How To Build a Sensory Garden

Sensory gardens have become a popular landscaping trend in commercial spaces over the last few years. These outdoor areas, which are designed to stimulate all of the senses, have become sought-after retreats in public parks, senior living communities, schools and museums worldwide.

Now, according to Zillow's 2024 home trend predictions, sensory gardens are the hot new trend in home landscaping.

Zillow's annual trend report shows that homeowners and homebuyers are looking for functional and aesthetic outdoor spaces that offer a peaceful nature retreat. According to the report, listings mentioning sensory gardens or pathways are up 314% compared with last year.

If you're looking to enhance your outdoor experience or make your yard more appealing to future buyers, follow these three steps to create a relaxing sensory garden.

What Is a Sensory Garden?

A sensory garden is an outdoor space designed to engage the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. This is accomplished by planting different plant, fruit or vegetable varietals to provide different textures, colors, scents, tastes and sounds throughout the year. The space isn't solely defined by the plants, though. Additional elements such as gravel, mulch or stone pathways and water features can provide further sensory stimulation.

With a sensory garden, the look of the garden matters, but the other senses hold equal weight in the design of the space. "Sensory gardens are thoughtfully designed to bring out a sense of interaction with nature that’s more immersive than your average garden stroll," says sustainable landscaping designer Tom Su from Australia.

Su says sensory gardens are gaining appeal in home settings because they tap into our innate need to connect with nature. "In our fast-paced, digital world, these gardens offer a retreat, a place to destress and ground ourselves," he says.

Studies have shown that spending time in sensory gardens promotes relaxation, reduces depression symptoms and improves overall well-being.

1. Pick Out The Varietals for Each Sense

The first step in creating a sensory garden is choosing the right elements to captivate each sense. It's important to choose plants based on your growing region. You want to incorporate plants that can flourish in your climate with minimal input; doing so will provide you with the most year-round enjoyment in the garden.

Start an online search to learn which plants grow best in your area or visit a local garden store. Once you have an idea of what plants should flourish in your yard, write down your favorite varieties. This can include grasses, herbs, ornamentals, flowers, fruits or vegetables. Group plants by under their corresponding sensory category. Some may appeal to multiple senses, which is great. Ultimately the goal is to have a fairly equal number of plants for each sense.

Su says he likes to get creative with textures and scents when crafting a sensory garden. "For touch, plants like lamb’s ear, with its soft, fuzzy leaves, are fantastic. I’ll mix that with the rough bark of a tree-like river birch for contrast."

Other great varietals for touch can be mimosa pudica – also called sensitive plant, because its leaves will fold when touched – soft-leaved panda plant or sage, which has fuzzy leaves and a beautiful fragrant scent.

Try planting flowers with soft petals or leaves, spiky greenery or feathery flowers.

"For smell, nothing beats the heady fragrance of lavender or the sharp, fresh scent of mint," Su says. There are tons of highly scented flowers and herbs like roses, jasmine, rosemary, magnolia, sweet pea and gardenia.

Sight is one of the easier senses to appeal to. Choose flowers and fruits with vibrant colors. Think marigolds, iris, ornamental cabbage, deep purple salvias, vivid tulips, roses or the soothing tans or greens of ornamental grasses. Herbs are the easiest way to engage taste, but you can add edible fruits or vegetables to the space for more functionality and productivity.

Sound seems like a challenge, but mixing in things like bamboo, grasses, or pollinator flowers to the garden helps showcase the subtle sounds of the wind or bring buzzing bees to the space. Gravel, wind chimes and birdhouses can also create different auditory sensations. "I also like to include elements like water features for that gentle, soothing splash," says Su.

2. Choose a Layout

Next, you'll want to define your space creating a layout for your sensory garden. You can intertwine each of the elements throughout the garden simultaneously, or you might create different sensory zones that cater to each sense individually.

At Wickham Park in Manchester, Connecticut, director emeritus Jeff Maron created a space for each sense at the 250-acre park. "We have a 'room' or space specifically for each of the five senses and an area for a sixth sense, which for us, is imagination," Maron says. "Plants and other items, like the statuary, were chosen for each separate sense."

This is great if you have a large space available for design. However, most home sensory gardens are done on a smaller scale. Get the measurements of your area and determine how much space each plant needs while planning your space.

Remember to add defining elements like walkways, shade trees, benches or water features to your garden layout. Many people don't think about including lighting, which provides ambiance and a sense of security, and incorporating overhead structures to provide a calm shelter and shade, says Jennifer Hayman, founder and landscape designer with JHDG in Ontario, Canada.

3. Make Your Plan Into Reality

The last step is to put your sensory garden plan into action. Purchase the necessary items, plants and other elements and let the planting begin.

Don't be afraid to expand your garden in the future or swap out plants during the changing seasons to allow year-round enjoyment.

Sensory gardens don't have to be huge to be effective. Having even a small, thoughtfully designed space to tantalize your senses can create a peaceful retreat.

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