, and peacock orchid have intense perfumes that give the evening garden a chance to perform.
Be mindful of planting them too close to a bedroom window, however, if there are sensitive noses indoors.