Browsing through the hundreds of ideas submitted to The School We’d Like competition, a sensory or wildlife garden jumped out as a project which many teachers were calling out for, especially at special schools.

But what are the secrets to creating the perfect sensory garden? We spoke to Pauline Holbrook, deputy headteacher at Portland Academy, one of the runners-up in our special schools category with an idea to build a sensory woodland walk, and Robert Sergent-Fairley, an expert in building sensory gardens for schools, to find out how to build a stimulating outdoor learning space.

Choosing the right space

A sensory garden can be everything from a window box to a huge area. It really depends how much space a school has, says Pauline. But there’s always a space in the school you can make into a more sensory environment. So no school should be put off.

The shape and the size of it is determined by what the school wants it use the space for, she adds. It also depends what students you have. For example, if you don’t have any children in a wheelchair, you can have tighter corners and more slopes.

Pauline explained: “Sometimes schools start too big or too small and at the end of the day you’ve also got to be aware that somebody has got to look after it. These things don’t look after themselves. There’s nothing worse than an unloved space in the school.”

What to include in your sensory garden

• Sight

Robert says the visual impact of the space is the most important element. His recommended mantra for schools is green, green and more green.

Raised planters are great for schools because it cuts down on maintenance and means you don’t have to hack out the ground, he advises. Trellis work is also good because you can grow climbers up it. It also provides privacy for the children in the garden. The biggest impact will be from the trees, which should always be evergreen so children can use the garden all year round.

• Touch

Every single plant has a different feeling – wide, narrow, elliptical, oval or hairy. Touch can also be covered using ground surfaces such as mosaics, pebbles, gravel, polished glass pieces and shingles. Robert recommends using timber – rough, smooth, grooved – in pathways or deckings. There are plenty of stone materials including bricks and pavings which feel great to touch under foot or hand.

• Smell

Robert advises choosing flowers that are highly scented or shrubs such as the Mexican orange blossom which, when you rub the leaves, gives out a fragrant, aromatic scent. Timber smells great when it dries out too. Shrubs, flowers, herbs, leaves – these can all give off a wonderful scent. Lavender and rosemary are two classic plants for this purpose.

• Hearing

One thing that’s tricky to cover is hearing, Robert admits. However, you can cover that by including tall plants like bamboos for the wind to blow through or short tufty plants. In the autumn some of the plants throw out seed packets which rattle. You can also hang items from trees such as wind chimes.

Water features can also be a useful addition, if there is space. “You can get a very good self contained pebble pool from your local garden centre,” Pauline says. “It’s very safe because it’s got the mesh over and you can bury it down.”

• Taste

A fruit and vegetable garden are the most common ways schools stimulate this sense, explains Robert. Although this is entirely dependent on space and budget.

Maintenance

If you’ve got older students then you can make the maintenance duties part of their work experience programme.

“If you’ve got a really good site team or interested members of staff, you can build it into the curriculum, which is something we do,” she said. “We do horticulture for students and have work experience with the site team. That gives them a huge ownership of it so you don’t get as much damage – accidental or otherwise. It can also be built into your site maintenance contract.”

Remember that a lot of things grow over the summer when you are not there and your school will need to take that into consideration.

Pauline explained: “Again, it’s about considering who is going to look after it over holiday periods and water plants, especially if things are in tubs as they are going to be more susceptible to dying off. It’s the planning beforehand which makes it really work.”

Robert says one way to avoid maintenance headaches is to use artificial grass. It’s so good, you won’t even tell the difference, he says.

The benefits

For Pauline’s students, learning outside is infinitely more meaningful than reading books. The children learn by doing and experience. But whether your students are SEN or not, the garden can be a stimulating place to learn any subject.

“Just getting students to talk about what they are experiences all helps with the learning,” Pauline says. “It has huge benefits and gets them to use all their senses.”

Useful websites

The Sensory Trust
Gardening with Children

According to the definition provided by Hussein, a sensory garden is a garden where all components are carefully designed to provide maximum sensory stimulation (2011). The aim of these gardens is to heighten our awareness of our interaction with nature through our senses. This definition of a sensory garden encompasses awareness of all aspects of the garden, both vegetative and hardscape elements. The hardscape elements to be included in therapeutic gardens, including sensory gardens, are as important as the vegetative elements because they become an integral part of the overall experience. For example, paths, walls, seating and signage all allow access, inclusivity and interactivity within the garden.

