How to plan a sensory garden

Design a garden brimming with plants chosen for their sensory qualities

If you want to know how to plan a sensory garden at home, it’s likely that you or someone in your life may have a sensory condition (such as being visually or hearing impaired) that will benefit from its features.   

Yet despite its focus on the five main senses, everyone can gain from spending time in a sensory garden. Even when we’re trying to be more mindful in the comfort of our own homes – be it starting yoga for the first time or trying out sleep apps – life can still feel pretty stressful. 

woman smelling and touching lavender flowers at summer gardenCredit: Shutterstock / Svittlana
Understanding how to plan a sensory garden is key to ensure it’s as effective as possible

That’s why it’s important to create safe spaces, such as a sensory garden, where we can slow down and tune into the natural world around us. Plus, you don’t even need a garden to get started. 

You might want to create an interactive space for grandchildren in your garden or carve out a haven for anyone you live with or know who will relax in a garden designed around their sensory processing needs. Either way, our guide will walk you through the process. 

Planning a sensory garden isn’t too unlike designing any other garden. There will be plants. There will be paths. There will be decorative objects. But each element is chosen with specific sensory engagement in mind. 

How to plan a sensory garden

Project overview

Estimated time: Depending on the size, anywhere from a few hours to a week

Estimated cost: Starting from £100

Medium

Equipment

  • Shovel
  • Trowel
  • Compost
  • Wooden planks/sleepers for framing beds
  • Paving slabs/gravel for pathways
  • Chosen plants and objects that will engage the senses
  • Your tools (hammer, nails)
  • Paint and brushes

What is a sensory garden and what does it involve?

A place to create engaging experiences

Sensory gardens are creative spaces, where human design and natural elements combine to create relaxing and engaging experiences. 

The creative possibilities of a sensory garden are endless, so this guide with explain how to plan features around the various senses we’re looking to engage. 

If you’re already an active gardener, creating and maintaining a sensory garden shouldn’t be much more effort than you’re used to. However, if you decide to install more technical elements, such as a pond or decking, you may want to consult a professional. 

Chalk board sign reading sensory garden next to the garden bedCredit: Shutterstock / Alina Machado
Your sensory garden will be a creative space

1. Grab a pen and get creative

Let your imagination run wild

Before you start eyeing up your shovel, grab a pen and paper, or your iPad, and work through the following stepsdrawing out your vision. Try to be as creative as possible – your design will no doubt naturally become more realistic as you work out what sensory elements will work best in the space you have.  

2. Choose which senses you want to stimulate

Every person is different

Your sensory garden is being designed with someone you care for in mind. Their specific needs will define almost every element of your creation. 

You don’t have to engage every sense in your garden – the benefits will be specific to the needs of people using it. 

If your sensory garden is intended for someone who is visually impaired, for instance, then it will be more important to prioritise the other senses.  

grandmother with her granddaughter in the garden, kneeling and gardening togetherCredit: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia
Your garden might need to appeal to children, or those with sensory impairments

“Senses that are strong for one person may be weaker for another,” says Kew Gardens’ discovery and access learning coordinator Ben White.  

“People with disabilities can benefit from a range of sensory opportunities. Visually impaired people, for example, can explore through touch, smell, and sound. 

“For people with dementia, multi-sensory experiences have been shown to engage the memory centres of the brain more strongly than experiences where one sense, especially sight, is used alone. This can lead to better short- and long-term memory, improved mood, and better mental function – effects that linger even after leaving the garden.” 

Of course, you don’t have to have a disability or neurodiversity to benefit from a sensory garden. Including elements that stimulate all the main senses will make your garden enjoyable and accessible to all. 

3. Choose your location

Is there room to manoeuvre?

If the person you’re designing for has any accessibility requirements, you’ll need to make sure that your sensory garden has space for people to move around and enjoy the plants safely.  

woman on wheelchair touching flowers in the gardenCredit: Shutterstock / Rawpixel.com
Everyone using a sensory garden should be able to reach the plants

It’s possible to transform your entire existing garden into a concentrated sensory experience at home, but you may prefer to designate a certain area that’s easy to reach.  

Some things to consider that will affect your chosen location are: 

  • Is there enough room to enjoy sensory plants, features and surfaces safely? 
  • Will the sensory garden also provide shelter or have seating? 
  • Do you want to use your sensory garden all year round? 
  • What pre-existing features does your garden have, and do you want to incorporate these into your new design? 

You don’t actually need a garden

You can easily create sensory experiences for people with natural plants and objects indoors too. 

“Many common houseplants and cut flowers can be great to explore with different senses,” says White. “Try to get plants with a range of smells, textures and colours.  

