A sensory garden is a green space which has been designed to appeal to as many of the senses as possible. In healthcare settings, sensory planting is often used for people with dementia, as colour, touch and scent can calm and ground, and inspire the recollection of distant memories and sensations. Children with special educational needs, including autism, benefit from being able to explore multiple senses in an environment that feels safe and soothing.

Touch and scent, using particularly tactile or aromatic plants, allow people with sight loss to experience nature up close – as does savouring summer salads and autumn berries. If space and budget allow, a small fountain can provide a gentle background noise; bamboo and tall grasses offer a similarly soothing sound when buffeted by the breeze.

 NHS Forest sites with sensory gardens

Woodfield Park in Doncaster opened its multi-sensory garden in 2015, with a particular focus on people with dementia and their carers. The space, built within an existing walled garden, was designed collaboratively by a group of local charities and organisations, which has ensured that it is suitable for users with varied needs. The use of aromatic herbs and scented flowers, as well as fruit, ensure it appeals to all the senses. This is further boosted by a small fountain, pollinator-friendly flora, and plants such as artichokes which offer interesting textures. Raised beds are accessible to wheelchair users who would like to carry out gardening activities.

The Head Gardener at Airedale General Hospital completed an online course on dementia and researched dementia garden design before starting work on the Yorkshire site’s impressive sensory garden. The secure, private space is accessed via the dementia ward, ensuring safety for service users. As well as incorporating sensory planting – from colourful blooms to aromatic lavender – gardener Steve Marshall installed tactile sculptures, weather protection and plenty of seating areas. Patients can potter around the shed, invoking the familiar sensation of working in their own gardens, and a figure of eight path leads patients through the garden and reduces the chance of them getting lost. The site’s clever design meant it could be built on a shoestring budget.

Clasping hands
Photo: Bournemouth Borough Council via Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Sensory garden at Highbury Community Garden
Sensory garden at Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Claire Blakey / Highbury Hospital. All rights reserved.

How to create a sensory garden

There is no simple template for a sensory garden; you’ll need to think about who the main users will be on site, plus any additional uses – from partnerships with schools and care homes to public access. Walkways should allow people to access each of the sensory aspects of the garden, while helping them find seating areas and exits; the tendency of these gardens to be used by people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and special educational needs means that although they aim to stimulate the senses, they also need to reduce the risk of confusion and disorientation.

Keep seasons in mind, so that the garden can be used throughout the year. Lavender and honeysuckle are often used to fill gardens with scent, as well as much-needed pollinators, but perennial herbs such as mint and rosemary can work well outside of summer, too, and encourage patients to touch and taste the leaves when appropriate.

Visual elements should be well planned. Colour is a key part of a sensory garden of course, but rather than cramming in as much as possible, which can be overwhelming, it may be advisable to create areas with warm-hued flora which boost moods and energy levels, and other patches with cool colours to soothe and calm. Some sensory gardens include painted walkways, artworks or mosaics, keeping the colour themes visible throughout the year.

Sculptures are a nice addition; children can interact with them, while they can invoke childhood memories for dementia patients, such as the figurine of a young boy with a watering can in Airedale Hospital’s sensory garden. Wood is particularly tactile and will encourage service users to touch the sculptures as well as to look at them.

Many plants are also very tactile, such as sage and lamb’s ears which both have soft, velvety leaves, or tall, fluffy grasses. Other plants have leathery foliage, or are slightly sticky, which can be curious to touch.

Wide, flat walkways allow patients to be accompanied by staff and other carers, and to use walking aids, pushchairs or wheelchairs. Raised beds enable wheelchair access so that users can get close enough to touch and smell the sensory plants, as well as carrying out therapeutic gardening. Finally, dementia gardens in particular play a key role in triggering memories, which is an important part of dementia care. Picking fresh beans and peas or pulling up a potato can help recall the patient’s own garden or allotment, as can tubs of marigolds or pansies, and the opportunity to rummage around in a tool shed. Patients can observe the passing of the seasons, and how the plants change, which can help them track the passing of time.

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