Spring into planting a sensory garden

May is the start of outdoor gardening season in Minnesota. Adaptive gardening is a great way to get outdoors, get […]

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May is the start of outdoor gardening season in Minnesota. Adaptive gardening is a great way to get outdoors, get exercise and grow delicious produce or beautiful flowers.

Gardening also provides vital sensory experiences. Many people underestimate how soothing an outdoor space can be to someone who is disabled or elderly. A garden can be an excellent outdoor space for any person for somebody to experience sights sounds and smells that they would otherwise not be able to enjoy. A larger number of public spaces and gardens are now being landscaped so that they can be enjoyed by people regardless of their health or level of ability.

Sensory Gardens

Sensory gardens are not only a fun spring project for gardeners, they also can provide great pleasure to visitors. Photo courtesy of ZooChat

Sensory gardens are places where the whole idea is to encourage users to explore, touch, pick, smell and even crush plants, and interact with objects. This puts challenges on the design, particularly a need to make things robust and to choose plants and materials that can tolerate the inevitable damage from inquisitive hands. Where resources allow, gardeners can include plants that can be regularly replaced, or choose hardy plants that can withstand a lot of handling.

Sensory gardens have evolved from the traditional concept of a “garden for the blind.” In a therapeutic context, it is a small garden designed to fulfill the needs of a group of people who want to be involved in active gardening and who also enjoy the passive pleasures of being outdoors amongst plants. Sensory gardens can be used for recreation as well as education. Many resources, online and in-print, can help a gardener plan for garden use by people with disabilities.

Successful design relies on imaginative use of materials and opportunities. Consider ways of concentrating or ‘stage managing’ natural events, for example by introducing nest boxes and feeders so that birds can be seen or choosing nectar-rich plants to encourage butterflies and other pollinators. Think of ways of bringing in materials that would otherwise require venturing further afield, such as piles of autumn leaves, a load of straw or bark chips. Plants, especially flowers, are great for triggering memories and this makes them ideal for reminiscence. This is particularly relevant for older people and those living with dementia and memory loss. If possible, involve people in collecting memories and stories to determine what should be planted. Make collages of pictures of flowers and plants.

In a garden it can be as simple as including some containers of annual flowers that are old favorites such as marigolds, forget-me-nots, pansies, snapdragons. Or let grass grow longer between cuts so the daisies can flower, have a tub or two for planting a favorite vegetable (e.g. potatoes, runner beans) or grow some fresh mint for making tea. The design can also include features intended to bring back memories, with an old garden shed with tools, a border of old-fashioned scented pinks, or old clay pots.

If people are going to enjoy the garden they will need to be able to get to and around it. Think about details including path widths, surfaces and gradients as well as access to toilets and opportunities to sit and rest. Consider access in terms of reaching features within the garden—height and proximity of plantings, water and sculptures—so everyone can explore up close. This is important for everyone, including people with sensory impairments and those who use wheelchairs.

Sensory design calls for extra effort to make sure different experiences are in reach. For example, trees may be deliberately planted near to a path so the bark can be felt.

When designing for people with specific disabilities, think about whom else might share the space, especially friends and caregivers. If they enjoy the garden they are more likely to encourage others to use it. Comfort is important and often overlooked. Seating is one of the most important and most neglected features in landscape design. Seats make a space more accessible to people who tire easily, and more enjoyable generally by giving people more chance to pause.

Creating a sensory garden is a project that a home owner and personal care assistant can embrace and work together to make a wonderful opportunity for many to enjoy. If creating your own is not possibility, enjoy other gardens throughout the state. Visit here to find a listing of gardens to explore.


Jeni Mundl, lead assistive technology specialist, works at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute Assistive Technology. Contact her at [email protected]

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Mental Wellness