“Some easy ideas could be fragrant lilies, wavy dracaenas, rough and pointed cylindrical snake plants, or soft and fuzzy willow cuttings. You could even play ‘green noise’ indoors (like the sound of birdsong or the trickle of flowing water) to add to the experience.” 

4. Decide what will accompany your plants

Will your sensory garden just have plants?

As with most cultivated outside spaces, plants – whether that’s vegetables, trees, shrubs or flowers – will be a core feature of a sensory garden. But you may want to add other features that will help everyone to relax in the space. 

man spending time at home, sitting in his garden, leaning on a walking cane and thinking.Credit: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia
A bench can provide the opportunity to rest and listen to birdsong

“The garden should provide a range of sensory opportunities and not just rely on planting,” says Claire Francis, commercial and communications manager for Sensory Trust (a national charity specialising in inclusive and sensory design).  

“For example, seats to sit and listen to birdsong, sculptures to touch, and shelters to allow access and comfort all year round.”   

She points out that there are many sensory experiences that are not formally categorised as one of the ‘main five’ – for example, a sense of balance, temperature, space and enclosure. Providing seating and shelter can successfully address this, and will no doubt affect what and how you plant around them, which is why it’s helpful to plan these features first. 

5. Design your planting beds

Consider accessibility needs

The location and central features of your sensory garden will determine where your plants will go.  

Sensory planting is much more intentional than a regular, ornamental garden. That’s because you need to consider how a person can physically interact with the plants. 

a man watering his plants with a watering can in his garden and the plants are growing in a raised bedCredit: Shutterstock / Daisy Daisy
Raised beds can offer easier access to the plants in a sensory garden

You may choose to install an organic no-dig vegetable garden, or opt for raised plant beds, depending on the garden’s intention and accessibility needs.  

“Avoid deep borders, in order to enable close contact with all of the plants,” says Rebecca Lane, arboretum supervisor at Kew Gardens.  

“Avoid deep borders, in order to enable close contact with all of the plants”

“The position of different elements in a sensory garden is also crucial, so choose the design carefully to ensure the user is tickled as you move from one element to another.” 

She adds that designing smaller paths between planting beds [if you don’t need to accommodate a wheelchair or walker] will help to increase intimacy as plants right up to the path brush against you. 

6. Select features to engage sight

What will make their eyes light up?

Even if you’re not intentionally planting to engage sight, it’s likely your sensory garden will be easy on the eyes. Sight is the easiest sense to design a garden for, as so many plants naturally have attractive and unusual patterns and colours to look at. 

Tip: Safely placed mirrored objects (ensuring they won’t smash) can heighten the visual appeal of plants nearby and reflect sunlight around darker areas of a garden.

Milly Sell, content designer at gardening for health charity Thrive, suggests the following to create visually engaging elements that go beyond a ‘normal’ garden: 

  • Themed colour planting (e.g. blocks of bright colour/cool pastels)
  • Painted pots or raised beds 
  • Plant shape variety – climbing and cascading plants as well as upright 
  • Tall plants that sway in the wind 
  • A bench to observe all this interest
Paperbark Maple Bark TextureCredit: Shutterstock / S Buwert
The texture of paperbark maple trees is thin, so sunlight can shine through

Lane suggests that where space allows, any of the ‘paperbark’ trees are a true sensation – the peeling bark in thin layers that glow with the sun shining through. She recommends Tibetan cherry, paperback birch and paperback maple.

7. Find plants that will smell year-round

Include their favourite scents, but don’t overwhelm

Smell, emotion and memory are wonderfully interlinked, so it makes sense to choose plants that are meaningful to the people using your sensory garden. 

While prioritising favourite smells in your design, bear in mind the people you are designing for and how they respond to on scents. 

Herbs gently release their scent when touched

“Be mindful that everyone processes scent differently, and for some people, this could be overpowering,” says Francis. “Instead, look for plants whose scent is activated upon touch, for example herbs and pelargoniums [also known as tender geraniums].” 

Lane notes that Mediterranean herbs provide scent year-round as you brush past them, so she recommends planting them close to path edges. 

Tip: Winterflowering shrubs (such as the honeysuckle Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’) provide some of the most astonishing scents in terms of purity and strength when they are in flower, says Lane. 

8. Tune into nature’s soundtrack

Expand on natural garden sounds

Gardens naturally produce all sorts of sounds, including insects buzzing, birdsong and leaves rustling. You can add sound with wind chimes and dry out the seed pods of flower heads, such as the Papaver somniferum ‘Black Paeony’, which can then be used to rattle the seeds contained inside.  

Broom shrubs, peas, violas, lupins and the inedible squirting cucumber (also called Ecballium elaterium) are all examples of plants that ‘explode’ their seed pods when they’re ripe. 

