Designing a multi-sensory garden creates a playground within the practical and has the power to soothe anxious hearts while awakening curiosity of the soul.
How? By leveraging the power of the human senses to create an immersive environment.
The Science Behind the Power of an Immersive Sensory Garden
Modern western culture is largely disengaged from multi-sensory experiences in a way that our predecessors were not. The vast majority of American adults work, play, and socialize in a virtual environment absent of multi-sensory engagement. School-aged children spend their days in classroom environments that are not designed to accommodate regular, immersive sensory experiences on a large scale.
Enjoying the natural world through smell, touch, sound, and taste in addition to sight effectively connects individuals of all ages to the present moment. It grounds you. It invites you to rest, to enjoy…to invest in the present moment.
Sense of Smell
Enjoying the spicy scent of fresh oregano or the wafting fragrance of lilacs is enough to convince anyone that the sense of smell is a powerful connector to the natural world. When designing a garden intended to engage the senses, you should intentionally incorporate various plants that are known for their fragrance.
If you are concerned about creating a cacophony of competing smells, stick to herbs or other plants that only release their fragrance when handled. One of our favorite ways of engaging children in herb gardens is encouraging them to rub the leaves of basil, rosemary, lavender, and mint. Their touch releases the plant’s particular aroma, and children’s eyes widen in wonder that so much fragrance can flow from leaves so small.
Fragrance is also powerfully connected to memory recall. A single whiff of a familiar smell can immediately trigger memories long forgotten, a concept known as the Proust Effect in scientific communities.
What if your garden had the power to revive lost memories and create new ones through the sense of smell? What if brushing against a rosemary bush instantly transported a young business professional back to your garden, the place where she first learned the value of teamwork and critical thinking? What if the aroma of freshly chopped basil reminded an aspiring chef that his passion for food originated in your garden with his first taste of fresh produce?
You can design a garden with that type of power through the sense of smell.
Sense of Touch
We live in a world where the rule “Don’t touch!” is often explicitly stated and implicitly suggested. A multi-sensory garden becomes a novelty where humans (especially young ones) are invited to engage with their surroundings through the sense of touch.
This sense of tactile freedom doubles as a powerful tool in expanding concepts taught within traditional classroom settings. The dynamic setting of a multi-sensory garden invites your tactile/kinesthetic learners to physically engage with topics that they’ve studied indoors. Through the sense of touch, educators reinforce classroom lessons via direct experience and experimentation, creating deeper capacity for the retention of classroom knowledge.
When designing your sensory garden, incorporate plants and garden decor that beg to be touched. Fragrant herbs, textured garden stones, velvety Lamb’s Ear, and encouraging hand-to-mouth harvests are fantastic starting points for inviting others to engage with the garden via the sense of touch.
Sense of Sound
The sense of sound is often overlooked, but it is an incredibly powerful tool through which we make sense of our world. The sense of sound can have a massive impact on our mental health, for better or for worse, thus presenting an impressive argument for its inclusion in a sensory garden.
The ambient sounds of your garden will depend on where it is built. Bustling traffic, city chatter, and the occasional siren may be the soundtrack of the urban community garden, whereas the steady cadence of mooing cattle and rustling wheat fields provide the auditory backdrop for the more rural garden. Whatever ambient sounds surround your garden, lean into it! You are creating a space within your community, not in spite of it.
There are also spectacular ways of intentionally including sound within your sensory garden. Windchimes and birdsong are traditional and welcome inclusions in the garden, but there are other creative ways to incorporate sound into your space. Colorful pinwheels add rhythmic notes during windy days, and water fountains provide aesthetic intrigue and relaxing ambience. Consider piping some music through an outdoor sound system or creating a musical station for little explorers.
Sense of Taste
The unmatched taste of fresh, homegrown produce has lured many a self-proclaimed black thumb into the garden. Nutrient-dense, living food boasts a richness in flavor that store bought food simply does not offer.
The sublime taste of fresh, homegrown food is a delight worthy of being the last word on this topic…but we like learning, so let’s take one more step in discovering the power of taste within the garden.
Taste, at a very basic level, engages with the outside world by incorporating it into ourselves through consumption. This creates another avenue of connection to the outside world that can’t be replicated by merely touching, hearing, or smelling. It goes deeper than that.
When designing a garden that includes permission to taste its produce, you invite others to engage with nature in a deeply personal way. Encouraging children to harvest alongside you results in a deep sense of pride and delight in “their” homegrown food. I’ve seen devout veggie-haters begin to tolerate (or even enjoy!) fresh garden produce that they cultivated with their own hands. Children eat what they grow, and adults grow what they like to eat. The sense of taste is inextricably woven into the beauty of the garden, and its power to invite others into that beauty is deeply compelling.
Sense of Sight
When designing the overall appearance of your garden, it is essential that you maintain congruity with your garden’s purpose. If you are creating a sensory sanctuary for business professionals to alleviate stress during their lunch break, then your design may include calming colors, modern planters, and clearly paved pathways. If you are designing a sensory garden for children, their unbridled enthusiasm may be reflected in whimsical designs and sensory stations created expressly for their exploration.
Visually inviting and engaging spaces don’t have to be gardens worthy of Instagram. Grow 10-foot-tall sunflowers or purple tomatoes. Include a variety of colors and shapes in your space. Create visual intrigue by incorporating contrasts of tall and short elements in trellising or decor. Integrating novelty adds interest to your garden and rekindles curiosity of the natural world.
When creating a sensory garden for others, it is not necessary to explain to them the science behind the enjoyment of their experience. Allow the immersive, multi-sensory experience to speak for itself. By designing a garden to delight the senses, you are extending the legacy of yester-year’s gardeners by investing in future ones. You are creating a space that awakens the soul and engages the mind; and that, my friend, is an undertaking worth pursuing.
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