Accessible Gardening

Gardening for all abilities.

What is a Sensory Garden, And Why Is It So Great For Accessibility?

Sensory gardens involve plants with different textures, colors, and fragrances. Here's why it's ideal for people with disabilities.
What is a Sensory Garden and Why Is It So Great For People with Disabilities?

Sensory gardens provide therapeutic benefits and can be particularly beneficial for individuals with sensory impairments, cognitive disabilities, or those seeking relaxation and stress reduction. Sensory gardens need to be carefully planned so they can incorporate a variety of plants, materials, and features that appeal to different senses. Here’s how you can create your own!

Sensory gardens offer a multisensory experience that promotes mindfulness, sensory stimulation, and connection with nature. And the best part? These gardens can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities, making them inclusive spaces for everyone to explore and enjoy the sensory wonders of the natural world.

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about sensory gardens – from what to plant and how to involve sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste into a cohesive and memorable experience anyone can enjoy.

What is a Sensory Garden?

A sensory garden is a specially designed garden space that engages and stimulates the senses, providing a sensory-rich experience for individuals who visit or interact with it. It is created with the intention of awakening, exploring, and enhancing the sensory perception of sight, touch, smell, sound, and sometimes even taste.

What Are The Benefits of a Sensory Garden?

To understand how a sensory garden can be a great activity to engage in, it’s best to go through how each sense is typically addressed in one. 

  • Sight: A sensory garden can include visually appealing elements such as colorful flowers, vibrant foliage, and contrasting textures. It may also feature plants with interesting shapes, patterns, or movement and visual focal points like sculptures, garden ornaments, or water features.

  • Touch: The garden incorporates plants with a diverse range of textures, such as soft leaves, fuzzy flowers, rough bark, or smooth petals. It may include tactile elements like touchable foliage, textured pathways, or different types of surfaces to encourage tactile exploration.

  • Smell: Fragrant plants play a significant role in sensory gardens. They can include aromatic herbs, scented flowers, or foliage with distinctive smells. Fragrant plants are strategically placed to allow visitors to enjoy their pleasant scents as they move through the garden.

  • Sound: Sensory gardens often incorporate sound elements to create a soothing or stimulating auditory experience. This can include wind chimes, rustling leaves, gently flowing water features, or bird feeders to attract birdsong. The sounds of nature provide a calming and immersive atmosphere.

  • Taste: Some sensory gardens may include edible plants, like herbs, vegetables, or fruits, allowing visitors to engage their sense of taste by sampling or harvesting these plants. However, it’s important to ensure that any edible plants included are safe and pesticide-free.

Creating a sensory garden is all about engaging the different senses for a unique experience. Image courtesy of Markus Spiske.
Creating a sensory garden is all about engaging the different senses for a unique experience. Image courtesy of Markus Spiske.

Why are Sensory Gardens Good for People with Disabilities?

Sensory gardens are highly beneficial for people with disabilities for several reasons.

For instance, they can cater to the unique needs and preferences of individuals seeking sensory stimulation and therapeutic effects. Sensory gardens can also aid in cognitive and motor skills development, social interaction, and a deeper connection with nature. 

Reason 1: Sensory Stimulation

Firstly, sensory gardens can provide diverse sensory experiences, stimulating various senses like sight, touch, smell, and sound.

For individuals with sensory impairments, including those with visual or hearing disabilities, sensory gardens offer a unique opportunity to engage with the environment through their remaining senses. The garden’s textures, scents, and sounds can create a rich sensory experience, enhancing their perception of the world around them.

Reason 2: Therapeutic Effects

Sensory gardens have therapeutic benefits for individuals with disabilities. The sensory stimulation provided by the garden can help improve cognitive function, enhance sensory integration, and promote relaxation. It can assist in sensory processing and regulation, reducing anxiety and stress.

The garden’s calming atmosphere, soothing scents, and gentle sounds can create a peaceful and therapeutic environment for individuals with various disabilities, supporting their overall well-being.

Young woman gardener care of flowers in the garden.
Young woman gardener caring for flowers in the garden.

Reason 3: Cognitive and Motor Skills Development

Sensory gardens offer opportunities for cognitive and motor skills development. The garden’s diverse textures and tactile elements encourage tactile exploration and fine motor skills practice. For example:

  • Planting seeds or bulbs can help improve hand-eye coordination and fine motor control.
  • Picking ripe fruits or vegetables involves delicate hand movements and finger dexterity.
  • Removing weeds from the garden involves pinching, pulling, and careful movements, too.
  • Caring for small potted plants or container gardens requires tasks such as pruning, repotting, and arranging decorative stones.

