Your Ultimate Guide to Sensory Garden Plants & Their Therapeutic Benefits

Sensory gardens are therapeutic landscapes designed to engage the senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing—creating a unique environment that fosters a deep connection with the natural world. These gardens, filled with carefully selected sensory plants, are not just visually appealing; they allow for moments of healing, comfort, play and sensory exploration. 

In this article we explore the therapeutic uses of sensory gardens and their benefits, examples of sensory garden plants that are easy to incorporate into your practice and share tips for creating a sensory garden in different size spaces.

Table of Contents

sensory gardens

The Therapeutic Uses and Benefits of Sensory Gardens

Sensory gardens are increasingly popular in therapeutic settings, offering a natural oasis for individuals facing various challenges, such as autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and anxiety disorders. These gardens are designed to provide sensory stimulation in an environment which can be calming or stimulating, depending on the individual’s needs. The concept of creating a sensory garden, especially a sensory garden design for autism, for example, focuses on providing a safe, inclusive and interactive space that can help improve cognitive function, emotional well-being, and sensory processing.

Some of the benefits of using sensory gardens in your practice include:

  • They promote relaxation and stress reduction: The calming effects of nature are well-documented. Sensory gardens are designed to engage the senses gently and can help reduce stress and anxiety, promoting feelings of peace and well-being. 
  • They can help stimulate cognitive function: Interacting with the various elements in a sensory garden can stimulate cognitive function and memory. For individuals with dementia, for example, sensory gardens can evoke memories and encourage reminiscence, which is beneficial for mental health. A study published in the “Journal of Clinical Nursing” investigated the impact of sensory garden visits on the behavioral symptoms of dementia in elderly residents of nursing homes. The study found that regular visits to a sensory garden significantly reduced agitation and improved mood among the participants.
  • They can help improve physical health: Sensory gardens often encourage physical activity, whether it’s walking through the garden paths, engaging with interactive elements, or even gardening activities. This can improve overall physical health, including motor skills and coordination. A study conducted on patients recovering from surgery found that access to a hospital garden, designed with sensory elements, contributed to faster recovery times, reduced need for pain medication, and increased patient satisfaction compared to patients without access to the garden. This research, published in the “Environmental Science & Technology” journal, supports the incorporation of sensory gardens in healthcare facilities for their therapeutic benefits.
  • They help enhance sensory development: For children, especially those with developmental delays, sensory gardens offer a rich environment for sensory development. Engaging with different textures, scents, and sounds can aid in the development of sensory processing skills.
  • They offer educational opportunities: Sensory gardens can serve as living classrooms for people of all ages. They offer educational opportunities to learn about different plants, wildlife, and the environment, fostering a connection with nature and an understanding of biodiversity. An investigation into the use of sensory gardens in schools, detailed in the “Journal of Educational Psychology,” found that sensory gardens not only supported learning and sensory development among students but also promoted environmental awareness and stewardship. The study advocates for the integration of sensory gardens into school curricula to enhance educational outcomes and foster a connection with nature.
  • They promote social interaction: Sensory gardens can be communal spaces that encourage social interaction. They provide a setting for community gatherings, educational programs, and therapeutic group activities, fostering social skills and community engagement.

Root in Nature’s Favourite Sensory Garden Plants

Sensory gardens are carefully curated spaces that engage the senses through a selection of plants and elements designed to appeal to sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. Below is a selection of Root in Nature’s top sensory plants, categorized by the sense they most effectively stimulate:

Plants that are visually stimulating

Plants that captivate the sight feature vibrant colors, unique shapes, or eye-catching patterns, drawing attention and changing with the seasons to keep the visual interest alive year-round. A few of our favourites include:

sensory plant sunflowers
sensory plant black eyed susan
sensory plant japanese maple

Sunflowers: With their bright, large blooms that turn to follow the sun, sunflowers are not only visually stimulating but also embody the vibrancy of nature. Their towering presence and radiant colors can lift spirits and create a focal point in therapeutic gardens, encouraging optimism and happiness. Harvesting sunflower seeds can be another great sensory activity for touch.

Black Eyed Susan: The Black-eyed Susan, with its striking golden-yellow petals and dark center, significantly enhances the visual appeal of sensory gardens. Its vibrant colors and ability to attract pollinators add life and movement. Easy to care for and adaptable to various sunlight conditions, it’s an ideal choice for adding visual interest and inviting nature’s diversity into the garden.

Japanese Maples: With their intricate leaf patterns and stunning fall coloration, Japanese maples are a feast for the eyes. They can transform any garden space into a tranquil retreat, offering therapeutic benefits through their beauty and the peaceful ambiance they create. There are dwarf varieties that are conducive to smaller spaces and in pots.

Plants that offer pleasant aromas

Fragrant plants play a crucial role in evoking memories and emotions, ranging from sweet and floral to herbaceous and earthy scents that enrich the garden atmosphere. A few of our favourite fragrant plants include:

sensory plant rosemary
sensory plant mock orange
sensory plant lavender

Rosemary: Rosemary is not just known for its strong, refreshing scent; it’s also associated with memory enhancement. Research suggests that the aroma of rosemary can improve memory recall and performance on cognitive tasks. This makes it an excellent choice for therapeutic gardens, especially in settings focused on cognitive health and memory care.

Mock Orange: Mock Orange is ideal for sensory gardens, thanks to its sweet, citrus-like fragrance. Blooming in late spring, its white flowers enrich the garden with a delightful scent, attracting pollinators and enhancing the sensory experience. This low-maintenance shrub thrives in various conditions, making it a simple yet powerful choice for adding olfactory charm to any space.

