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Creating a Garden of Sensory Delights

A habitat with elements that stimulate all five senses can be attractive to both people and wildlife

  • Melanie Radzicki McManus
  • Aug 01, 2001
ALTHOUGH SENSORY GARDENS are often targeted toward people with a variety of disabilities ranging from sight impairment to hearing loss to poor mobility, their lively colors and exhilarating smells can be attractive to everyone—especially kids. And they can be created easily in your own backyard.
Just don´t forget that as with any garden, it´s best to cultivate plants that are native to your area of the country because they require less care. Such low-maintenance plants can also be a great help to gardeners with disabilities. However, if you can´t resist some nonnatives, make sure that they´re not invasive exotics. "These plants can spread from your garden and monopolize the local environment," says Craig Tufts, chief naturalist for NWF. (All nonnative U.S. plants mentioned below have an asterisk after them: If you use them, monitor carefully.)

Ideally, your sensory garden will contain elements that stimulate all five senses:

Sight: Start by choosing some large plants with bright, bold hues or highly contrasting colors. Visually pleasing to all, they´re an especially good choice for those with sight impairments. "If people with low vision are going to see any color, the most likely color they´ll see is yellow," says Rebecca Haller, manager of horticultural therapy programs at the Denver Botanic Gardens. She recommends native yellow flowers in the daisy or aster family, such as creeping zinnia or big, bold sunflowers. Gene Rothert, manager of horticultural therapy services at the Chicago Botanic Garden, suggests coleus*, with its vivid red, green and white foliage, and blazing goldflame spireas*. Another option is native dogwood (red osier), which sports striking, dark red branches in winter.

Sound: Introducing elements to the garden that yield a variety of tones and pitches can make your yard more enjoyable for people with or without hearing problems. Many gardeners already place chimes or small waterfalls in their gardens, but plants can be used to create sound as well. Plant varieties that produce seed pods that rustle in the wind or that rattle when you shake them, such as wild blue indigo. Tufts recommends rattlebox, a little flower in the pea family, or bladdernut, a shrublike tree with inflated rattling seedpods that hold throughout the winter. Quaking aspens are a good tree choice; their leaves rustle with the slightest breeze. You can also try ornamental grasses such as big and little bluestem and Indian grass, says Jean Larson, coordinator of therapeutic horticulture at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Touch: Besides the sound ornamental grasses will bring to your garden, they can also be pleasantly fuzzy and fun to touch. Other highly textured flora include lamb´s ears*, a soft, furry plant common to many sensory gardens. Giant mullen is even better, according to Tufts, because it feels velvety but is also native. Papery flowers are a lovely contrast to the moist coolness of many plants. And don´t forget to include some shrubs and trees. River birches have a wonderful curling bark, burr oaks and cottonwoods have rough ridges and aspens are smooth and cool to the touch.

The strategic placement of stones or large rocks with a variety of shapes and textures can provide a wonderful sensory experience, adds Betsy Atkins, chairperson and founder of the Caramoor Garden Guild at the Caramoor estate in Katonah, New York. But think twice about prickly plants such as cacti or thorny roses, especially if the garden will be used by someone with a visual or cognitive disability. Some grasses also have razor-sharp edges. "Use common sense, and consider the individuals it´s designed for," says Joel Flagler, a horticultural therapist and professor at Rutgers University. "Any plant material in the hands of somebody without good decision-making skills can present a hazard."

Taste: To satisfy your taste buds, one of the best native edibles for a sensory garden is the humble blueberry. Another good choice is amelanchiers, or serviceberries, thin-skinned berries with a hint of cherry. You could also try papaws, small trees that grow well in shady, damp areas. The trees produce fruit that resemble mangos with a banana flavor and a strawberry aftertaste. Lemony-red sumac berries are also edible and can be used to make lemonade.

Smell: Possibly the best aspect of a sensory garden is its focus on smell. Try to find Nicotiana sylvestris, or flowering tobacco. Although it can be difficult to locate, the plant releases a beautiful, powerful scent at dusk that lasts throughout the evening. Haller recommends Berlanderia lyrata, or chocolate daisy, a night-blooming flower that emits a luscious chocolate smell in the evening that lingers well into the morning. The plant is a drought-tolerant Southwest native. Chokecherries are also a good choice. These natives are known for their strong, sweet almondlike fragrance. And native linden trees and mints shouldn´t be overlooked. "Native mints have smells that range from a very strong spearmint or peppermint to something almost like a eucalyptus," says Tufts.

There´s one more aspect of a sensory garden to consider: accessibility. To accommodate people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility, use raised planting beds, containers and vertical growing plants to place things within easy reach. Paths through the garden should be wide and paved with a smooth, level and firm substance such as crushed stone or pavers so canes and wheels don´t sink in, says Rothert.

If the sensory garden will be used by someone with a visual impairment, make sure the path´s edges have a sharp textural contrast, such as concrete to grass, so it´s easy to detect the edge. "Wind chimes or water can also be used as an orientation point," says Rothert, "but they need to be carefully positioned and used judiciously because too many can be auditorially confusing."

After a day of drinking in the smells, colors and sounds of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum´s sensory garden, Wes Buss is back on the road home, inspired and already planning which new scent-laden plants to add to his garden next. Through his visits, he´s enhanced his own backyard garden, making it more of a sensory delight—a hobby that keeps him active and happy. "Even when I don´t think I feel like going out, the plants draw me there," he says with a smile.

Writer Melanie Radzicki McManus lives in Wisconsin.

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