Watch Sir David Attenborough laugh with joy as he watches and listens to a plant’s exploding seed pod.

close up of bambooCredit: James Lee on Unsplash
Bamboo can provide noise, but it can become invasive

For a larger garden, bamboos can provide a whole variety of noises, depending on the strength of the wind,” says Lane. “Though it’s important you choose the right cultivar or species of bamboo as it can be invasive and take over the garden. Always seek professional advice if you’re unsure. 

9. Track down plants that can withstand touch

Time to get tactile

When choosing things to include in your sensory garden that will be touched, it’s essential to remember that these elements must be hardy (especially if there are children around). 

As people will expect to be able to interact with all elements of a sensory garden, as a rule, it’s a good idea to avoid any plants with thorns or sharp textures, and anything that might be toxic.  

Lane suggests doing research to avoid poisonous plants, as well as washing hands after touching plants. There are plenty of good choices for tactile plants. “There are some plants out there that urge you to reach out and stroke.”  

Blue flower love-in-a-mist with its large green spiky seed pods on a tableCredit: Shutterstock / Martina Unbehauen
Love-in-a-mist produces large seed heads as well as soft blue flowers

A popular one for children is love-in-a-mist – the annual blue and/or white flower, which is adorned with frothy thin foliage. The flower buds of magnolia species emulate rabbit ears; the leaves of lamb’s ear and rose campion (also called Lychnis coronaria) are soft to the touch, similar to the ‘bunny tails’ of fountain grasses (also known as Pennisetum). 

Sell says that as well as tactile plants, gardeners can include smooth pebbles, wooden trellises and ceramic pots. Different walking surfaces (such as gravel and decking) can add the appeal of a different feel underfoot, but make sure to choose a material that everyone can safely enjoy. 

Francis advises that you steer clear of very sharp spiky plants, such as firethorn, and refer to the Horticultural Trade Association’s list of potentially harmful plants.  

10. Draw up a menu of edible plants

Tantalise the tastebuds

Like sight, planning items in a sensory garden for taste is fairly straightforward, as long as you make sure there are no toxic plants that could get into the wrong hands (and mouths!). 

Herbs, fruit trees and vegetables are fantastic ways to provide safe, delicious natural nibbles throughout the year. 

Of course, these plants may need a little more nurturing in different seasons. If you’re not able to commit time each week to tend to them, it might be worth choosing low-maintenance edible plants. 

Vegetables (courgette plants and beetroot) growing in a raised bed in a UK garden in summer.Credit: Shutterstock / Paul Maguire
Courgette and beetroot can be grown easily at home

If you’ve never planted a vegetable before, here’s a handy video that could see you get going in just one hour.

11. Make some signs

A helping hand

You may want to create some signs or labels, explaining what’s growing and what people should do (e.g. rub these leaves softly). 

garden soil with a label saying herbsCredit: Shutterstock / Claudia Paulussen
Small, personalised signs can help people navigate a sensory garden

This depends on what the people using the garden need – a visual prompt to jog memory, perhaps, or to explain things to children – and your personal preference.  

If you have a large, themed or sectioned area dedicated to each sense, you may want to signpost this.  

You can buy garden markers and in many cases even personalise them with bespoke messages so they’re unique to your sensory garden. 

12. Get ready to start gardening

See your hard work pay off

Once you’ve planned out every element of your sensory garden, it’s time to put your ideas into action.  

Be aware that a sensory garden will require upkeep once installed. Pay extra attention to any elements that need weatherproofing or additional care – such as a water feature, sandbox or anything made from glass or fabric. Follow any manufacturers’ guidelines as well as growing instructions. 

Man wearing a hat digging in his garden with his dogCredit: Shutterstock / upixa
A sensory garden will need regular and seasonal upkeep

Once a month, check in for safety and accessibility to make sure nothing’s changed – but otherwise treat it and upkeep it seasonally as you would your usual garden.  

Introduce the person or people you’ve designed your sensory garden for carefully (again, depending on their individual needs).  

When you’re ready to show off your hard work and bring people to your sensory garden, perhaps draw a map to familiarise or explain certain features to them. 

Ultimately, your new creation is all about leaning into the sensory experience. 

Enjoy your sensory garden

Sharing the sensory experience

Now all that’s left to do is enjoy some time interacting with nature. Tune in and notice how everyone feels after seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and listening to the plants and objects you’ve chosen. 

“We have seen how spending time in a sensory garden can calm anxiety and agitation and foster a calmer, more positive outlook,” says Francis. 

She adds that people’s circadian rhythms can be better regulated by spending time outdoors, which in turn means better quality sleep. 

“A garden can spark conversation with loved ones, motivate more physical activity, and reconnect people with the daily and seasonal rhythms of the natural world,” Francis continues.  

“The more senses we engage, the richer the experience and the more we remember. With imaginative sensory design and sensitive attention to detail, a garden becomes a sensory feast.” 

Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her

Published:

Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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