Lavender: Lavender is renowned for its calming and relaxing scent, which is often used to reduce anxiety, stress. In therapeutic horticulture, lavender’s fragrance contributes to creating a peaceful environment, aiding in relaxation therapies and enhancing the overall sensory experience.

Plants that are great for tactile engagement

Textured plants encourage interaction, inviting visitors to experience the garden through touch, from soft and furry to rubbery and prickly surfaces. A few of our favourite plants include:

sensory plant lamb's ear
sensory plant moss
sensory plant aloe vera

Lamb’s Ear: Lamb’s Ear is renowned for its soft, velvety leaves, making it a favorite for tactile engagement in gardens. Its plush foliage invites visitors of all ages to reach out and touch, providing a soothing sensory experience that can be particularly comforting and grounding.

Moss: Moss offers a unique tactile experience with its soft, cushion-like texture. Walking barefoot on a moss carpet or simply touching its damp, spongy surface can be a therapeutic activity, promoting a sense of connection with nature and offering a calming effect.

Aloe Vera: Aloe Vera’s thick, succulent leaves are filled with a gel that’s widely known for its soothing and healing properties, especially for skin irritations and burns. While visually interesting, the tactile experience of breaking open an aloe leaf and feeling the cool, gelatinous substance inside is primarily where its sensory appeal lies.

Plants that encourage auditory stimulation

The auditory experience is enhanced by plants and elements that produce sounds when moved by the breeze, adding a dynamic auditory layer to the garden’s ambiance. A few of our teams’ favourites include:

sensory plant bamboo
sensory plant ornamental grass

Bamboo: The rustling of bamboo leaves and the hollow sound of stems knocking together in the breeze create a calming, natural music. Bamboo is ideal for auditory stimulation in gardens, offering a soothing backdrop that enhances the sense of serenity and connection to nature.

Ornamental Grasses: The whispering sound of ornamental grasses as they sway in the wind provides a subtle, yet distinct auditory experience. These grasses add movement and sound to gardens, stimulating the auditory sense in a gentle, relaxing manner.

Plants that have wonderful flavour

The process of growing, harvesting, and tasting edible plants provides a hands-on, immersive experience that can boost mental health by fostering a sense of achievement and connection to the earth. A few of our favourite therapeutic edible plants include:

sensory plant basil
sensory plant mint
sensory plant woodland strawberries

Basil: Basil is celebrated for its fresh, aromatic flavor that enhances a variety of dishes, from Italian to Asian cuisine. Its leaves can be used fresh or dried, bringing a sweet, peppery taste that makes it a staple in culinary gardens.

Mint: Mint is known for its cool, refreshing flavor that is versatile in both culinary and beverage applications. From adding a burst of freshness to salads and desserts to flavoring teas and cocktails, mint is a delightful addition to any garden focused on taste.

Woodland Strawberries: Woodland strawberries provide a sweet, aromatic flavor that’s a treat for the palate. Growing easily in shaded or partially shaded areas, their low maintenance and ability to spread make them a practical and rewarding choice for gardeners aiming to engage the senses and connect with the natural world through taste.

Discover more sensory plant examples in this complimentary lesson from Root in Nature’s ‘Intro to Therapeutic Horticulture’ online course. 

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Katie's Favourite Sensory Plant

"Calendula is one of the best examples of a sensory plant and is possibly my number one TH plant choice for this reason and all the possible activities it offers. They have bright orange and yellow flowers (sight) that attract pollinators (sight and sound). The flowers are also edible (taste) and can be enjoyed in salads or as garnish. Calendula is great for the skin and can used to make calendula oil and then salve (smell and touch). Seeds can be easily saved from them as well and have a unique shape almost like a little bug (touch) and the flowers can also be used to dye fabric (sight and touch)."
Katie McGillivray HTR
Courses & Community Lead

Creating a Sensory Garden in Different Spaces

Adapting sensory gardens to various spaces, from a single planter on a patio to expansive gardens with benches and water features, requires thoughtful design to engage the senses year-round. Sensory gardens, regardless of size, should captivate sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound without overwhelming the area. It’s crucial to incorporate a diversity of plants to stimulate the senses across seasons, ensuring continuous engagement.

In smaller spaces or indoor areas, vertical gardening, such as hanging baskets, wall-mounted planters, or trellises with climbing plants like jasmine, maximizes the use of space. Container gardening with herbs like basil, mint, and rosemary offers flexibility, allowing for the garden to be rearranged for accessibility and interactive engagement. These containers are ideal for sensory gardens as they can be easily moved, making the garden accessible to everyone, including those with mobility concerns.

Incorporating features that cater to all senses without focusing too heavily on one scent is important. Varied plant selections ensure a garden that’s invigorating throughout the year. Adding compact water features can introduce soothing sounds and humidity, while textured rugs and furnishings, wind chimes, and strategically placed rocks enhance tactile and auditory experiences. Attracting wildlife with bird feeders or butterfly-friendly plants adds another layer of sensory interaction.

Selecting plants that can be utilized in activities—such as drying herbs for tea, creating bouquets, or seed saving—can also add a functional element for HT or Rec Therapy sessions. This not only enriches the sensory experience but also encourages participation and learning.

Safety and engagement are paramount; labeling plants is essential for identifying those that are safe to touch, smell, or taste. Signs that invite interaction, like “Touch this plant” for lamb’s ear, that promote engagement and education. Websites such as gardenactivitysigns.com offer resources for enhancing the sensory garden experience with educational and interactive signage, making the garden a more inclusive and engaging space for all users.