Sensory gardens should be designed with a careful attention to detail, considering each of the five traditional senses, as well as the less well-recognised senses that may be impaired with a number of medical conditions. The five traditional senses are:

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell.

Each of these senses can be stimulated and the sensory experience heightened by a sensory garden, but for some individuals and groups with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory integration dysfunction (SID), sensory garden designers should be especially cognisant of stimulating the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.

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Creating A Sensory Garden – Ideas And Plants For Sensory Gardens

All gardens appeal to the senses in one way or another, as every plant bears individual characteristics that entice different senses in unique ways. There is nothing more pleasant than to stroll through a garden and admire the rainbow of colors and diversity in texture while taking in the sweet fragrance of flowers in bloom.

What are Sensory Gardens?

Sensory gardens strive to maximize the sensory impact that the garden has on its visitors. Sensory gardens can be themed, divided into sections or presented as a whole. Sensory gardens are user friendly and encourage garden guests to touch, taste, admire and listen.

Creating a sensory garden is an exciting and worthwhile project that provides limitless opportunities to teach and exercise horticultural healing therapy techniques.

How to Create a Sensory Garden

Sensory garden design ideas are plentiful and can be suited to any garden objective. If you are planning a garden as a teaching tool for small children, for instance, you will want to keep your space small and plant heights within reach. If you are creating a sensory garden space for persons in wheelchairs, you will want the plant height and hardscape elements to be practical for this audience.

The beauty of sensory gardens is that they can be adapted to a wide variety of users. Start with a well thought out plan and be sure to accommodate space for the mature size of the plants you have chosen. Incorporate hardscape elements such as benches, paths, water fountains, bird feeders and garden art into the sensory space for an added effect.

Plants for Sensory Gardens

First and foremost when choosing plants for sensory gardens, it is imperative that you choose plants that will thrive in your garden region. Native plants are great because they are used to the environment, are less susceptible to disease and are generally lower maintenance that other non-native plants.

Next, include plants and other things that entice the senses.

Sound – To stimulate hearing, choose plant flora that makes noise when the wind passes through them, such as bamboo stems. Many seedpods make interesting sounds as well, and the end of season leaves provide a fun crunching sound under feet. You can also include plants that encourage wildlife in the garden. The buzzing of a bee, the chirping of a cricket or the whizzing of a hummingbird all stimulates the sense of hearing.

Touch – There is no shortage of plants that offer interesting textures, perfect for encouraging the sense of touch. From the baby soft feel of a lamb’s ear to the irresistible sensation of cool moss through the fingers or rough seedpods, it is possible to incorporate many different textures into the garden. Do not plant anything that may be dangerous, however, such as prickly roses or spiny agaves.

Smell – The sense of smell is extremely memorable, and aromas easily find their place in our memory banks. Most sensory gardens are full of mingling aromas that entice a wide range of emotions. Highly aromatic plants such as the sweet smelling gardenia, honeysuckle, herbs and spices, provide ample opportunity for stimulation.

Sight – Adding visual interest to a sensory garden can be achieved by using plants with varying habits such as those that creep, climb, trail, bush or stand upright. Incorporating plants with different bloom, leaf, bark and stem colors provide visual appeal as well.

Taste – Edible fruits, herbs and spices planted in a sensory garden allow visitors an opportunity to experience nature’s bounty while enticing their taste buds. Vegetables can also arouse the taste buds.

A sensory garden is a garden space designed to stimulate and engage all the senses. Bright, colorful plants with varying textures and fragrances combine with elements of sound to create an engaging environment to help relax, stimulate, and teach. Sensory gardens provide an opportunity for disabled and non-disabled visitors, young and old, to experience joy and relaxation in settings and conditions that they may not typically experience. Especially beneficial to children and adults with sensory processing issues such as autism or other disabilities, sensory gardens are gaining popularity with schools, businesses, hospitals, and communities.

How Sensory Gardens Help

People with sensory processing disorders often have intense reactions to stimulation, either too much or too little, and a sensory garden provides a calm, safe, gentle environment to explore the senses without being overwhelmed. Depending on the needs of the primary users, gardens can focus on a single sense or incorporate several, featuring plants and elements which create the most beneficial atmosphere.

