Looking for a sensory garden experience in your own backyard? Pleasant scents, tastes, sounds, sights and tactile experiences can coexist with growing food.
The five senses: sound, smell, sight, taste and touch.
They affect how you feel.
They are often the deciding factor in what you do and don’t do.
They save you from harm.
They are a large part of your life.
Your senses are very powerful in determining how you feel at any given moment. What you hear, smell, see, taste and feel impacts your life more than you perhaps are conscious of.
Gardens can be a treasure-trove of sources of sensory experiences. Even your food garden or urban homestead can be a sensory garden with careful selection of its elements. How you plan the layout, what you grow and even how you interact with it have an impact.
Let’s look at ways that will create a sensory garden right in your backyard.
How to Add Sound To Your Sensory Garden 👂🏻
Sound can have a huge impact on making your garden tranquil and peaceful. The right sound will set the background for your enjoyment of the garden.
Birds are in most cases a benefit to have in the garden.
- They can keep insect pests in check.
- They scratch the surface of the soil in search of worms and other tasty morsels, breaking it up.
- Hummingbirds can help pollinate flowers.
Yes, they can be a nuisance as they may eat your newly planted seeds or berries. And in some cases they can damage other food crops too.
However having birdsong as natural background music when spending time in the garden is heaven.
Attracting birds is fairly easy.
- Provide them with a birdbath to drink and bathe in
- Provide nesting locations with birdhouses
- Provide nesting materials such as straw, twigs, etc.
- Feed hummingbirds with a sugar/water mixture in feeders
- Feed birds in wintertime with bird seed and suet
Water features are probably the most impactful way to add soothing sounds to your garden.
The sound of a waterfall or fountain splashing provides a peaceful backdrop to the rest of the garden. It can also help to mute the sounds of traffic if you leave near or on a busy street.
We have two ponds, one in the front which is a cement-walled round pond with a statue of a girl pouring water, and one in back that is more natural looking with a small stream and waterfall. Here is a short video clip of the back pond (with sound):
These features can be expensive and time-consuming to build and also require yearly maintenance, but the rewards of having them outweigh the work involved. Without the sounds of a water feature you may wonder: what is missing?
Water features can also help cool down the air in hot weather. Plus they are a source for emergency water to keep your food crops going if disaster strikes or you are under severe watering restrictions.
If you want to start off small, there are self-contained fountains you can buy. Just set them up, fill with water and plug them in.
Or you can also build your own with a waterproof container, a pump, some water plants and perhaps a small fish or two.
Maybe even raise fish you can eat! That may be a future project for me to try.
The other way to add sound that may fit your gardening budget more easily is a wind chime.
There are metal chimes, bamboo chimes and wooden chimes of all shapes and sizes. Pick one that is a soothing sound you like. The bamboo and wooden chimes typically sound very earthy with their thonking sound, while metal wind chimes have higher pitches and more of a mechanical sound.
There are also rules in feng shui of what type of wind chime to hang in various areas of your garden. More info in this article.
The final suggestion is meditation music – often this music has nature sounds such as waterfalls, ocean waves, bird calls, etc. There are varying opinions about this. Some people prefer to listen to the natural sounds around them.
But if you live on a busy street with the constant noise of traffic, try putting some headphones on and listen to meditative music when in the garden. It will help to block out the undesired sounds and bring you a feeling of peace and serenity.
How to Add Smell To Your Sensory Garden 👃🏻
Smell can take you back to your childhood. A smell can trigger a fond memory of summers spent idly while on vacation from school. Or the fresh smells of spring with the blossoms opening on trees. Or the earthy smells in fall of ripe pears, pumpkins and fallen leaves.
Smells can also trigger memories of a wedding (your own or friends) or some other important event in your life.
Flowers are probably the first thing you think of when looking for ways to add pleasant smells to your garden. Fragrant roses, sweet peas, lilies, lilac or jasmine are just some of the flowers that will perfume the air in your garden.
The good thing is that when you have such flowers in pots or other containers you can move them around if you find them to be too strongly scented. And it also takes some experimenting to find out what scents work well together and which ones need to be separated.
Some flowers also have stronger scents at nighttime so an evening walk around your flower beds is well worth it.
