More than ever, we are drawn to the outdoors and all that nature has to offer. Our yards especially have become a sanctuary, the place we can safely retreat to connect with nature. Backyards have long been designed for entertaining, where friends and family gather for social interaction. Two ubiquitous words brought to us by 2020 – social distancing – have some Silicon Valley homeowners reconsidering how to best use their outdoor spaces. One way that is emerging is the creation of sensory gardens that are designed to kindle all five senses.
Designed to appeal to our primary senses of taste, touch, sounds, sight, and smell, sensory gardens encourage immersive exploration, interaction, and engagement. These green spaces can encompass an entire yard or be a small area nestled in a corner.
Gail Souter-Brown of Greenstone Design researched the benefits of sensory gardens for her doctorate. Her research revealed that “sensory gardens can reduce stress while boosting wellbeing, problem solving, relationships, memory, mental clarity, playfulness and workplace productivity.” For all of these reasons, a garden that entices all of our senses makes, well, a lot of sense.
A myriad of fragrances, colors, seasonality, textures, and successive blooms from a variety of plantings build interest, connection, and garden engagement. Let’s explore the different elements to include in this immersive outdoor area.
Color, size, and shape all play into our primary sense of sight. If you want a garden that is vibrant, stimulating, and fun, seek out plants that have reds, oranges, and yellows. For a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere, shades of lilac, blue, and whites will impart a calming effect. Choose shrubbery and trees that have different sizes and shapes of leaves, distinctive bark, and vary in color. Intermingle plantings that climb, creep, trail, and stand upright. Be sure to use plants native to the area to ensure they flourish and thrive. Hardscaping elements like meandering paths, benches, fountains, and rocks of varying shapes, textures, and sizes also add visual intrigue.
Rustling leaves, running water, buzzing insects, the whispering of grasses in the wind; all of these sounds sooth and calm us. For those living in urban or even suburban areas, these sounds of nature can mask the din of traffic, barking dogs, and other undesirable noises. The sound of running water is easily achieved by including a water feature, small babbling brook, or waterfall. Bamboo and tall grasses murmur in the breeze and tree leaves rustle when branches sway in the wind. The blooms of many flowering species attract bees and hummingbirds, whose presence creates yet another subtle layer of sound. Windchimes are another way to incorporate a musical element of sound. Hardscaping elements, such as gravel pathways, create a crunching sound when walked upon.
Delicate and understated aromas entice one’s sense of smell. Lavender, jasmine, sweet pea, and honeysuckle are alluring scents that also are attractive to bees and hummingbirds. Herbs like rosemary, basil, and lemon balm emit restful aromas.
A sensory garden welcomes the exploration of taste. Along with herbs, plantings of palatable flowers like pansies and nasturtiums, strawberries, blueberries, cabbage plants, artichokes, and Swiss chard are just some of the edible options. Many of these also come under sight for their exquisite range of color and shape as well as touch for their tactile nature.
A sensory garden beckons to be touched. Choose trees, shrubs, and flora with leaves and bark that run the gamut of textures from spiky and fuzzy to rough and smooth. Plants like lamb’s ear, yarrow, mosses, and Jerusalem sage are soft and pillowy. Coniferous plants offer a variety of textures, Japanese maples have delicate, lacey leaves and organic, flowing branches. If little hands will be enjoying the garden, avoid thorny or prickly plants unless they are placed well out of reach.
For more ideas on plants that appeal to each of the senses, click here.
Allow your senses to soar by designing a sensory garden. Run your fingers over whispering blades of grass, taste the sweetness of a strawberry warmed by the sun, be soothed by the murmuring of a water fountain or rapid fluttering of a hummingbird’s wings. These immersive outdoor spaces boost wellbeing, enhance creativity and problem solving, and may, quite possibly, allow us to embrace a bit of playfulness.