What is a Sensory Garden?
A sensory garden is a multi-sensory environment specifically designed to engage the senses. These gardens are often used for children with special needs or as therapy for those with sensory processing disorders.
Sensory gardens often include plant life that emit pleasing scents, bright colors, and textures that invite touch. They may also include water features, wind chimes, and other elements that provide visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation, such as sculptures or rocks that can be touched and explored. The goal of a sensory garden is to provide a calm and stimulating space where people can relax and enjoy the surroundings. These gardens can be found in hospitals, schools, and private homes.
While not all sensory gardens may be used specifically for horticultural therapy, the two often go hand in hand. Horticultural therapists use plant-based activities to work on the development of behavioral, physical, and mental health goals for their patients. The calming environment of a sensory garden is the perfect place to develop skills!
Who Benefits From a Sensory Garden?
A sensory garden can be beneficial for anyone, but is especially helpful for those with special needs or conditions that make it difficult to process information from one or more senses. In a sensory garden, various elements are used to stimulate the senses, which can provide much-needed therapy for children with autism or other developmental disorders, as well as adults with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Kids with behavioral challenges may find the sounds and textures in a sensory garden to be calming and grounding. Kids who are blind love being in an environment that encourages touching, tasting, and listening.
Additionally, sensory gardens can be used as a form of stress relief for people who are struggling with anxiety or depression. By providing a calming environment, sensory gardens can help people feel more relaxed and connected to the world around them.
What Kind of Plants Can You Grow in a Sensory Garden?
There are so many options when it comes to choosing plants for your garden that you may feel overwhelmed easily! Consider your child’s needs and focus on the types of plants that will most benefit your child.
Plants That Are Tasty
Edible plants work well in any garden and are particularly appropriate for some kids who tend to explore orally. If you have a child who loves putting things in their mouth, don’t fight it! Go with herbs like basil or rosemary that can be grown easily at home without the risk of your little one tasting something dangerous (though we recommend supervision even with nontoxic plants).
Two other tasty options worth considering: chocolate mint and pineapple sage – both offer very unique flavors! Lavender, echinacea, or chamomile are also great choices, just make sure they have good drainage so the roots won’t get swamped when there’s rain outside.
When planting vegetables, think about how your child will want to eat them. For example, Lily loves to pluck veggies fresh in the garden and eat them by hand. This means that we grow vegetables that are easy for her to pick and that grow in bite sizes, like cherry tomatoes or snap peas. Eggplant and zucchini may be lovely additions to a vegetable garden, but Lily is much less interested in produce that needs to be cut and cooked before it can be eaten.
If you are trying to create movement and visual complexity in your garden, consider adding in plants that are more likely to attract bees, butterflies, or birds. Bees tend to love bright colors, like yellow, blue, or purple and are known for being lovers of hostas and echinacea. Bees also love chives, which doubles as a tasty herb with a very strong taste for humans too!
Butterflies tend to be attracted to phlox, echinacea, lavender, and milkweed. Birds are also big fans of echinacea and milkweed. Throw in some sun flowers, which have the added benefit of being really easy to grow, and your garden should be humming and buzzing with activity! We also love to grow millet. It’s not very pretty, but the birds go crazy for it!
Plants That Are Fuzzy
A fuzzy bear’s paw.
The easiest way to find fuzzy plants is to simply visit your local plant nursery and touch what they have on display. You’ll be surprised how many plants offer really interesting textures! Some of our favorites are african violets, bear’s paw, and dusty miller. Fountain grass and lamb’s ear can both get pretty big, so they can make good edging bushes.
Plants That Smell Delicious
Rose scented geranium.
Scented leaved geraniums are our favorite plants for smells! They come in a variety of scents, like apple, chocolate, orange, or rose, and all you have to do is pluck a leaf and roll it in your hand to get the most amazing fragrance. Mint is another favorite and they come in a few varieties too (like mint, mojito, chocolate mint, peppermint, etc) so you could plant different types of mint and then talk about how they smell different.
What Else Can Go in a Sensory Garden Besides Plants?
We think of gardens as being full of plants and nature, but what makes a sensory garden special needs friendly is that you can add so much more! Think about the five senses and how you can add sensory stimulation in different ways!
Wind chimes are always popular in a sensory garden, so we set up one wall in our garden that just displays different types of chimes. In order to include a tactile element we chose chimes made of varying materials, such as bamboo, metal, and glass. They each create a unique sound too!
Water features are another fun way to add sound. The bubbling of trickling water is one of the most relaxing sounds and adds so much depth to a garden, especially in small spaces. Our garden is very close to a busy road and our water fountain helps to make our space seem more private and separate from the hectic world. Water features can also double as a stimulating water play element!
Plants can provide lots of opportunity for touch and texture, but so can stepping stones or sensory walls. I love the idea of adding a large outdoor sensory touch wall to a garden. We created a music wall for our space. It’s not very large, but it can hang from our fence and offers both touch and sound opportunities.
I used an outdoor pegboard to hang colorful musical toys, a triangle call bell, and artificial turf. The pegboard is actually intended to hang gardening tools, so it fits perfectly in our garden and can handle the elements. It was easy to use plastic cable ties and small screws to attach our objects.
Not only is the music wall easy to put together, it also adds a lot of fun to our outdoor space. Children work on their walking skills while they are in the sensory garden, and the music wall has become a walking destination and a landmark used for orientation.
Add Stimulating Sights
If your child has vision, think about how you can engage their visual attention in the garden. Of course, you can always choose plants in vibrant colors, but how about including pinwheels that spin in the breeze or crystals that refract rainbows in the sunlight? Wind spinners are absolutely mesmerizing to watch too!
Lights can also be an interesting sensory experience in an outdoor environment. If you plan to spend time outside when lighting is low, consider adding solar powered tea lights or blinking hanging lights. Motion sensor lights can also be fun for kids who respond well to cause and effect.
Another sensory garden must have is a swing. If you have the space, including seating that can also provide an opportunity for balance or movement can be a great addition. Children with special needs often benefit from vestibular activities, so a swing or rocking chair can be very calming and therapeutic.
Add Healthy Snacks!
If your child eats by mouth, then plan on wanting to have lunch or snacks outdoors in your garden. Designing an accessible area for serving and eating food is a great way to turn a sensory garden into a very usable space. We included a wheelchair accessible picnic table in our garden and it has been the focal point of many outdoor family get togethers!