So, as you can see, engaging with plants, manipulating different objects, or navigating pathways can promote hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and cognitive processing. These activities can be particularly beneficial for individuals with developmental disabilities or those undergoing rehabilitation.

Reason 4: Social Interaction and Inclusion

Sensory gardens can provide inclusive spaces for individuals with disabilities to interact and socialize with others. The garden’s inviting atmosphere and shared sensory experiences create opportunities for meaningful connections and social engagement.

In fact, a sensory garden can serve as a gathering place for individuals with disabilities, their families, and caregivers, fostering a sense of community and reducing feelings of isolation.

Reason 5: Nature Connection

Sensory gardens offer a direct connection with nature, allowing individuals with disabilities to experience the beauty and benefits of the natural world.

Spending time in nature has been linked to improved mental health, reduced stress levels, and increased overall well-being. Sensory gardens provide a safe and accessible environment for individuals with disabilities to enjoy nature, promoting a sense of belonging and appreciation for the natural environment.

A person holding a bunch of hydrangea flowers in their hands.
A person holding a bunch of hydrangea flowers in their hands.

How do you Create a Sensory Garden? Step by Step Guide

Creating a sensory garden involves thoughtful planning and consideration of various elements. This is why, in this section, you will find a step-by-step guide to help you create your own sensory garden. Keep in mind, though, that each person will have their own unique needs and expectations for such a garden, so feel free to change any of these as you go!

1. Define Your Objectives

The first step when starting a sensory garden is to determine the purpose and goals it will have. Specifically, consider who the garden is intended for, the sensory experiences you want to provide, and any particular needs or preferences you wish to address.

You can write these down and go back to your notes regularly to ensure you are on track. And don’t worry, there are no wrong answers! This is YOUR garden, after all, and only you know what you want to get out of it.

2. Choose a Suitable Location

Next, you should select an appropriate location for your sensory garden. Ideally, it should be easily accessible and provide a balance of sunlight and shade throughout the day. Consider the available space, whether it’s a small backyard, a community area, or even indoor room like a greenhouse or atrium. Below, you will find three ideas for picking a location for your sensory garden.

Sunlight and Shade

  • Observe Sun Patterns: Spend some time observing the area you have in mind throughout the day. Note how sunlight moves across the space and identify areas that receive full sun, partial sun, and shade. Most sensory garden plants thrive in areas with varying levels of sunlight, so having a mix of conditions can be beneficial.
  • Choose a Balanced Spot: Aim for a location that receives a good amount of sunlight during the day but also offers some shade. This will allow you to include a diverse range of plants that cater to different sensory experiences. For example, some plants might prefer full sun for vibrant colors and fragrances, while others thrive in partial shade for their soothing textures.
Sensory gardens can create a personal oasis no matter where you live. Image courtesy of Markus Spiske.
Sensory gardens can create a personal oasis no matter where you live. Image courtesy of Markus Spiske.

Accessibility and Safety

  • Proximity to Users: Ideally, your sensory garden should be easily accessible to those who will be enjoying it the most. Consider its proximity to your home, school, or community center, so it can be frequently used and appreciated.
  • Consider Safety: If the sensory garden is intended for children or vulnerable individuals, prioritize safety. Avoid locations with potential hazards, such as steep slopes, uneven ground, or nearby busy roads.

Surroundings and Atmosphere

  • Noise and Disturbances: Look for a location that is relatively peaceful and free from excessive noise or disturbances. A serene environment enhances the sensory experience and allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the garden’s sights, scents, and sounds.
  • Natural Features: If possible, choose a spot with existing natural features like trees, hedges, or water elements. These elements can complement the sensory garden and provide a harmonious backdrop for your sensory experience.
  • Privacy: Consider the privacy of the location, especially if you want visitors to feel at ease while exploring and interacting with the garden’s elements. A secluded area can provide a more intimate and relaxing experience.

3. Plan the Layout

Sketch a rough layout of your garden, taking into account the different sensory zones you want to create. A good way to think about this is in terms of microclimates (you can learn more about them following the link). 

For example, one thing you can do is divide the space into distinct areas, such as a fragrance zone, a texture zone, a sound area, etc. This will help you organize and allocate specific sensory features to each zone.

An Example:
The Serenity Haven Sensory Garden

Nestled within a quaint community park, the Serenity Haven Sensory Garden is a (fictional) hidden gem that beckons visitors to immerse themselves in nature’s wonders. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city, this idyllic garden is accessible through a meandering path lined with colorful wildflowers and the gentle rustling of tall ornamental grasses.

Entryway: As visitors enter the sensory garden, they are greeted by a grand wooden arbor adorned with fragrant climbing roses and cascading jasmine. The arbor’s gentle curve hints at the enchanting journey that lies ahead.

