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Sensory Garden Ideas to Stimulate Your Senses and Delight Your Soul

Taking time to stop and smell the roses offers health benefits for 50+ adults

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Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Getty Images (3))

The soothing sound of trickling water. The scent of lavender and honeysuckle. The taste of right-off-the-vine tomatoes. The sight of brightly colored plants and flowers. And the comforting feel of velvety soft petals. 

These are just some of the many possibilities in a sensory garden — an area designed to stimulate the five senses, a key element of health for older adults.

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Why? Besides just being a generally lovely experience that will bring you joy, it’s also a good health move for older adults to activate all their senses on a regular basis to keep them sharp.

“As we age, we experience a range of changes to our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell ... due to a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors, such as diet, level of physical activity, wear and tear from work, and recreation,” says Emily Nabors, senior program specialist with the National Council on Aging (NCOA).  

When our senses are not functioning properly, it can make life more difficult and put us at risk, such as when being unable to hear on the phone, read instructions or determine if an object could burn us. 

Engaging in sensory-rich activities promotes neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to rewire and build new neural connections that support sensory functions, according to NCOA.

“A sensory garden is something that allows you to use all your senses and be mindful,” notes Donna Soszynski, a certified horticultural therapist who works with seniors.

Here’s how to make the most of your outdoor space to engage your five senses. No garden space where you live? Add more sensory-friendly house plants to your collection. You can also check to see if there is a local, public sensory garden you could visit.

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A sight for sore eyes

Colorful plants and flowers, winding stone paths and eye-catching wildlife are just three of many ways to delight your eyes.

Soszynski suggests choosing vibrant colors for the garden. “I find that a lot of seniors respond to color.” According to a 2020 study on color psychology published in the journal Psychological Science, color can trigger a certain emotional reaction. Soszynski says use that information and figure out which hues make you feel best.

Attract pollinators and other animals to your garden since having a vibrant wildlife community is a large part of the sensory experience. Nandita Godbole, botanist, landscape architect, author, personal chef and gardener, plants catnip because she favors the aroma, but it also attracts the neighborhood cats that she loves to watch. 

Christopher Barrett Sheridan, a garden writer, educator and designer known as “The Flower Sommelier,” recommends planting shrubs and trees with wild fruit and berries, such as rose hips and crab apples, to increase the bird population in your yard. Plant native flowers to attract pollinators and provide feeders and water for birds so you can enjoy hours of free entertainment.

Sheridan emphasizes the importance of movement and shadows in the garden. "When you think about plants you're choosing, [consider] what kind of shadows [they make], because that's part of your sensory experience as well. You really want your garden to be a dynamic place.”

And maybe stay awhile. Godbole was lucky enough to watch her roses bloom up close. “I was working outside on the deck and I looked over at one of my rosebushes and it had its first bud. As I sat there for a couple of hours the rose was actually blooming, and I could catch it almost in real time.” 

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Music to your ears

Add features that provide stimulating sounds, such as wind chimes and fountains.

Soszynski recommends choosing plants that produce rustling sounds as they move, such as bamboo and ornamental grasses. “Buy plants that sway and will make a little sound when the wind blows. A lot of plants have seed pods, and when the wind blows you actually hear a little shaker sound,” she explains.

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Birdbaths not only add sounds of trickling and splashing water, but they also attract birds that may serenade you. Listening to birdsong is both enjoyable and calming, found to be the natural sound most commonly linked with stress recovery, according to research.

Godbole offers a tip for getting the most out of a birdbath. “I got these solar fountain disks to put in the bath so it would add an additional element of sound to that space. The birds like it, and it was just taking a simple birdbath and making it into a fountain.”

Feel like joining in? You can also have singing bowls, bells and gongs handy to play when seeking a meditative atmosphere.

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Stop and smell the roses — and other aromatic plants and herbs

As a haven for fragrance, sensory gardens trigger reminiscing, which is important if cognitive decline becomes an issue. When people connect to familiar smells, it can spark conversations that would otherwise not be possible, explains Orla Concannon, founder and CEO of Eldergrow, a company offering therapeutic horticulture garden programs in over 30 states. “I’ve done that with mint, and some say it reminds them of toothpaste or of Christmas and the holidays.”

Sheridan, who specializes in designing gardens that feature appealing scents, has many tips for choosing aromatic flowers and plants. “You're going to want to have a mix of things that are lightly, medium and heavy scented so that everybody can enjoy it,” he says. “Some things are in the air. Other things you have to get your nose into the bloom. And then you have all the herbs … you have to touch them or break them, even crush a leaf to get some scent.” He recommends choosing the scents that are most appealing to you, such as spicy, sweet or lemony. 

Concannon shares a tip used by Eldergrow educators who engage with seniors through a variety of horticultural therapy activities. “We do something called the scratch and sniff, one of our most popular and most effective techniques to engage the sense of smell,” she says. If you rub [an herb], it ignites the oils and the aromas, and so that’s the scratch. Then I can remove it. Then I smell, and the oils are on my hands. It’s so easy and so powerful.” Herbs like mint, rosemary and lavender are perfect for this exercise.

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Something terrific to taste

You can’t have a sensory garden without enjoying the culinary treats it provides. The most obvious is to plant a simple vegetable garden with go-to choices like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. “Food gardens are a great part of sensory,” agrees Sheridan. “They taste much better than [what] you get at the market ... and [it helps] to keep all your senses strong.”

Soszynski recommends growing all types of herbs, such as basil, lemongrass, chamomile, lavender and calendula. “Herbs are so easy to take care of. You can eat them fresh or you can dry them,” she says. Many of these herbs can be used for teas or in a variety of recipes like sauces and salads.

During horticultural therapy sessions, Soszynski even uses herbs for oils. “We collect the herbs, and we soak them in olive oil for about six weeks, and we strain it. We taste the oil that is infused with the fresh herbs. We also create a calendula-lavender-infused oil for the body.”

While not all flowers are edible, those that are can be fun to explore. You can top dishes with colorful edible flowers, such as violas and nasturtiums. Godbole makes tea and syrup from honeysuckle and uses rose petals to make a rose petal jam.

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A touch of delight

Incorporate an array of textures that are smooth, silky, squishy, fuzzy, rough, wet, etc., by choosing different types of vegetation and hardscapes. Lamb’s ear is a favorite since it feels like velvet and is very soothing to the touch.

Don’t be afraid to explore the garden with your bare skin, using both your hands and feet. Soszynski encourages people: “Touch the soil. Get your hands dirty. Walk barefoot safely.” Consider the most comfortable types of grass and groundcover for “earthing” (walking barefoot in a mindful way), which is known to improve our senses on the bottom of our feet. 

However, both Soszynski and Concannon raise a red flag about the types of vegetation to plant. Soszynski warns about sensitivities. “We only use nontoxic plants,” notes Concannon. “There are a lot of plants that can cause mild irritation or dermatitis, and we don’t even use those type of plants because skin is thinner as you age, and we don’t want a little irritation to turn into a rash or something worse. Also [be careful with] something sharp, like roses … where you accidentally might prick yourself.”

Finally, don’t forget to simply sit in the garden and feel the refreshing breeze on your skin to fully engage with the environment.

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