Stimulate the Senses to Learn About Gardening

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Planting a Sensory Garden for Children

Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A guest blog by Lucy Henderson

There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “When I hear, I forget. When I see, I remember. When I do, I understand.” Our senses are our primary way of acquiring knowledge, and making use of all of them makes learning experiences richer and more effective.

This can be applied to gardening, and creating a sensory garden can not only have a therapeutic effect, but can also engage all the senses to help us learn about the workings of the garden, which is particularly beneficial when you’re trying to think of gardens that will excite children and get them interested in gardening.

Creating a sensory garden is a straightforward process: it simply requires you to plant using all five senses. 

Sight and Sound

Sight is usually the first sense we aim to please when we’re planting a garden. To entice children in particular, think of bright, alluring colors. If you have a particular child in mind, incorporate their favorite colors in your planting plan. Visual interest can be heightened by including plants with a variety of habits: include a mixture of upright plants, bushes, creepers and climbers. Aim for as many different blooms and leaf shapes as you can to increase the visual stimulation. 

Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima), zones 7 to 10, but treated as an annual in colder climates, is almost always in movement. Photo: http://www.netpsplantfinder.com

Movement can also be added to stimulate sight. This can be done in the form of water, adding fish to ponds and incorporating water features. Look for contrast in light and shade, considering tunnels of willows or vine-covered arches that lead to a sunny spot. Look for plants which provide a variety of visual stimulation, such as Mexican feather grass (Nassella [Stipa ] tenuissima) that dances in the slightest breeze and has clusters of leaves like pony tails.

To stimulate sound, include plants that attract insects and birds: this will introduce an orchestra of buzzing and birdsong to the garden and provide plenty of learning opportunities for children. Include plants that produce a range of noises when the wind blows: bamboo stems offer a distinct knocking sound, while tall grasses such as silver grass (Miscanthus spp.), moor grass (Molinia spp.) and pampas grass (Cortaderia spp.) will rustle. Large leafed plants also work well in a sensory garden, as they produce more noise in the wind.

Taste and Smell

Taste and smell are powerful senses and can be incorporated in the sensory garden. While strongly perfumed flowers such as mock orange (Philadelphus spp. and Pittosporum tobira), lilac (Syringa spp.) and jasmine (Jasminum spp.) can be included (also stimulating sight), many edible plants will satisfy smell as well as taste. If you’re new to edible gardening, browse subscription service news and reviews: many companies will deliver regular packages of seeds suited to your region for you to experiment with. 

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) attracts bees and has a delightful perfume. Photo: http://www.kelownagardens.com

Herbs are also a good place to start if you’re new to edible gardens, and strongly scented lavender (Lavandula spp.) attracts bees, satisfying both smell and sound in one go as do thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and oregano (Origanum vulgare). Rosemary (Rosmarinus offcinalis) is another excellent choice. 

Our sense of smell is very emotional, and when used in abundance in the garden, it creates a lasting sensory experience. When planting a sensory garden with children in mind, this can not only provide them with lifelong memories, but will also help them to learn about gardening, as they will associate the smells with the care needs of different plants. 

You’re never too young to start harvesting strawberries! Photo: blog.bigyellowbag.com

Planting herbs will stimulate taste as well as smell, but to increase the taste element of the garden, consider including fruits and vegetables too. Tomatoes have a strong scent and are therefore particularly good for stimulating both senses, and radishes, carrots and lettuces are amongst the easiest vegetables to grow.

Stimulating Touch

The soft, woolly leaves of lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) are a delight to stroke. Photo: paramountnursery.ca

Simply being involved in the gardening process stimulates the sense of touch, but including plants that are interesting to feel will allow all the senses to be satisfied by simply spending time in the garden. Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.) and pussy willow (Salix spp.) all provide interesting stimulation to touch, and some plants include a variety of textural experiences in one plant: the weeping willow (Salix babylonica and related hybrids), for example, has soft leaves and rough bark. Consider the texture of the ground underfoot too: gravel paths can provide an interesting contrast to soft, mossy areas that seem to spring back as you walk on them.


A sensory garden can provide a wealth of pleasure for everyone, but it’s a particularly powerful tool when trying to engage children in gardening and teach them about how to care for plants and the different roles they play in a garden. Include them in the planning process, and encourage them to engage all their senses when spending time there for a fully emotional, educational and therapeutic experience.

3 thoughts on “Stimulate the Senses to Learn About Gardening

  1. Margaret

    May I add a suggestion? If the child is old enough let him/her pick out some of the plants.

    When I was in elementary school, we had the opportunity to buy small packets of seed from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for almost nothing. My mother always planted her standard zinnias, marigolds and tomatoes. But I always wanted something different, so we always ordered a mix of her favorites and some more exotic (for us.) seeds. I always wanted plants of varied forms and colors, so nasturtiums, cleome, Heavenly Blue morning glories, chives and Jack Be Little pumpkins were added to the repertory. These are still some of my favorites, which I grow today. (I can’t believe I remember this,; I even remember the little manilla packets the seeds came in. Gardeners have long memories.)

    Yes, we had our own small garden in Brooklyn. And the BBC brought me much joy.

    • Excellent idea! My father always used to let me order a few packs of seed every year when he placed orders by catalog. He didn’t let me order just anything though: he’d make sure it was something he thought I’d have luck with.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. ‘Motion’ in a landscape is appealing to adults too. Well, of course, all these elements are appealing to anyone who has time to notice them. Designers like the form of grassed, but they probably like their motion as well. Adults also appreciate the sound of water features for example, to obscure ambient urban noise. (I sometimes wish the waterfall on the creek outside would shut up, but that is different.)

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