Article by Rachel Mathes, Leon County Horticulture Program Assistant
Sensory gardens are a great way to involve children and people with special needs with gardening. Gardens provide a no-judgement zone for creative expression and allow us to get down in the dirt every now and then. Because sensory gardens are designed to be appreciated by more than just the sense of sight, they are an approachable way for disabled and non-disabled users alike. By engaging taste, feel, smell, hearing, and more, sensory gardens allow visitors of all ages and circumstances to engage in gardening.
To make your own sensory garden, think about what feeling you would like to experience while visiting your garden. Do you want a calm healing place of introspection or perhaps a vibrant playful area for engaged learning in nature? Having a theme can help you choose the different elements you would like to include in your sensory garden, which can be an entire yard or as small as a container. They are being used more and more in memory care units of nursing homes as well as preschools and elementary schools, but you can make your own right at home.
The sound of moving water is calming to many, so a small fountain can be a great addition to your sensory garden. It will also benefit local wildlife by offering them a small watering hole. As long as the water is moving, mosquitos should not be a problem, but mosquito dunks or even the incorporation of mosquito fish are easy solutions to solving mosquito problems in small ponds or fountains. Some plants to consider for their sounds include false indigo (Baptisia australis), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and mountain oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). False indigo produces seed pods great for rattling, and when it is windy, switchgrass and mountain oats provide a gentle rustle.
A variety of textures offers the gardener a safe place to interact with nature without worrying about the dangers of poison ivy and other plant irritants. Plants like muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) offer a multitude of interactions as they sway in the wind, have bright white and pink blooms, and can be braided together in a variety of patterns. The native sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa) is a low growing ground cover that puts out pink powderpuff flowers and folds up when touched. Some other plants to explore by touch are lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantine), maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis), the mildly dangerous points of aloe, and the many textures of southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).
There are plenty of smelly plants to entice your nose in the garden. From rosemary to dill, mint and beyond, many herbs do very well here in the Florida Panhandle. Lemon balm and lemongrass bring a punch of citrus without the need for a big citrus tree. Beyond herbs, pine needles give a resinous scent when compressed, gardenias offer heavy sweetness from their voluminous white blooms, and sweet almond verbena (Aloysia virgata) delights with a vanilla almond aroma that carries pleasantly in the wind.
When it comes to tasting in a sensory garden, fruits and vegetables are an obvious choice. Plenty of annual vegetables can be grown year-round, from leafy greens in the fall, winter, and early spring, to tomatoes and peppers in the summer. Blackberries are an easy to grow favorite in this part of the state, are available as thornless varieties, and take well to growing on a trellis in small spaces. A great edible that many children favor in the Demonstration Garden at the Leon County Extension Office is cranberry hibiscus. The bright red leaves of new growth are a sweet and sour treat they equate to Sour Patch Kids candy. The older leaves can be added into stir fries and salads and the flowers can be cooked into a syrup for making purple lemonade. Herbs can be used for their taste factor as well. But if your sensory garden will be visited by the general public without supervision, I recommend clear delineation for the tasting area so that no one eats anything unpalatable or poisonous by accident.
When setting up your sensory garden, be sure to involve your intended audience. Small children thrive when given a job to do and will enjoy planting sweet herbs alongside you. Even regular maintenance of the garden can involve the participants you hope to engage. The simple acts of weeding and watering can foster a sense of responsibility and empowerment as the visitors gain sensory enrichment through these activities and see the fruits of their labor with time.