How to design a sensory garden

It’s a beautiful morning - I’ve just woken to a heartwarming dawn chorus, through the open window I can smell the grass I cut yesterday for the first time this year and as I open the shutters, what a sight greets me - a wonderful, colourful spring garden. My senses are alive and kicking and it doesn’t take much to provoke the feel good factor!

But what if I couldn’t hear, smell or see? Undoubtedly devastating, but I, as do many of us I’m sure, take these precious senses for granted. Ill health or significant stressors may hit at any time and leave me requiring support and help with recovery. This is where designing a specific sensory garden picks up and runs with the concept of equitable appea

What is a ‘sensory garden’?

One could be forgiven, with all senses intact, for believing that a sensory garden is just a garden, for surely any well constructed and cleverly planted space will stimulate ones senses in one way or another.

However, there is a difference when it comes to designing a specific sensory garden and the Sensory Trust provides a simple definition:

‘All landscapes are sensory but some are more sensory than others. It's the concentration of different experiences that defines a sensory garden or trail. Some are passive places, designed to be calming, while others are designed to stimulate activity or to be used within therapeutic or educational programmes’ (

For the garden designer, creating an accessible and stimulating garden, emotionally obliging to all, poses a huge challenge. To create such a place, without over-designing and ending up with a contrived space crammed with textured paths, scents (that may contradict), furry plants and a sharing platter of fruit and veg takes true talent.

So, how to avoid falling into the over-designed space trap? There are 5 essential factors to take into account:  

1 Function

What is to be the function of your sensory garden? Are you intending to create a healing or calming place, a design for hyper-stimulation of the senses, or an educational space, designed to spark a passion for gardening and the outdoors in its audience. Make your decision and stick to it! There are some great examples of sensory gardens and their capacity to help people at great times of stress in their lives. Chris Beardshaw’s ‘People’s Choice’ award winning garden is now permanently installed on the roof of Great Ormond Street Hospital and is designed to be a sanctuary of calm and tranquility for parents of seriously ill children. Horatio’s Garden, now created at 5 spinal injury units across the UK provides an uplifting environment to help with the healing and rehabilitation processes in patients with long term injuries. Closer to home for me, the beautiful Woodland Wildlife Learning Garden in Walsall Arboretum (pictured below) is designed to stimulate children’s interest in nature and the outdoors.

Key point to remember - remain focused on the intended function as you design and create your garden.

2 Design Flow
Preparation and planning will reap dividends - but be mindful of the basic principles of garden design:

  • Simplicity
  • Proportionality
  • Balance
  • Colour wise
  • Line and scale
  • Transitions
  • Unity
  • Harmony 

3 Stimulating the senses!
It goes without saying that the garden must appeal to the senses whether it be a response to a visual, auditory, touch, taste or olfactory factor. However, don’t forget the principles of simplicity and balance. There’s nothing more confusing than a profusion of differing effects. Just because three individual plants have a wonderful perfume doesn’t mean they could all be planted over the same archway. For a fabulous assault on the senses, a stroll through the Rose Garden at Coughton Court in Warwickshire comes highly recommended. (Pictured Below)

4 Materials  
Great care must be taken to ensure that materials, for paths, seating, and ornamentation are selected according to the function you aiming for as well as complimenting the planting scheme. There is also a practical aspect to the selection process which should not be overlooked, for example if you are ensuring paths are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair (or as in Horatio’s Garden, a bed), then subtle shades should be selected in order to avoid a situation whereby the thoroughfare draws the eye away from the flower beds. In the same way, raised beds and large structures should not be constructed from materials that overpower the overall scheme.

5 Plants  
And now for the best task - the planting, and for a plantaholic like me this is the nectar! I’m not going to concentrate on a list of plants that are suitable for a sensory garden, you will have fun making your own choices I’m sure - this section is about underpinning planting tips.  

There is one overriding principle to keep at the forefront of your mind as you make your plans - ‘right plant, right place’. This requires a strong knowledge, not just of individual plant characteristics and requirements, but the conditions they’ll be planted in - soil, light, climate and scale. Lavender is a wonderful plant choice for a sensory garden, but it’s no use selecting a lovely variety and then planting a hedge of it in a wet clay logged soil in a shady garden.

For a harmonious effect, it’s a good idea to use plant combinations that stimulate more than one sense - grasses mixed with specimens that attract bees, birds and butterflies is an attractive option, for who can resist running their hand along the stem and flower plume of a silky miscanthus, whilst surrounded by the rustle produced by a gentle breeze, busy insect activity and the intoxicating perfume of sweet rocket? Remember though, to take account of the height and spread when selecting your plants, as a unified result is what you’re aiming for!

Finally, always be mindful of the sensory power of individual plants - choose wisely and make sure each and every one has a purpose within your scheme, and compliments and contributes to the overall design.