Roses have the additional benefit of having other uses as I’ve written about in the article Why You Should Grow Roses on Your Urban Homestead
Other plants that will also impart nice smells are some of the popular herbs such as basil, peppermint, rosemary, thyme and lavender.
These usually require some form of disturbance to release their scents so placement can make a huge difference in how often the scents are released.
We have a lavender plant next to our driveway where I love to grab a flower and rub it between my hands just before getting in the car.
And we have thyme on the edge of the path next to our raspberries where as we pick the fruit, we get this nice smell of thyme wafting over us as we step on the plants.
Pick them, dry them and you’ll have them all winter to use for potpourri, cooking and baking.
Vegetables and Fruits
Nothing beats the smell of a freshly picked peach, a recently pulled carrot or a ripe tomato just pulled off the vine.
When you pick them, you will be able to smell the promise they hold for a great meal. It just can’t compare to the bland vegetables you buy at the grocery store that were picked days or even weeks ago.
I work with a lot of cedar lumber, building various garden structures such as my raised beds, compost, greenhouse and deck railings. I love cutting and working with cedar, as the aroma of the wood gives me a calm and peaceful feeling.
However rather than spending your time cutting lots of cedar lumber, you can instead get cedar chips to put on paths. After a rain or irrigation you will find the cedar releases its scent, especially if you walk on it.
Other wood mulches may also provide some scents especially if they are fresh – experiment with what you like best.
How to Add Beautiful Sights to Your Sensory Garden 🌹
Gardens usually are a kaleidoscope of colour and textures. Mainly greens punctuated with whites, reds, pinks, yellows, blues, purples, oranges and even blacks.
Mother nature has a knack in combining colours that work well together, but as gardeners we can of course help her along.
Visually nothing beats beautiful flowers in the garden.
They come in all shapes, sizes and colours. While colour is usually the first thing that a person notices, the textures as well help to define the plant and provide interest for the eyes.
In terms of colour sometimes less is more – aim to have a consistent colour palette and beds that have swaths of colour instead of just haphazardly having flowers of every imaginable colour. Yes, I’m guilty of this myself and hope to follow this advice as I gradually improve my flower beds.
You should also keep in mind that having ongoing colour throughout the year can be difficult. Having a wide variety of flowers that bloom at different times works best. And be patient as it may take a few years to get the right balance.
Ornamental bushes and trees
One way to provide visual interest even in the depths of winter is to have evergreen bushes and trees that retain their foliage throughout the year. While they may be covered in snow during the coldest part of your winter, they still provide form to the garden instead of having just a flat expanse of yard.
However deciduous trees can be spectacular too when they are in full leaf. We have a Katsura tree in our front yard and every year in spring it starts off in a muted shade of yellow and red and turns green in late spring. In the fall around October or so it turns a bright orange that is so bright it colours our living room orange in the morning when the sun is shining on it.
Then there are the ornamental cherry and plum trees that line our streets here in Victoria and provide a blossom “snowfall” that other colder areas of Canada are envious of. In Japan the progression of the blooming cherry trees from the south of Japan to the north is documented on the news reports every day in early spring and visitors from around Japan and the world travel to see the amazing show that nature puts on.
Japanese maples are also a popular “transplant” from Japan here in our city and we have one in our front yard next to our pond. While it is already a muted red starting in spring and during the summer, it turns a brilliant red in fall. As with cherry trees, the progression of maples changing colour on the hillsides in Japan is also reported on the news every night in the autumn.
Vegetables and Fruits
It’s not the first thing you might think of when you grow vegetables and fruits. After all we want to pick them and eat them.
But there is beauty in the colours and textures of the food you grow.
Think multi-coloured Swiss chard and beets, frilly kale, bright green lettuce and the little green or purple UFOs (kohlrabi). Then there are the fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers that come in a multitude of colours. Eggplant is another vegetable with brilliant purple flowers and then multi-coloured fruit in purples, pinks and whites.
Fruit comes also in some stunning colours such as different shades of red, green, yellow, orange and blues.
With all this visual interest that vegetables can provide you might not want to limit them only to your raised veggie beds or in orderly rows. They can be planted in among other ornamental plants in your regular flower beds to enjoy anytime you stroll through the garden.
