Home & Garden Gardening

Sensory Garden: Engaging All Five Sense in your Garden Design

Engaging the Senses

"We each have our own, unique ideas about how our garden should look and feel - the common element is a clear identity. A garden with a clear sense of place might thus be a tranquil, simple space within which to escape from the frenetic pace of modern life, or it may be a lively, colourful area where the whole family can enjoy games and barbecues."

Dean Hickson, Tutor

As a gardener, what does the phrase, 'a sense of place' mean to you? We thought of the following meanings, but you may have thought of others:

A clear sense of identity - even 'personality';

a sense of belonging - whether within the landscape or in harmony with the house;

a feeling of cohesion and completeness;

timelessness - garden design, like any other area of design, goes through fashions and trends, but the strongest gardens are often timeless.

Designers may adopt contemporary ideas and incorporate them into an existing garden, but this will probably not change the 'sense of place' greatly; instead it should enhance it.

"People like circular or curvy gardens with plenty of movement.... They don't want formal gardens - they are looking for something softer, more relaxed and easy to live with."

Carol Gallagher McCulloch, Scotland on Sunday, 2005.

A garden with a strong sense of place works in every respect - cohesion, design, colour, identity. The design is confident (although that does not necessarily mean bold) and visitors feel comfortable within it.

"You always know when you're entering a balanced, well-proportioned garden because it feels comfortable - lines lead you naturally through the space, and shapes and volumes are restful on the eye ... Most of us want our outdoor spaces to offer a peaceful sanctuary."

Diarmuid Gavin, Design your Garden.

Sensory Experience

We experience a garden through every one of our senses, and a true sense of place is created when there is harmony between the different sensory messages we are picking up - touch, smell, sound, vision and even taste. For this reason, when creating a garden, you need to be aware of the different ways in which your design harnesses the senses.

How do you think a garden design could engage the following senses: hearing, smell, touch, and taste? There are many possibilities here, but some that we thought of immediately include:

Hearing - water features, wind chimes, plants that rustle or rattle in the wind.
  • Smell - open patio fires, especially if burning scented wood; flowers; scented foliage. Smell is often used to create a welcoming, tranquil atmosphere in the garden.

    Touch - when it comes to experiencing a garden, touch is often of central importance. Examples range from spiky ornamental thistles to the feathery, plume-like flowers of astilbe and Cotinus Coggygria. Hard landscaping may also be important, ranging from soft, warm wood to cold granite or slate. Texture is a key feature of many successful designs.

    Taste - This is often associated with smell, so it can be a particularly important sense around the patio area. Because vision, smell and taste are closely linked, your design can engage the sense of taste indirectly. For instance, a patch of strongly scented mint will set the taste buds tingling, as will a tree laden with luscious citrus fruits. You see a citrus fruit and catch a hint of their aroma, and before you know you can almost taste them too!


    Of all the senses, vision is the one with most impact when we first walk into a garden.

    The way we see colour evolved primarily as a survival mechanism, and today colours still gives us important messages about safety - for instance, the warning colours of a poisonous snake, or the red-orange glow of a hot ember - but more than this, colour helps us to enjoy the beauty of our environment. Scientists have argued that our ability to experience colour is far beyond that we might need simply for survival purposes and we seem to have an inbuilt ability to find pleasure in colour. Researchers Padgham and Saunders note:

    "Our ability to see colour is highly elaborate for the mere necessities of reproduction and survival. Our capability is far beyond what is needed to distinguish ripe from unripe fruit or acuity for mobility. Joy in colour is a bonus of our senses."


    Our sense of smell is a powerful tool. Among other things, it tells us:

    If something is good to eat or has gone bad;

    How something tastes - if you nip your nose when you eat, you will not be able to taste the food properly;

    Often, if there is a danger nearby - for instance, a gas leak;

    If we find someone or something attractive - smell is an important hidden component of attraction.

    Smell can also evoke memories and help us to identify people or places, even when we cannot see them. As we have seen smell is central to creating a strong sense of place in the garden.

    Many of us under-use our sense of smell, choosing instead to rely on our vision. Try to become more aware of the way everyday items, places and people smell. As you go through the day, close your eyes sometimes (but only when it safe to do so!) and experience your environment entirely through smell.

    Think about what smells can tell you? They might, for instance, tell you that the chicken you are cooking for dinner is fresh and will taste good. On the otherhand, they might tell you that there is something old and out-of-date lurking at the back of the fridge! Some smells will evoke memories. These may be pleasant, or rather less so. Understanding more about aroma and how it affects mood can help you to make the most of scent in the garden too.

    There has been much research into the powerful psychological impact of smell. For instance, researchers at Yale University in America found that the aroma of apple and cinnamon has a powerful stabilising influence on some people, especially patients suffering from nervous anxiety. The smell was even found to reduce the blood pressure and ward off panic attacks. In the garden, similarly, the right smells may have a calming and soothing effect.

    The area of the brain associated with smell is called the olfactory centre. It is directly connected to other parts of the brain concerned with basic drives such as sex, hunger and thirst, and also with much more sophisticated aspects of understanding, including emotion, memory, intuition and creativity.

    Advice from the Garden School.

    To try a free trial home study course visit Learning Curve.

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