Sensory gardens have proven therapeutic value, offer health benefits, such as reducing stress and lowering blood pressure, and help keep Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients calm and engaged. A relaxing garden environment may calm hyperactive individuals, and a stimulating design will arouse the senses of those that tend to under-react to stimuli.

A sensory garden is a great way for children to learn about their senses and the environment around them. It helps children get out in nature and become inquisitive about discovering new things in their surroundings. Schools and community centers are utilizing sensory gardens as a part of their curriculum to teach in a more “hands-on” approach.

How to Design a Sensory Garden

Sensory gardens are meant to be explored. Take time to think about each element that is going into the garden and how it can develop the senses. Consider the layout of your design including walkway space, height of plants and lighting.

Sensory gardens, designed with the user’s ages and abilities in mind, incorporate several elements to provide accessibility and encourage the interaction of users.

  • Raised beds are more accessible for disabled or elderly users.
  • Install kneelers and railings around low garden beds for easy access and safety.
  • Go vertical in your garden with hanging baskets and wall installations.

  • Create comfortable seating, including armrests, and adequate space for wheelchairs.
  • Wide, winding, walkways are wheelchair accessible and create focal points, inviting users to slow down and explore.

  • Use properly graded slopes instead of stairs for better accessibility to people of all ages.
  • Create a quiet space that overlooks the garden to set a relaxing tone.
  • Utilize a variety of flowers and produce to harvest and share.

What Goes into a Sensory Garden

Appealing to the senses with flowers, shrubs, herbs and other landscape features is the most important part of any sensory garden. Native plants are always a good choice to use because they are less susceptible to disease, used to the environment, and typically have lower maintenance needs. Choose vegetation that will beguile people’s ears, eyes, fingers, noses and taste buds.

Sound

Utilizing native plants will welcome buzzing bees, chirping crickets and singing birds. Additionally, ornamental grasses and bamboo create a unique sound when wind blows through them. Get creative with windchimes made of a variety of materials for a calming effect.

Touch

All plants have their own unique feel which makes this category easy to accomplish. Think outside-the-box for a real variety to tickle touch’s fancy. The soft feel of lamb’s ear or Stachys bvzantina “Big Ears” would contrast nicely with the papery sensation of Physalis alkekengi. Moss, Cape Sundew, Yarrow, Feather Grass and Coneflower are also good additions. Water features heighten multiple senses and can be installed as a fountain, fish pond, or waterfall.

Smell

Smell can trigger a wide range of emotions. Consider a combination of scents that will work well together but that are individually distinguishable and unique. It’s helpful to remember that some plants naturally release their scent, like roses, while others need to be touched to release their fragrance, such as geraniums. Choose your plants carefully and make sure some of your favorites are near the entrance for an inviting scent. Some good options are: gardenia, honeysuckle, mint, thyme, lavender, and chocolate cosmos.

Sight

Visual interest can be added to a sensory garden in many ways. Utilize the habits of how plants grow such as those that climb, creep, or stand up right, to make your garden visually appealing. Get creative with color and utilize hues from different areas of the color spectrum in the plants you choose. Remember to carefully plan the color of hardscaping materials used in your design to ensure that the red bricks or blue stone jump out at the eye.

Taste

Fill your garden with fruits, herbs, spices, vegetables and edible flowers. Be sure to differentiate areas with eatable plants versus plants that contribute only to the sensory garden’s aesthetic appearance so as not to confuse guests who visit your space.

Whether for yourself, a loved one, or public use, consulting with a professional, will ensure a carefully designed and planned sensory garden that will engage and excite all the senses. Sponzilli’s has the highest standards in landscape design, construction, and maintenance as well as extensive experience with detailed design projects, community gardens, and sensory gardens.

Research suggests that natural environments improve physical and emotional health. Sensory gardens provide the perfect setting for relaxation, meditation, education, and therapy. A consultation with Sponzilli Landscape Group’s award-winning team will ensure a result that far exceeds your wildest expectations. Contact us for more information about your landscaping needs.

Sensory garden design advice:1. What is a sensory garden?

A sensory garden is a self-contained area that concentrates a wide range of sensory experiences. If designed well it provides a valuable resource for a wide range of uses, from education to recreation.

Why make a sensory garden?

