By Candace Riddle
Ever since Beatrix Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit, children and gardens have had a special friendship. That friendship is even stronger between children with special needs and special gardens called “sensory gardens.”
The difference between a sensory garden and a “regular” garden is the human factor— regular display gardens are designed primarily for visual beauty, while a sensory garden is designed to stimulate all the senses: sight, sound, scent, touch, and taste. A display garden is meant to be viewed or seen from either a short or long distance, whereas a sensory garden is meant to be experienced close and personal using all five of the human senses.
Educators describe a sensory herb garden as peaceful and calming with the ability to draw kids into the moment; even non-verbal kids can show their feelings about their garden experience.
When we use the term “children with special needs” in this writing, we are painting with a broad brush including physical, mental, emotional, and educational disabilities. When planning a sensory herb garden, consideration must be given to not only the garden plan—both hard and soft scaping—but also how children with any of these special needs can interact with the garden.
As with any garden plan, sensory herb gardens start with the lay-out and hardscape: the beds should be narrow enough for children to reach into (from any side, the depth should be no more than 24 to 30 inches; that is one of the advantages of the tiered square design–it allows access on four different sides at three different levels, see photos), and the paths must be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, which would preclude the use of gravel or a soft ground cover and mandate concrete, bricks, or flagstones. Mulch can also be used as part of the sensory experience. Pine needles, for example, have a sweet scent; wood chips have a tactile feel; and oyster shells have a scent of the sea and a smooth or sharp feel. A water feature can bring several things to the sensory garden: trickling sounds, the sensation of feeling water or wetness, even taste (usually happens when you are not looking!). Windchimes can be a pleasant addition for both the sound they provide and the visual appearance of wind moving through the garden.
Once the hardscape has been planned, it is time to move on to the plant material, which is, of course, the fun part. Plants should be chosen for the special values they possess to enhance the sensory experience of the children. Below are some examples of plants that may be used in a sensory garden:
Sight: lavender, nasturtiums, English thyme, anise hyssop, sage, and other Salvias
Sound: pollinator plants, including Mondarda spp. (bee balm), that will encourage bees to make their happy buzzing sounds (of course, special instruction and close supervision must be in place to protect children and bees!). Balloon flowers and false indigo could be included for sound, as their seed pods make popping and rattling noises as they mature.
Smell: Any strongly scented herb would be a good addition. Some of the most popular are rosemary, hop, fennel, thyme, sage, basil, chives, and, of course, scented geraniums.
Touch: lamb’s ear, yarrow, coneflowers, rosemary, and lemongrass
Taste: basil, dill, and anise hyssop
As you can see from the examples above, there is a lot of crossover as far as the plants go; they can provide multiple sensory experiences. Children should be supervised closely when in the garden to ensure their safety. While you want the fullest experience, the safety of the children is the most important factor.
While the best way to provide a sensory garden experience is outdoors, children can have a satisfactory adventure using enclosed areas such as an enclosed courtyard or even a container garden. These are both good options for populations of students with a tendency to bolt or elope from the area.
The photograph depicts a newly created sensory garden in Maryland’s northern Baltimore County farmland. This garden was designed to be a part of the agricultural tourism initiative that is taking hold in rural areas. “The Farmyard” is a new agriculture venture started by a local farming family to introduce children to all aspects of a working farm, not the least of which is allowing children to sponsor farm animals and help in their care throughout the year. “Farm School” runs all year long offering classes in animal care and upkeep, crop growing, food preservation, and self-sufficiency. As part of the farm school, a class on herbs and their uses is taught. The sensory herb garden is a part of the education of students in the knowledge of herbs in daily life. All students are encouraged to touch all the herb plants, smell them, and taste them. An herbal educator is available during public events to guide children through the garden and explain the uses of the different plants. The focus in this garden is useful herbs in everyday life. (Though all of the senses are considered in this garden, touch, taste, and smell probably are better represented than sight and sound.)
The design of this garden was limited to the structures already in place, which worked out well as the terraced beds allow children of all heights to view at different levels, and the beds are also shallow enough to allow visitors to reach into the entire garden—all tiers are accessible. To increase the visual appeal of the gardens, snapdragons and zinnias, with their colorful flowers, were added to each garden section. Some of the other plants that were included in the gardens are:
Rosemary—scent, touch, taste
Sage—scent, touch, taste (The turkey in the pen next to the garden was a bit uncomfortable with the Thanksgiving herb right next door!)
Fennel—scent, sound (for the wind moving the fronds and the pollinators that they welcome); visitors were invited to dig up the bulbs and taste them in the fall
English thyme—scent, sight (pointing out that the little flowers are used for baby fairies’ sleep!)
Dill—scent, sight (the full seed pods are beautiful!), and of course, the taste (just like dill pickles)
Lamb’s ear—touch, sound (the bees love this herb)
Basil (sweet and Thai)—scent, taste, sight
This sensory garden is a work in progress, and it is expected to welcome children of all ages and circumstances for years to come. It is the long-range goal to have schools target this farm and garden as a field trip destination once schools resume a normal schedule.
While the herb sensory garden at The Farmyard is on private property and maintained by dedicated volunteers, this is not the case in most public gardens. While public gardens often attract groups to plan and build sensory gardens, ongoing maintenance during the planning stages, as well as after the garden is established, is often performed by staff of the public facility.
Gardens are an important element in many people’s lives, and sensory gardens, in particular, can add an immeasurable richness to the lives of children and especially children with special needs. We encourage you to explore supporting a sensory garden in your area.
Photo credits: 1) Sensory garden at The Farmyard (Candace Riddle); 2) Children in the National Herb Garden (Chrissy Moore); 3) Herb collage (Chrissy Moore); 4) Tiered sensory garden, The Farmyard (Candace Riddle); 5) Herb collage (Chrissy Moore); 6) Children and chaperones visiting the sensory garden (Candace Riddle).
Candace Riddle is a retired educator and an herbal enthusiast for forty years. She has been a member of The Herb Society of America for over twenty years and is a founding member of the Mason-Dixon Unit. She lives in Maryland.