Sensory Herb Gardens for Special Needs Children

By Candace Riddle

IMG_0317Ever 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.  

_DSC0301As 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.

IMG_0824The 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) 

Marigolds—sight, smell 

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.  

IMG_0427While 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.

Amazing Anise Hyssop

By Susan Belsinger

Agastache foeniculum

——————–Agastache foeniculum——————-

While commonly called anise hyssop, the odor is more similar to French tarragon, though sweeter, with a hint of basil. The foliage and flowers taste similar to the aroma—sweet, with the licorice of tarragon and basil—and just a bit floral.

All of the thirty or so Agastache species are good for honey production and make great ornamental perennials. The flowering plants go well with the silver-leaved species of mountain mint (Pycnanthemum), which flower about the same time in the July garden and also provide good bee forage. The young, broad, dark green leaves of A. foeniculum, tinged purple in cool weather, are attractive with spring bulbs such as yellow daffodils.

Agastache species do not have GRAS status, even though the leaves of many species have been used for centuries as a substitute for French tarragon, infused in syrups and cordials, or brewed into tea, and the flowers have been used with fruit, in desserts and confections, and mixed in salads. Both the leaves and flowers make good additions to potpourri.

Agastache foeniculum is most often grown, though A. mexicana, A. rugosa, and A. scrophulariifolia provide similar flavors to French tarragon and basil, though may include plants scented of peppermint or pennyroyal. 

Growing basics:

Hardy short-lived perennial, three to five feet high
Hardiness to zone 4, preferring cool summers
Full sun to part shade
Keep moist but not wet 
Soil rich in organic matter, pH 7.0

Cultivation and propagation:

Agastache species need little more than partly shaded to sunny, well-drained, acidic to near-neutral soil. The seeds (actually tiny nuts, or nutlets) are most easily started by broadcasting; established clumps readily reseed themselves, often in tiny nooks and crannies or the middle of the garden path. Seeds may also be sown in the greenhouse, with transplants in six to eight weeks. 

Clumps generally last two to three years, becoming very woody at the base and eventually dying. Since reseeding is not a problem, anise hyssop will persist in your garden yet never really become weedy; it is easy to move about. The soil should be evenly moist, well drained, slightly acid, and high in organic matter. 

Harvesting and preserving:

For tea, harvest leaves early in the day during a sunny, rain-free spell close to when the plants will be flowering, then dry the leaves and store them in glass jars. Anise hyssop makes an unusual vinegar and is one of my favorites for salads when made with white wine or rice vinegar. 

It makes a tasty cordial if you like the taste of sweet licorice. I enjoyed Agastache-infused vodka more than once with Dr. Jim Duke, who used to put sprigs of anise hyssop in his 1.75-liter bottle of vodka, which he kept in the freezer, for a preferred libation. 

Leaves are sometimes candied as a confection for desserts; after the egg white and sugar mixture has set and dried, store them in tightly closed containers at room temperature or in the freezer for three to six months. Flowers are often harvested fresh as edible flowers for salads, beverages, syrups, and desserts. Anise hyssop sugar is easy to make by processing the flowers with sugar—it is great to have on hand for topping cookies, muffins, crisps and crumbles.  

Part of this text is excerpted from Grow Your Own Herbs, which was the last book that I co-authored with Dr. Arthur Tucker. I raise a glass of anise hyssop cordial here to both Art and Jim—two herbal mentors—who loved the flavor of Agastache.

Cherry Tomatoes Marinated with Anise Hyssop, Chives, & Balsamic Vinegar

These tomatoes can be served as a simple side salad, tossed with salad greens or pasta, spread on pizza or served on bruschetta (toasted bread rubbed with garlic) as an appetizer. Anise hyssop gives an anise/licorice-like flavor somewhat similar to basil or tarragon. I use the smaller leaves—if using larger leaves remove the center stem, as they can be a bit tough. Garnish with a little grated mozzarella if desired. This recipe is adapted from The Greens Book by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger.

Serves 4 or 8; makes about 16 to 20 appetizers when served on baguette-sized slices)

1-pint cherry or pear-shaped tomatoes, quartered lengthwise and halved crosswise
About 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
About 2 tablespoons chopped chives, common or garlic 
Generous 1/2 cup anise hyssop leaves cut into chiffonade (thin ribbons)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Grated mozzarella, optional 
Chive and anise hyssop flowers for garnish

Combine the tomatoes in a bowl with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, chives and anise hyssop. Salt and pepper generously and toss well. Taste for seasoning and adjust with oil, vinegar or salt and pepper as needed.

Serve straightaway or the salad can sit at cool room temperature (do not refrigerate) for an hour or two before serving; the tomatoes will give off a lot of juice if allowed to sit. 

Serve the salad as is or over salad greens. Or spoon the tomato and herb mixture evenly over garlic bruschetta, drizzling a little of the marinade juices over all, or toss with pasta adding a drizzle more of olive oil. Sprinkle with grated mozzarella, if desired, and garnish with a sprinkling of chive and/or anise hyssop flowers.


Susan is a culinary herbalist, food writer, educator, and photographer whose work has been published in numerous publications. She has authored a number of award-winning books. Her latest book, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs was co-authored with the late Dr. Arthur Tucker. Susan is passionate about herbs and her work, sharing the joy of gardening and cooking through teaching & writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell & taste.