Making sense of sensory gardens 5
Sensory gardens include features, objects and plants that stimulate our senses.

These gardens can be designed with different purposes in mind – from a calming restful setting to a learning area of exciting things to touch and smell. In this article, we look at how sensory gardens engage our different senses.

One of the most common ways in which people think about the benefits of time in gardens or therapeutic gardens is through the concept of the sensory garden. Sensory gardens often conjure up thoughts of gardens full of features to engage our external senses or elements that can be seen, touched, heard, felt or tasted.

They are often viewed as very bright, or full of plants that move in the wind, or include features that make noise as well as Stachys byzantina, lamb’s ears, soft and comforting to touch. But as humans we not only experience the world through our external senses but also through our many internal senses.

Whilst filling a garden with sensory richness has a role to play, more thought and consideration are needed for therapeutic gardens. Here, we’ll look at the role sensory gardens play in engaging both our external and internal senses.

Making sense of sensory garden 2
Stachys byzantina (also known as 'lamb’s ears')

The benefits of sensory gardens can be considerable. For some people, it is crucial as they engage mostly at a sensory level when cognition is compromised. For others, it is the emotional response to gardens that makes a difference to health and wellbeing, helping us to feel calmer, happier or more alive.

Fundamentally, it is through our senses that we regulate and understand how successful we have been in our gardening endeavours: the magnificent bloom, the abundant crop or the feeling that our garden is working as a stress reliever.

Being alive to the sensory nature a garden offers will encourage us to take our time in the garden, to spend more time outdoors and to allow ourselves to be distracted and drawn in.

One of the first sensory considerations we apply, is if we want the garden or areas of the garden to calm or stimulate. Gardens are more commonly seen as calming spaces but with the application of strong sensory features they can stimulate too.

A water feature created with man-made materials, where the water crashes from a height onto stones below, will stimulate whereas a simple pool with water and bog planting, naturalised into the garden will likely be experienced as calming. Hot colours versus pastels, straight lines versus curves, tightly pruned versus loosely pruned, exposed versus sheltered - although not completely objective, most of us will arrive at the same judgements about their calming or stimulating benefits.

Generally these days, we are looking for gardens to provide calmness, serenity, or relaxation but there are times when stimulation can be important when creating gardens for therapy. If we want to support people to engage directly, many of the stronger plants and features that stimulate can work better than the subtlety of their calming opposites.

When supporting people with mental ill health, post neuro-injury or dementia, they can experience periods with flat emotions and in these scenarios, gardens that stimulate can be more therapeutic than those that calm.

Making sense of sensory garden 3

The next consideration is likely to be which senses we need to engage in a garden – will it be through sound or vision or is the link between taste and improved diet an outcome that we are trying to achieve?

There are a host of reasons we may choose to focus on a particular sensory engagement and often this is in relation to the people who are going to access the space. Some of us may benefit from rich and broad sensory engagement. But for others, focussing on particular senses or specific sensory engagements may be a better approach.

Often the consideration for sensory planting and features is the ability for the sensory nature of the garden to support access. Physical access can be supported through sensory elements but at Thrive we widen our access considerations to include cognitive and emotional needs and preferences, as well as specific considerations needed to support people with sensorial disabilities.

For example, children – in particular children who mainly engage with the world at a sensorial level - the rich and broad use of sensory elements that engage all 5 external senses enable children to smile, laugh, get excited and ultimately communicate their feelings and improve their mood. For people with dementia, considered use of strong sensory plants that are likely to be common in people’s lives, may bring back memories and help to lift their mood. For people with sight loss, noise and distinct visual consideration is needed, depending on the specific nature of a person’s sight.

There are clearly more than just our 5 external senses and humans. Whilst our sensory systems may be complex, some of these other senses are clearly applicable to garden design, health and wellbeing and how we can create rich experiences.

The first is likely to be thermoception – in other words, our ability to process the temperature and respond. How many of us would describe the warmth of the sun on our backs as mood lifting and comforting? How we design our garden will impact on this experience.

Balance is another internal sense and for some, creating level surfaces can be crucial not just to support mobility but also to enable those with challenges to their balance to focus and immerse in themselves in the garden or the gardening task at hand.

Some would also argue that mental or spiritual distress, sense of safety, sense of self, including friendship and companionship are also senses and we can accommodate these broader emotional concerns into the creation of therapeutic gardens.

Making sense of sensory garden hollyhocks

When considering how to develop the sensory nature of our gardens, we will likely make good choice by simply choosing what we like. We can also apply the considerations discussed above such as thinking about what we want to achieve in our gardens or different areas of it? Calmness, stimulation or both?

There may also be particular sensory engagements that are important to us as individuals. Maybe magnificent blooms or the beauty of swaying plants or a plant whose sensory quality connects us to memories of good times in our life or an important family member or friend.

Additionally, whilst we recognise that all plants have sensory qualities, we can also think about how different plants have different sensory qualities at different times of the year and how a plant’s sensory value changes over the seasons.

For example, lavender is scented all year round but in bloom is strongly scented. Hollyhocks will spend some time cut down to ground level but in spring they will start to add an upright structure and in summer bloom bright and bold and so work as stimulating sensory plants for at least 2 seasons, possibly 3 if we allow their upright to remain and only cut them back in the new year.

Spending time watching and observing our gardens will help us think about how we can enrich the sensory nature of them. Do we want our garden to calm or stimulate? How can we improve the sensory experience of our garden at different times of the year or is there sensory interest for a sense we would like to prioritise?

Finding time to do this in our gardens also enables restoration and the restorative nature of gardens is strongly linked to the sensory too.

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