Garden design often starts with a vision, an imagined picture, of what the garden will look like. But a garden is a complex environment. It can provide many levels of interest to the human explorer, who perceives it with five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Designing with all our senses in mind allows for a complete experience, and opens visitors to a heightened understanding of the garden. The great challenge of garden making is balancing all stimuli for this harmonic effect, but incorporating even just one or two sense enhancers can amplify the pleasure and satisfaction a new or existing garden offers.


Designing for all senses should make use of the full range of garden materials, from plants to hardscape to structures. The sense of taste, however, is introduced into the garden experience through plants alone, and fairly easily at that. Fruiting shrubs and small trees, from high-bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) to beach plums (Prunus maritima), are easy and decorative in flower and in fruit. Many gardeners use mountain strawberries (Fragaria vesca) for a groundcover, and snitching a berry on the way through the garden becomes a seasonal treat—and a reward for hard work. Herbs like mints (Mentha spp.) and parsley (Petroselinum crispum) are easy plants for a taste tour. More substantial fruits, such as apples, pears, and figs, require focused horticultural attention, but provide the ultimate reward in garden taste.


The sense of smell is sometimes called the mute sense; of our five senses, we are usually least aware of this one. That is, until an odor in our ambient environment reaches a threshold intensity and prompts the question, “What is that smell?” Scent is a powerful catalyst of memories and associations tied to the first exposure to a given perfume. Lilacs do that to me, in a pleasant way, returning me to childhood visits in my grandmother’s garden. Besides such specific recollections, scents can conjure more general feelings of time and place. For instance, the smell of decomposing wet leaves, or the smoke from burning leaves, evokes all that is autumn. In the gardens I design, I use fragrant plants to mark the seasons.

I include fragrant flowers, which provide passive stimuli, as well as what I call scratch-and-sniff plants—those that must be bruised or crushed to release their perfumes. Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii), lilacs (Syringa spp.), and Casa Blanca lilies (Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’) are favorite examples of flowers that punctuate the olfactory landscape. Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), lavender cotton (Santolina spp.), hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), mints, licorice vine (Helichrysum spp.), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), and other herbs are examples of the scratch-and-sniff types. Many of these are native plants and can add new levels of enjoyment to a natural landscape. Children love the show-and-tell aspect of crushing and sniffing a plant that smells like a room freshener or chewing gum. Such plants offer a fun way to engage children in the garden and its botany.

Akin to scratch-and-sniff plants are fragrant groundcovers. Walking on scented plants, such as creeping and woolly thymes, can bring garden smells into perception in the most subtle way. (Dried herbs were used for this effect in old cathedrals—sort of a visitor-activated potpourri.) Apart from fragrant plants, you can use hardscape materials to enhance the olfactory experience. Cocoa shell and cedar mulches can add pungent odors to the mix. Structures also play a role, containing scents within the garden and keeping them from dissipating. Walled gardens—an ancient custom in the Middle East—do this very well and become veritable pools of perfumes swirling through the garden. One Persian walled garden tradition capitalizes on the placement and mixing of plants so that the garden may be enjoyed in the dark, cool evening, when the focus is on the smell— not the color or form—of the flowers. Trying a blindfold garden test is a good way to sharpen your discerning sense of smell.


Like the sense of smell, hearing is an ambient sense. Sounds are all around you in the garden—bird song, wind, rain, running water, and other everyday sounds—but you may be barely conscious of them. They are part of the background noise. However, garden sounds can be played up to drown out unwanted background noise. For example, the popularity of water features in suburban gardens stems in large part from a desire for the music of moving water, and the blanketing effect it can have on other sounds.

Waterfalls, fountains, and even sprinkler heads animate the water world. Plantings, meanwhile, enhance sound by the way they interact with the elements (think whispering pines and rustling bamboo). In the classical Chinese garden, banana-like plantain trees were planted near windows, so the sound of falling rain would be amplified by their broad canopy of leaves. Many of us make our gardens attractive to wildlife that can provide a musical overlay. Bird-friendly plantings and nest boxes, feeders, and bird baths all encourage musical residents. I’m fond of vernal ponds and garden pools as homes for frogs and peepers, grateful and rhythmic participants in the garden concert. Inanimate elements of the garden can add a final layer of sound, and the size and geology of gravel and pea stone paths are part of this pleasure for me. I like the crisp contrast a crunchy footpath creates in a lush green garden. Stretches of mown grass, where steps are almost silent, offer another contrast in the sound tour.


