Sensory Garden Ideas to Refresh Your Spirit

Sensory Garden Ideas

The gentle murmur of trickling water. The fragrance of lavender and honeysuckle. The taste of vine-ripened tomatoes. The vibrant sight of colorful plants and flowers. The comforting touch of velvety soft petals.

These are just a few elements that can transform a sensory garden—a space designed to stimulate the five senses—into a haven for health and wellness, particularly for older adults.

Beyond the inherent joy such an experience brings, engaging the senses regularly is crucial for maintaining mental sharpness in seniors.

“As we age, our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell undergo various changes due to genetics and lifestyle factors such as diet, physical activity, and wear and tear from work and recreation,” explains Emily Nabors, a senior program specialist with the National Council on Aging (NCOA).

When our senses are impaired, everyday tasks become more challenging, increasing the risk of accidents, such as misjudging hot objects or missing important instructions. Sensory-rich activities promote neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire and form new neural connections, which supports sensory functions, according to the NCOA.

“A sensory garden allows you to use all your senses and be mindful,” says Donna Soszynski, a certified horticultural therapist who works with seniors.

To maximize your outdoor space for sensory engagement, or to create a sensory-friendly environment indoors, consider adding sensory plants to your collection or visiting a local sensory garden.

A Feast for the Eyes

Assorted Hanging Paper Lamps
By Melissa,

Vibrant plants and flowers, winding stone paths, and captivating wildlife offer endless visual delight. Soszynski recommends selecting bright colors for the garden, noting that many seniors respond positively to vivid hues. A 2020 study in Psychological Science confirms that color can trigger emotional responses, so choose colors that make you feel best.

Attracting pollinators and other animals enhances the sensory experience. Nandita Godbole, a botanist and gardener, plants catnip to enjoy its aroma and attract neighborhood cats. Christopher Barrett Sheridan, known as “The Flower Sommelier,” advises planting shrubs and trees with wild fruit and berries, such as rose hips and crab apples, to draw birds and create a lively ecosystem. Native flowers attract pollinators, and bird feeders add to the visual and auditory pleasure.

Sheridan emphasizes the role of movement and shadows in the garden. “Consider the shadows your plants cast, as they are part of the sensory experience. Aim for a dynamic garden.”

Melodic Sounds

Close-up Photo of a Rain Chime
By Eva Bronzini,

Enhance your garden with auditory features like wind chimes and fountains. Soszynski suggests plants that produce rustling sounds, such as bamboo and ornamental grasses. Birdbaths offer soothing water sounds and attract birds that provide a natural serenade. Research shows birdsong is linked to stress recovery.

Godbole recommends adding solar fountain disks to birdbaths for extra sound elements. Singing bowls, bells, and gongs can also create a meditative atmosphere.

Aromas to Savor

Fragrant gardens can evoke memories, which is vital for those facing cognitive decline. Familiar scents can spark conversations, explains Orla Concannon, founder and CEO of Eldergrow, which offers therapeutic horticulture programs.

Sheridan advises selecting aromatic plants with varied scent intensities, from light to heavy. Engage the sense of smell through “scratch and sniff” activities, rubbing herbs like mint, rosemary, and lavender to release their oils and aromas.

Taste Sensations

A sensory garden isn’t complete without its culinary delights. Simple vegetable gardens with tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers provide fresh, flavorful produce. “Food gardens are essential for sensory engagement,” says Sheridan. “Home-grown produce tastes superior to store-bought and helps keep senses sharp.”

Soszynski suggests growing herbs like basil, lemongrass, chamomile, and lavender, which are versatile for teas, oils, and recipes. Edible flowers, such as violas and nasturtiums, add a fun and colorful touch to dishes. Godbole makes tea and syrup from honeysuckle and rose petal jam.

Textures to Explore

Incorporate a variety of textures—smooth, silky, squishy, fuzzy, rough, wet—through diverse vegetation and hardscapes. Lamb’s ear, with its velvety feel, is particularly soothing. Engage with the garden using bare hands and feet. Soszynski encourages tactile exploration: “Touch the soil, get your hands dirty, walk barefoot safely.”

Be mindful of sensitivities. Soszynski and Concannon caution against using plants that could cause irritation. Concannon notes, “We avoid toxic plants and those causing mild irritation, as aging skin is more susceptible to rashes.”

Finally, immerse yourself fully by sitting in the garden and feeling the refreshing breeze on your skin, completing the sensory experience.

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