Creating a Sensory Garden: An Oasis for the Five Senses

Embracing nature in this distinctive way, creating a sensory garden provides a respite in the midst of a busy day. "A sensory garden immerses you in nature by stimulating your five senses—smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing," says Meredith Gaines, an advanced plant expert specializing in fast-growing trees.

What's great is that this is a garden concept anyone can create, regardless of the size or shape of your space or your level of gardening expertise. However, crafting a space that caters to all five senses can be a challenging task. So, before you begin, use this guide and tips from gardening experts to discover the best ways to design a sensory garden you'll enjoy for years to come.

Consider Your Lifestyle:
To tailor a sensory garden that suits your needs, carefully consider your lifestyle. For instance, "if you want to greet the day with more energy, consider a sensory garden that incorporates warm colors (such as Kniphofia uvularia or crocosmia) to stimulate your eyes and invigorate you," suggests Marissa Angell, a licensed landscape designer and owner of Marissa Angell Landscape.

On the contrary, if you're under high work-related stress, look for aromatic plants and fragrant flowers to soothe you. Age also plays a role, as with age, "bright colors and contrasts in the color palette become more enjoyable," adds Angell.

Include a Variety of Sensory Plants:
Next, evaluate the value of each plant you add by categorizing them into five sensory categories, as suggested by Gaines. Many plants will overlap in the categories they satisfy, maximizing the benefits of a sensory garden in a confined space.

Angell supports this approach, stating, "Even in a very small space with just a few plants, you can engage multiple senses." For instance, when designing a sensory garden in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Angell focused on appealing to sight, hearing, touch, and smell. She included "contrast-form and color with fragrant rosemary (Rosmarinus sp.), soft feathery leaves of yarrow (Achillea millefolium), spiky and tan feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), and warm autumn hues of threadleaf blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii)."

Consider Your Audience:
Before diving into the purchasing phase, take one final step to ensure the success of your sensory garden—think: who will use your garden? "Children? Anyone with mobility issues or impaired senses? Yourself? Considering who will engage with your garden will help fine-tune your plant selections and the heights you maintain for planting," says Angell.

To simplify this process, Angell suggests choosing plants with multiple seasons to attract as many senses as possible. If you have children, incorporate "delicious, edible plants and those that feel good to touch." She adds that both types of plants "can serve as a means for educating children about the plants we grow in our gardens."

When interacting with individuals with disabilities, place your plants at wheelchair-accessible heights or focus on providing aromatic or tactile plants for visually impaired individuals.

Best Plants for a Sensory Garden:
While the ultimate goal in designing your sensory garden is to create a space that makes you feel good, having a solid foundation is essential. Use the suggestions below from Angell and Gaines to create a beautiful and functional sensory garden that caters to your preferences.

As a general rule, cool tones like blue and purple can calm the senses, while warm tones like red, orange, and yellow can excite. Inject various shades and mix tones, hues, and tints of each color to capture your eye. Colors can come from flowers or leaves, so try contrasting vivid plant silhouettes for a powerful sensory impact.


Tall, airy pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and soft mounds of Prairie Dropseed grass (Sporobolus heterolepis).
Spiky plants like Globe Thistle (Echinops spp.) or Sea Holly (Eryngium spp.) mixed with plants featuring smooth, rounded shapes.
Consider your local wildlife when thinking about sound in your garden. Look for plants that support local birds or select ornamental grasses that rustle in the wind.

For touch, add soft, furry plants to your sensory garden. Consider plants with a variety of tactile features such as velvety leaves and stems, airy growth habits, and fluffy seed heads.


Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina) with large, fuzzy leaves.
Dusty Miller (Jacobaea maritima) with soft, resilient shapes.
Smell and Taste:
Edible plants and herbs are obvious choices for smell and taste. Herbs like thyme and lavender not only make beautiful garden plants but also emit enticing fragrances. They can also appeal to your taste buds. Consider incorporating some strawberries or cucumbers that are easy to snack on in the garden.

Design Tips for a Sensory Garden:

Match Plants to Your Growing Conditions:
A sensory garden should be a pleasant, relaxing space, so avoid stressing over plants struggling to adapt. Angell recommends steering clear of plants that don't adapt well to your space's environmental constraints, such as humidity, sunlight exposure, and soil type. "Choosing plants that can thrive in your space is crucial. Ultimately, the healthier the plants, the higher your expectations for their inherent sensory qualities," says Angell.

Take It Slow:
Enjoy the planning process rather than rushing towards the end result, advises Gaines. "Your garden doesn't have a timeline or a fixed format; add and subtract at your leisure, truly making the space your own, unique one," she says. Most importantly, researching your plants and their needs before committing to any species is key. Choose plants that can thrive in your environment and that you can realistically maintain for the most successful sensory garden.

Embrace Seasonal Changes:
Plants have strong seasonality, appearing or behaving differently throughout the year. Rather than viewing this as a problem, Gaines points out that it's an opportunity to "enjoy new sensory experiences replacing old ones as the seasons change." You can even amplify the sensory elements, ensuring they exist year-round, as with camellias, which provide visual interest with their blooms in winter, not just in warmer months.

Maintain an open mind as you create your sensory garden, trying different plant types. You may find yourself in a period of trial and error, tweaking your arrangement over several seasons before finalizing the design. According to Angell, "by definition, a sensory garden must be experienced before any conclusions are drawn." So, immerse yourself in the process of creating your sensory haven, and let the garden reveal its unique sensory symphony.