We experience everything through our senses and this creates the multi-sensory memories we carry with us. The more senses we engage, the richer the experience and the more we remember. With imaginative sensory design and sensitive attention to detail, a garden becomes a sensory feast.

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.

What type of space do you need?

Through imaginative design it is easy to create landscapes that offer a wide range of sensory experiences, either as sensory-filled destinations in their own right, or as extra highlights to a more general space.

The first thing is to decide what type of sensory space you need. There are three basic options –

A sensory garden: A self-contained area that concentrates a wide range of sensory experiences. If designed well it provides a valuable resource for a wide range of uses, from education to recreation.

A sensory trail: A range of experiences provided along a route, with more association with movement. It can provide orientation and interest between different spaces (e.g. from indoors to an outdoor space), picking up themes that help connect them. Or it can give interest in its own right.

Enriching the overall landscape: Sites that are relatively diverse and easily accessible may lend themselves to developing an overall theme of sensory interest rather than concentrating on specific areas.

It often works well to combine them. So, if you are planning a sensory garden, you could add sensory richness to the routes that people will use to get there. Or enrich sensory interest generally throughout your site. Or add sensory-rich activities that you can use in the garden or in the wider site.

How should I design a sensory school garden for students?

Texture and foliage plays a big part in sensory gardens

You can also try succulents and alpines in paving cracks, grasses in among wildflowers – whatever you like! I have written about great foliage plants, as well as choosing the best varieties from Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court.

If you have a large area, a tight budget, or even just a bed you want to fill with flowers quickly, I would recommend a wildflower mix. This will give you a great range of pretty flowers in just a few months.

Make sure you create lots of seating areas for people to enjoy the garden. This doesn’t have to be furniture – if you have raised beds or water features, make sure they have walls or edges that people can sit on. If you have the space for a lawn, it’s really the most cost-effective seating area!

If the garden space is quite small, see my top tips for small garden design.

Water features are very calming, and they attract wildlife, which is a good bonus. If you don’t have room for a fountain, try rain chains and bird baths.

You can also attract wildlife like birds, bees and insects to make the garden more sensory with buzzing and animal activity. You can make cheap DIY butterfly feeders, plant varieties that birds love to eat and lay out fresh water to attract pondlife like frogs and pondskaters!

With school gardens, students get the most out of them when they are allowed to help create the garden, from choosing plants and features to building, planting, watering and weeding. Good luck!

Sensory gardens are designed around a theme, some are passive, others restful and some are designed to stimulate activity to be used within therapeutic or educational programmes.

Sensory Gardens can be divided into three categories:

  • Sensory Garden: a self contained area that concentrates a wide range of sensory experiences. These are mainly used for education and recreation.
  • Sensory Trails: These provide a range of experiences along a particular route or path and are often associated with movement.
  • Enriching the overall landscape: Sites that are diverse and easily accessible lend themselves to developing an overall sensory theme as opposed to concentrating on a particular area.

SENSORY GARDEN DESIGN ADVICE

1. PLANNING THE GARDEN
Successful sensory garden design relies on a clear idea of what you are aiming to create, why you are doing it, who it’s for and how it’s going to happen.

  • Who is the garden for.
  • How will the garden be used.
  • What resources do you have.
  • How will the Garden be maintained
  • How will the project be managed.

2. DESIGNING A SENSORY GARDEN

There are key design principles that underpin the design of any sensory garden so that it can be enjoyed by the widest range of people and in the ways intended.

  • Access and useability
  • Comfort
  • Sensory experience
  • Robust Design

3. DESIGN IDEAS AND INSPIRATION

It is worth remembering that there are many sensory experiences we have that are not formally categorised as one of the main five, for example a sense of balance, temperature, space and enclosure.

  • Orientation, gravity and balance
  • Sound
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Cause and effect
  • Mood and ambience

4. PLANTS FOR SENSORY GARDENS

Plants need to fulfil different roles in a sensory garden. While they will usually be the stars of the show in terms of providing sensory interest, they will also be responsible for functional things like shelter from cold winds, shady respite from summer sun and enclosure for a quiet space.

  • Plants for shade
  • Plants for shelter
  • Seasonal Interest
  • Plants for reminiscence
  • Plants for celebration
  • Plants to attract wildlife
  • Plants to avoid

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