You can have the nicest flowers, most colourful vegetables and fruits, but if your fence is falling down, you have piles of debris everywhere (I’m guilty of that) and you have tools scattered haphazardly around the garden, it will be hard to enjoy your garden visually. Unless you already have lived so long with the mess that you no longer see it.
A bit of cleanup and some light repairs can help. Make sure you have a place to put your garden tools and supplies and have the habit of putting everything away at the end of the gardening day.
Once everything is tidy, you should put down a layer of mulch as a final step. This will tidy up garden beds, unifying the colour. It also provides the benefit of retaining moisture and suppressing weeds.
If you can afford it, adding lights to your landscapes is well worth the cost and effort. Gardens look different at night and lighting up pathways, significant trees and built-up structures helps to highlight the sections of the garden you are most proud of.
It also makes the garden safer for a nighttime stroll to enjoy the scents of nighttime flowers.
There are many options available in lighting and many are doable by homeowners. However if you have the funds, you may want to hire a professional landscape lighting contractor to have it done if you don’t have the time.
How to Add Tastes To Your Sensory Garden 👅
Just having vegetables and fruit and edible flowers in your garden is already a feast for the taste buds. However not all are that handy to eat right off the plant or tree. The ones that are can provide an explosion of flavour while you are enjoying the other senses in your garden.
Fruit in the garden is very convenient for snacking as you work in the garden or walk by. In fact sometimes it is hard to get enough fruit picked and not eaten on the spot if your plan is to preserve it or make something with it!
If you do manage to get some of the fruit into the kitchen, then you have the options of baking a pie or some other baked good, making jam, or preparing it for freezing or canning. Cooking will sometimes bring out the natural sweetness in a fruit that might not be noticeable if you eat it raw.
My favourite way though to use berries is on my cereal in the morning. Nothing beats the taste of home-grown strawberries – so sweet!
Fresh peas straight out of the pod are great for snacking. Tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes, are also great for snacking right off the vine. Carrots can be plucked out of the ground and after a quick rinse can be munched on just like a rabbit.
You’ll be amazed at how fresh everything tastes! Of course some vegetables benefit from some cooking even if it is just a quick steam or saute with some spices and herbs. And you never want to eat potatoes or some kinds of beans (kidney being the most dangerous) raw.
You may want to pick the herbs and use them in cooking as has traditionally been done. But some gardeners like to chew on a basil leaf or some other herb such as mint as they walk through the garden.
How to Add Touch to Your Sensory Garden 🤚🏻
Texture is one of the senses that can be very subtle. However it is especially noticeable if you happen to brush your hand against a thorny rose bush!
But aside from the cuts and scrapes I usually get gardening, there are textures that don’t draw blood.
Leaves and Stems
Leaves and stems of plants can vary in texture: rubbery or waxy, fuzzy, smooth, bumpy, spiky, etc. Brushing your hands through the plant or rubbing a leaf can impart a sense of calmness and a connection to the plant and nature in general.
Hug a tree! Not only environmentalists trying to save old growth trees from the chainsaw should hug a tree. You can too.
Trees have so much life running through them as their trunks are the main conduit for nutrients and water. Some people can actually feel this when they hug a tree.
Just don’t hug a fruit tree where you have applied a sticky band of resin. Don’t ask me how I know this!
Who hasn’t walked barefoot in a lush green lawn? Connection to the earth is very important and there is actually a meditative practice of “grounding” or “earthing” that can provide many health benefits.
Texture underfoot can range from the softness and coolness of grass to the more acupressure-activating bumps of walking on a pebble or stone path.
You will have to watch out for bees and wasps that might be buzzing around in the grass to avoid being stung. And if you have thorny plants like roses be careful to collect up any fallen or pruned branches as stepping on one of those when barefoot is not fun! Unless you need free acupuncture (but seriously, you can get nasty infections from rose thorns, so be careful!)
A lot of these ideas come naturally as you improve your garden for other reasons, but a bit of forethought and planning can purposefully include some of these ideas into your garden to satisfy the five senses of sound, smell, sight, taste and touch.
Start today to find ways to stimulate your five senses and find calmness in your tranquil garden.
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If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC
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