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Engaging sense of touch hero image
This article looks at creating a garden you can touch with some examples of plants with interesting textures.

As humans we have an imperative need to touch things. As soon as something intrigues or fascinates us, our need to understand it by touching it is natural and spontaneous, even in young children.

That’s why our sense of touch is so important when it comes to experiencing a garden. Having all our senses stimulated through nature is so beneficial to our wellbeing but for many people, the loss of sight, sound or smell can enhance other senses such as our sense of touch which then leads to increased sensations from the connection with plants and nature.

Our sense of touch is especially designed to gather information about our surroundings. Information from our sense of touch enters the nervous system from every single part of the body. It is then processed through in two ways: firstly via a sensory pathway for basic facts and figures such as temperature and/or texture; and secondly via a route that determines the emotional/social meaning behind the touch.

Designing gardens with plants that say ‘touch me’ encourages an interaction that goes beyond the familiarity of everyday gardening. An encounter with a plant that is crying out to be touched sends a signal to our brain that it’s time to stop, turn off our thinking brain and feel something.

Touching plants is also a great way to practise mindfulness in a garden by concentrating your mind on the ‘here and now’.

Engaging sense of touch crimson bottlebrush
Crimson bottlebrush

Our sense of touch can make the garden an exciting place to explore the different textures of plants and flowers. From the rough bark of trees and soft hairy leaves to shiny ribbon-like foliage or the silky-smooth petals of flowers, there are many different textures you can include in the garden. Who can resist running their hands through the silver almost furry leaves of a soft sage plant? Many ornamental grasses, such as hare's tail grass, have fluffy flower heads. While the blossoms on some plants, such as hibiscus, gardenia, and most lilies, feel silky to the touch.

Choose plants that are durable enough to withstand frequent brushing or handling and place them in a small, enclosed area of the garden, possibly with some comfortable garden seats to sit on. Garden beds raised to a height of two feet and constructed with edges to sit on bring touchable plants within reach. Choose only non-poisonous and non-prickly plants for this area of the garden.

You can also consider mixing plants that are great to touch with tactile hard landscaping elements such as the smooth polished roundness of pebbles or the glazed surface of ceramics.

If you don’t have much space, herbs placed in pots can also be used to explore our sense of touch as there are a number of them that have great texture as well as smelling good.

You can find a list of plants with interesting textures at the end of this article

Engaging sense of touch lambs ears
Lamb's ear

The sense of touch is essential to children's growth of physical abilities, language and cognitive skills, and social-emotional competency. Touch not only impacts short-term development during infancy and early childhood but has long-term effects too.

Plants offer a great way for tantalising our children’s sense of touch and getting them interested in the garden. Leaves of garden plants are a good starting point as they provide a great opportunity for children to explore textures – from rough to smooth, furry to spiky, every texture has a purpose. Many plants that are nice to feel have adapted to a specific natural environment in some way. Encourage your children to touch the plants and describe what they feel like. You can also explain to them that every texture has a purpose. For instance, furry leaves protect the plants from extremes of hot and cold weather, succulent ones help to store water and sharp spines stop the plants from being eaten by hungry insects!

Digging in the dirt, helping to plant, adding compost or mulch and watering are also important activities to engage the sense of touch for children in the garden whilst also allowing them to make an active contribution and providing motivation for them to learn and care for the space.

Engaging sense of touch snapdragon
Snapdragons

Here are a few of our own recommendations for plants and flowers to touch in your sensory garden:

  • African violet: The texture of heart-shaped leaves on African violets provides a soothing tactile experience. The dark green thick leaves of the low, compact perennial have tiny hairs and feel soft and smooth when rubbed
  • Aloe vera: A popular plant that is grown in containers or in the ground and has soft, fleshy leaves with spiky edges, which are wonderful to touch and enjoy the feeling of the soft spikes
  • Crimson bottlebrush: These are evergreen shrubs with aromatic, linear to lance-shaped leaves and bottlebrush-like bright crimson spikes of flowers that are soft to touch.
  • Geraniums: The soft petals of geranium flowers are a flower bed staple. While the plants may look delicate, they actually are quite hardy and enjoy hot weather, even holding up in dry conditions.
  • Jerusalem sage: Despite its name, Jerusalem sage is actually a close relative of mint. Its common name comes from the appearance of its soft downy pale green leaves which are like those of a sage plant. In late spring and summer, it produces lots of bright yellow flowers on the upper ends of its stems.
  • Lamb’s ears: As its common name suggests, its downy leaves resemble the ears of a lamb. A popular ground-covering perennial, the plant has fuzzy, silvery-green foliage which are soft to touch and tiny pink-purple blossoms.
  • Lemon balm: This low growing perennial is a valuable plant in any garden and is especially good as a ground cover as well as its therapeutic uses. It has small, slightly hairy leaves, which are soft to touch and when crushed releases its beautiful aroma.
  • Rosemary: This is a tall strong-looking plant with small grey/green leaves. It has coarse foliage to touch, a distinctive scent and releases an oil that lasts for some time on the skin.
  • Silver sage: This is an eye-catching herbaceous perennial which has large, ruffled-looking leaves covered in a fine layer of silver hairs, giving them a soft cotton wool-like downy appearance. In late summer the rosette is topped by tall stems bearing white, hooded flowers.
  • Snapdragons: These are cheerful annual plants guaranteed to brighten up borders and containers. Easy-to-grow, old-fashioned cottage garden plants beloved by children and bees, they come in a range of different colours and heights and can be grown in a variety of situations. What child (or adult!) can resist gently squishing the sides of a snapdragon flower to make it ‘talk’?

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Rebecca H potting up Charlie Garner 2019 3