Since our entire body is covered with a sensory membrane, our skin, touch is one of our more complex senses, and there are many different ways we can experience and perceive it. We can feel pressure differentially over our skin. Bare feet can distinguish beach pebbles from a pine needle path. Bare skin can feel the subtle changes of temperature and humidity as we move from sunlight into the shade. Planting for varied spaces of light, shade, and wind protection in a garden, and building pergolas and arbors to make cool sheltered spaces, will fold some of these contrasting stimuli into your garden sense adventure.

I love the texture of stone, especially rough granite boulders encrusted with lichens or upholstered with mosses. Mosses are the velvets of the plant world; they beg to be stroked and petted, as do pussy willows. The seed tuft of an ornamental grass and the grain of weathered wood on a seat or structure both become a kind of braille to the exploring hand. Our feet—even in soft shoes—can sense the texture and temperature of path materials, just as they recognize a step from carpet to stone or wood floors inside the home.

Touch can also occur as discomfort — immediately, from a rose thorn, or delayed, as in a good case of poison ivy. We experience these unpleasantries and learn about the dangers of the immediate world. Children usually learn these lessons better from experience, rather than from the admonitions of their elders.


Vision is often considered the most important sense in the garden, especially in the Western world, where we have developed gardens as a mostly pictorial art. Light and shadow define the form and visual textures of a garden, with color adding chemistry and vibrancy to the composition. The transition and transformation of color and texture through the seasons become our main visual cues for the annual cycles of the garden, and the use of plants that exemplify specific seasons—maples in autumn, for example—will help synchronize your life with nature’s rhythm. I feel the best gardens have these seasonal markers. Which month a garden photo was taken should be evident by which plants are in the spotlight and which are not. Certain bulbs are classic omens of spring. Summer has many lush choices. Winter has a more spare palette, but makes the subtleties of structure and bark texture and color evident.

Color, the chemistry set of the garden, allows us each to craft a unique garden vision. People think that Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English garden designer, was playing with color, but she was much more serious in her experiments. Trained as a painter, she applied artists’ color theories to planting, with some pretty jazzy results. Experimenting and playing with color of foliage and flowers provides an opportunity for a real depth of personal expression. Color options don’t end at plant choice, though: dramatic paint on walls, pergolas, fences, and other structures can create a colorful theater in which to stage your garden, a performance for all five senses.

Good Sense

A home garden designed for all five senses gives the gardener and guests new ways to enjoy the setting. Sensory gardens created for horticultural therapy (HT) provide their gardeners and visitors with the same, as well as opportunities to heal and learn.

In HT, plants and gardening activities help people face a range of physical or psychological challenges. Participants learn new skills, improve strength and coordination, and find a source of pride and ownership in therapeutic gardens. Plants that engage all five senses play an important role in drawing the gardeners fully into the program and giving them the full benefit of the experience.

Patricia Owen, resident horticultural therapist at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, works with developmentally disabled people and the vision impaired in the CBG’s new Restorative Garden. She uses fragrant, textured plants like scented geraniums, basils, and peppermint, and designs for interaction between people and plants, a staple of HT. “You have to create the garden so that people can easily access it,” explains Owen, “whether planting in a raised bed or in pockets in a wall.” While the horticulturists at the CBG initially balked at the idea of plantings being touched, they soon embraced the challenge. “It takes thought,” Owen says. “We had to choose shrubs that would flower, that we could pick the flowers from, and that would still look nice for the general public.” And is HT effective? “We don’t always appreciate what plants can do for our clients,” she says, “until we see their faces light up as they experience the garden.” For more information on HT, contact the American Horticultural Therapy Association (800-634-1603; www.ahta.org).— Meghan Lynch

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