Part of a sensory garden with benches and mirrored ball sculpture with running water
Sensory gardens include features, objects and plants that appeal to our senses. They can be calming or stimulating, with a range of potential wellbeing benefits.
  • Enjoying gardens and nature at a sensory level, no matter your knowledge of gardening
  • Positive effects on your wellbeing, whether by feeling calmer, happier or more connected
  • Time in the garden, providing valuable distraction and engagement with your surroundings
Small garden space filled with bright flowers, a gravelled area with metal sculpture and scented plants
A small garden space filled with bright flowers and scented plants

Most gardens appeal to the senses in some ways. A sensory garden is different because it purposefully includes features with sensory qualities. Plants, hard landscaping and other garden materials engage our sense of touch, taste, sight, sound, smell.

I have always loved to have my hands in the mud ... I am not a gardener who wears gloves unless I am pruning my roses.

Nikki, gardener

Sensory gardens aim to create a rich experience. They can suit people with a wide variety of needs, or have therapeutic purposes.

Thrive Gardening Club

Join our free Gardening Club community to enjoy seasonal tips, inspiration and entertainment.

Find out more
A bright red rose in bloom
A bright red rose in bloom

Our senses and how we perceive the world through them are as individual as we are. Some sounds make us feel calm , while some colours and movements may be stimulating.

Sensory garden design can have different purposes in mind. A sensory garden could be restful, or a learning area full of exciting things to touch and smell.

These are some of the different ways a sensory garden can help:

To encourage enjoyment of the garden

Some people may not be able to understand and carry out gardening activities. A garden with sensory elements allows you to still interact with and enjoy time in the garden.

It’s good to be able to cook things from the garden … it’s fun, but you’ve got to use your brain.

Carly, client gardener at Thrive Reading

For mental wellbeing

Sensory elements in a garden can create an emotional response. This can help us feel calmer, happier or more present in a moment.

Our senses can help us understand how successful we have been in our gardening efforts. We admire flowers as they bloom. We enjoy feasting on harvested food crops. Or, we appreciate the stress relief from simply being in nature.

A hand gently holds some pure white spring blossom growing on a tree in a garden
A hand gently holds pure white blossom growing on a tree

When making a sensory garden, the thought might be to fill it with items that stimulate all the senses. It’s worth first spending time thinking about the role you want your garden to play. That will effect the desired sensory appeal.

1. Calming vs stimulating

We often think of gardens as calming spaces. By adding strong sensory features, they can stimulate too.

Here are some examples of features generally considered to be calming or stimulating.


  • A simple pool with water and bog planting, made to look as if it fits naturally into the garden
  • Plants in pastel shades – lilacs, soft blues, dusky pinks
  • Curved lines
  • Loosely pruned plants, slightly wild looking


  • A water feature created from man-made materials where the water crashes from a height onto stones below
  • Plants with vibrant, hot colours – bright pinks, reds and oranges for example
  • Straight lines
  • Tightly pruned shapes and topiary

Many people prefer gardens to provide calmness, serenity, or relaxation. Sometimes stimulation can be as important, especially when creating gardens for therapy.

Stimulating features can help people to engage directly. This can be particularly helpful for anyone experiencing periods of flat emotions. Those wanting support with low mood, people living with dementia or those recovering from a brain injury may find stimulating elements enjoyable.

2. Which senses to engage

The next question is which of the senses to engage in the garden - sight, sound, taste, touch or smell?

Some of us may enjoy and benefit from garden that offers a broad sensory experience. For others, a focus on a limited number of senses may be a better approach.

Children, for example, can often benefit from a rich and broad use of sensory elements. Engaging all five external senses can help them smile, laugh and get excited. By communicating their feelings, they can help improve their mood.

For people living with dementia, thoughtful use of sensory plants may bring back memories and help lift their mood. Having sensory plants that have been prominent in their life can spark conversations.

People with sight loss need to consider noise and distinct visual design. The extent of this will depend on the specific person’s sight.

I like to grow vegetables which I can enjoy fresh during the summer and have some left over to freeze or give to friends and family … Taste is a very important sense to me.

Jean, blind and deaf gardener

3. Internal senses

The external senses – touch, taste etc – are the best known. But we also have many ‘internal’ senses. Gardens can appeal to these too, for example:

  • Thermoception (how we feel temperature). Many of us feel good when we have the warmth of the sun on our backs. Gardens can include spots where we can bask in the sunshine.
  • Balance. Feeling safe and stable is important, especially for those with mobility and balance issues. Level surfaces allow people to put their attention into enjoying the garden.

4. Picking plants

Plant selection is a huge part of the appeal of a sensory garden.

It’s always a good idea to start by thinking about what plants you like. It could be ones that bring back happy memories, or simply ones you like to look at. Choose plants that make you happy.

As seen above, plants can be calming or stimulating, depending on things like colour and size.

There are plants that offer beautiful scent at certain times of the year. Lavender and roses are great examples of this.

Many plants have a period of the year when they are at their best. This might be stunning flowers, autumn leaves or spring blossom. It’s a good idea to plan for two to three seasons of the year where there is plenty to enjoy in your sensory garden.

With clever choices, it’s quite possible to have some sensory enjoyment all year around.

Thrive courses and workshops

Are you using gardening to help support others? You may be interested in our courses and workshops. These range in level from those starting out in STH to experienced practitioners.

A raised bed filled with tasty lettuces and flowering chives
A raised bed filled with tasty lettuces and flowering chives

Gardens that engage all five external senses have existed for centuries. As discussed, this is a choice vs avoiding overload and the deciding the role of the garden.

You might decide a small number of the senses are most important. Here’s some brief advice for each one.

Sense of taste

Whether you have a small or sprawling garden, or a balcony, you can create a space that tastes as good as it looks.

The best advice when gardening for taste is to grow plants you enjoy eating!

Many varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs can be grown in pots or hanging baskets. Broad beans, French beans, peas, strawberries, and chilies all grow well and don’t take up too much space.

Salad plants, like lettuce and rocket, also tend to grow well. You can snip leaves as you want them, for many months of the year.

Herbs are another excellent choice. Many types of herbs grow for large parts of the year, offering gentle scent as well as taste. Popular choices include basil, coriander, parsley, chives and mint. A lot of herbs need a sunny spot to grow – a south facing windowsill in the house also works well.

When we’re outside surrounded by nature and we hear the birds tweeting or the grass rustling in the breeze, these sights and sounds have a tangible effect on us and uplift our spirits.

David Domoney, TV gardener and Thrive ambassador

Water features are a useful way to appeal to the sense of sound in a garden . Depending on what sounds you enjoy most, this could be a calming trickle or a splashing fountain.

A simpler way to add sound is through plants. Ornamental grasses can make a delightful swoosh as they rustle in the wind.

Attracting birds and bees is a way to bring in nature’s sounds. We can add bird feeders and baths and grow plants loved by bees to help bring in the whistle and hum of wildlife.

Sign up to receive gardening inspiration and tips to get the most out of your own gardening space, and improve your health and wellbeing at the same time

Choose which aspects of the gardening information service you’d most like to hear about.

Double your donation today!

The Big Give is back! Any donations from now until 5th December will be matched. Visit our Big Give page today.

Find out more