Designing a sensory garden is very much worth the effort

By Lloyd Thompson
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

vine covered arch.
A vine-covered arch along a gravel path can add visual and sound appeal to a garden. Depending on the season, flowers from the vine can also provide a pleasurable scent to enhance the experience. – Provided photo/Lloyd Thompson
Lloyd Thompson
Lloyd Thompson – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – Provided photo

Five senses … we all have them to varying degrees and use them every day without even thinking about it. After researching the elements of a sensory garden, however, I think I need to step up my landscaping game a bit.

A sensory garden is designed to stimulate and enhance the five senses as it is viewed and explored. I’ve spent years working on the visual appeal of my yard and garden but have only lightly touched on some of the other senses of taste, sound, smell and touch.

I love walking along a gravel garden path and smelling the fragrant scent of lilac or lavender while hearing the soft crunch from my steps on the gravel and the trickle of water from a nearby fountain.

The textures of the plants and hardscapes also add to the tapestry of a sensory garden, even if you don’t touch the plants. A fresh strawberry or blackberry as you walk through the garden tastes even better than one out of the refrigerator. Softly swaying grasses or moving water can also provide soft sounds to enjoy as well.

We spend so much time dealing with the visual side of landscaping that we miss the opportunity to enhance the garden’s other sensory displays.

Each garden can embrace the experience of the other senses with a bit of planning and thought. The five senses include sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Think about ways they can be incorporated into your landscape and how they can enrich the experience for visitors.

Most of the time, I think of designs from the perspective of young children and try to include adventures that will appeal to them. One year, I found some glow-in-the-dark pebbles that I spread out on a pebble walkway. It provided a scavenger hunt for our grandchildren to search for as the evening grew darker and many excited reports of how many they had found. I’ve done the same thing with marbles and even had small baskets for collecting their marble loot.

Taste is another winner in the garden as people find a strawberry, blackberry or raspberry to munch while wandering a garden path.

Smell in our garden is an evolving process as we go from fragrant mock orange to lavender and honeysuckle as the season progresses. We are always looking to fill empty niches in the bloom sequence with a new fragrance. Growing a variety of herbs along a retaining wall fills the air with the subtle smell of rosemary, basil, and mint.

Sound is important and can include the songs of birds you attract to your landscape through food, water from water features, and the gentle sound of wind chimes. I like a mix of wind chimes that include metal, bamboo and glass designs. A bamboo deer clacker is great because it creates a distinct random sound that allows you to close your eyes and focus on the gentle sounds of your garden.

Touch includes not only the plants but also the hardscapes in a landscape. Who hasn’t run their fingers over a smooth rock or rough bark while exploring a garden?

Choosing the right plants with a variety of leaf textures is important. Just watch out for any prickly plants, such as Oregon Grape, which our grandchildren have found out is best to avoid touching.

There are so many things you can include in a sensory-designed garden to enhance the experience: a gazing ball, a green-bean tepee, or a vine-covered tunnel, as well as sequenced pollinator blooms to attract butterflies and bird feeders and bird baths for more wildlife opportunities.

I try to watch what catches a young child’s attention as they go through the garden and enhance the areas and things that catch their interest. If you can pry a young mind away from their electronic device and enjoy their adventure in nature, I think you have a winner.

A WSU Chelan and Douglas County Master Gardener column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. To learn more, visit or call (509) 667-6540.