Next to Audio-Reader, the radio reading service for the blind at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, volunteers developed a sensory garden for the visually impaired. In this multifaceted garden, colorful lavenders, thymes and roses take center stage. Gentle paths, fountains and sculptures add to the typical garden beauty—but the garden appeals to all senses, so those who can’t see its brilliant bursts of color and architectural elements can experience the garden, too. Everyone is encouraged to explore it with their fingers, ears, noses and tongues. Visitors smell cinnamon carnations, hear the wind whisper through red cedars, touch feathery yarrow and taste all sorts of mint.
“It’s especially nice after a good rain because everything is so fragrant; you feel the happiness of the plants,” says Susan Tabor, assistant coordinator of volunteers for Audio-Reader. Susan, who is blind, enjoys the heady scents of basil, peppermint and lavender; the touch of peony petals; listening to bubbling fountains and the songs of the birds. “A garden like this calls forth spirituality,” she says. “You feel wonderment as you experience its various cycles.”
The garden originated as a small bed planted in 1996: Now it has grown into a waist-level terraced garden that allows visitors in wheelchairs to savor a fragrant array of plants as they roll along winding brick paths. Specimens are labeled in both Braille and print. Benches and a gazebo offer spots to stop and soak it all in.
Anyone can enrich their surroundings with a sensory garden. Such a garden might be as simple as a pot filled with sensuous herbs or as grand as an entire yard. As you sketch your own plans, consider which senses you want to emphasize. You might want a garden, or series of gardens, dedicated to a single sense. Or, as at Audio-Reader, you might mingle all five senses together.
In selecting plants, consider color, texture and form. Smell, touch, and taste the contenders and consider how they might sound. Remember, this is a “hands on” garden so avoid pesticides and poisonous plants such as monkshood and foxglove.
In design, think in terms of similarities and differences. Pair plants that play off one another in both color and fragrance, such as Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’ with Rosa rugosa ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’. Elsewhere, mingle plants with contrasting color and form, say mixed waxy-leafed Begonia semperflorens with gold-edged lemon thyme (Thymus ×citriodorus ‘Archers Gold’).
Raised beds or large pots add dimension and allow visitors to touch plants without stooping. Water features, pathways, sculptures, chimes and strategic seating enhance the calm. Fountains are particularly nice: “There’s something very soothing about water,” Susan says. While all gardens have their charm, there’s nothing like a sensory garden to calm the soul.
Your Own Sensory Garden
Sight. Seek color in flowers, fruits, foliage and bark. Warm colors (reds, oranges and yellows) add cheer; cool colors (blues, greens, purples) add a sense of calm. Look for ruffled, fuzzy or lace-textured plants. Entice butterflies and birds with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and butterfly bush (Buddleia). For late-season interest, try Autumn Snakeroot (Actaea simplex), with spires of fragrant white flowers, and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum).
Sound. Go for ornamental grasses that sway in the wind and fragrant lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus). Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena), an annual, has rattling seedpods; moving water attracts songbirds; and in autumn, leaves crunch underfoot.
Scent. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) perfumes the air; ‘Hidcote’ is one of the most fragrant cultivars. Basils and oreganos add strong savory scents. Put Pelargonium ‘Citronella’ on your “must-have” list along with other scented geraniums. Consider lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), cotton lavender (Santolina chamaecyparissus) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’), a nicely scented groundcover.
Touch. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) begs you to feel its piney needles. Add variety with velvety lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), spiky globe thistle (Echinops ritro), soft gayfeather (Liatris spicata), fleshy hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum). Bark, seedpods and water features add tactile interest, too.
Taste. Chocolate mint (Mentha ×piperita f. citrata) tastes like a Peppermint Patty without the calories! Consider berries, peppermint, orange mint, parsley, sweetleaf (Stevia rebaudiana) and edible flowers such as nasturtiums and violas.
Freelance writer Carol Crupper gardens and enjoys the many public gardens in Lawrence, Kansas.