Scented Oasis: Stepping further into the garden, guests encounter the Scented Oasis. This section boasts a collection of fragrant plants, carefully arranged in concentric circles, each offering a unique aroma. Lavender, rosemary, and thyme release their calming scents, while sweet-scented roses and honeysuckle add a touch of romance to the air. A mosaic of stepping stones leads visitors through the Scented Oasis, inviting them to explore the delightful aromas.

Tactile Trail: A sensory garden wouldn’t be complete without the Tactile Trail, designed to engage the sense of touch. This winding path features a diverse assortment of plants with interesting textures and foliage. Visitors can run their fingers over velvety lamb’s ear leaves, feel the softness of fern fronds, and admire the rough bark of oak trees. Low-growing groundcovers spill over the trail’s edges, inviting gentle exploration.

Harmony Pond: The centerpiece of the Serenity Haven Sensory Garden is the Harmony Pond, a serene water feature that provides both auditory and visual delights. Water lilies float on the still surface, their petals glistening in the sunlight. The gentle splashing of a small fountain brings a soothing melody, and koi fish gracefully swim below, their vibrant colors mesmerizing visitors.

Whispering Grove: Tucked away in a secluded corner, the Whispering Grove offers a space for relaxation and contemplation. Tall bamboo and delicate weeping willows create a secluded alcove where visitors can find solace in the gentle rustling of leaves. Soft cushions and benches are scattered beneath the canopy, inviting visitors to sit, read, or simply listen to the whispers of the breeze.

Visual Symphony: The Visual Symphony area is a feast for the eyes, bursting with vibrant colors and striking visual elements. Rows of blooming flowers create a vivid tapestry, showcasing the ever-changing palette of the seasons. From spring’s bright tulips to summer’s fiery marigolds and autumn’s golden sunflowers, the Visual Symphony is a living painting that evolves throughout the year.

Garden for the Birds: Nestled near the edge of the garden, the Garden for the Birds is a haven for feathered friends. Bird feeders and birdbaths attract a variety of avian visitors, filling the air with their cheerful melodies. Tall trees provide shelter for nesting birds, while flowering shrubs offer nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Tea and Meditation Nook: For those seeking a moment of tranquility, the Tea and Meditation Nook offers a peaceful spot to unwind. A Japanese-inspired teahouse with sliding doors overlooks a small rock garden, inviting visitors to partake in the ancient art of tea ceremony. Cushions and mats spread on the floor create a cozy space for meditation and reflection.

4. Select Sensory Plants

Choose a variety of plants that will engage the senses. Consider plants with visually appealing flowers, vibrant foliage, interesting textures, and delightful scents. Research different plant species that are suitable for your climate, taking into account their growth habits, colors, scents, and seasonal variations. Incorporate a mix of perennials, annuals, shrubs, and trees to provide year-round sensory experiences.

If you want to see our top 5 sensory plants (and why we think they are such a good idea for your garden), then check this article: Top 5 Sensory Plants for a Serenity Garden.

5. Integrate Sensory Elements

Incorporate features and elements that stimulate the senses. This may include wind chimes, water features, sculptures, textured pathways, seating areas, or even a small vegetable garden for taste experiences. Use materials such as smooth stones, bark mulch, or various ground covers to create different textures in the garden

6. Consider Accessibility

Ensure that your sensory garden is accessible to individuals with disabilities. Create wide and smooth pathways that accommodate wheelchairs or walkers. Include ramps or gently sloping areas where needed. Make sure the garden is well-lit for individuals with visual impairments and consider providing braille labels or tactile markers for plant identification.

7. Provide Seating and Rest Areas

Include comfortable seating areas or benches throughout the garden. These spaces allow visitors to relax, immerse themselves in the sensory experiences, and appreciate the surroundings. Seating areas also promote social interaction and provide resting spots for individuals with mobility limitations.

8. Maintain the Garden

Regular maintenance is essential to keep your sensory garden thriving. Implement a watering schedule, mulch the soil to retain moisture, remove weeds, and prune plants as needed. Regularly assess and adjust the garden’s features based on visitor feedback and changing plant needs.

9. Educate and Engage

Consider providing information or educational signage about the plants and sensory features in your garden. This can enhance the visitor’s experience and provide opportunities for learning and engagement. Host workshops or guided tours to further educate visitors on the sensory aspects of the garden and its benefits.

Sensory Gardens: Conclusion

Remember, creating a sensory garden is a creative process, and you can personalize it based on your vision and the specific needs of your intended audience. Enjoy the journey of designing and cultivating a space that delights the senses and promotes well-being for all who experience it.