Sensory garden design advice

3. Designing a sensory garden

There are key design principles that underpin the design of any sensory garden so that it can be enjoyed by the widest range of people and in the ways intended. It's important to address these through the whole design process.

Access and usability

If people are going to enjoy the garden they will need to be able to get to and around it, so think about details like path widths, surfaces, and gradients as well as access to toilets and opportunities to sit and rest. Our Access Chain helps you review access through the perspective of a user. Our access guidance sheets contain useful guidance on access issues like path surfaces, gradients and steps.

Also consider access in terms of reaching features within the garden - height and proximity of plantings, water, sculptures etc - so everyone, including wheelchair users, can explore up close. This is important for everyone, including people with sensory impairments. Sensory design calls for extra effort to make sure different experiences are in reach. For example, trees may be deliberately planted near to a path so the bark can be felt rather than setting it back as it would in a standard design.

Sensory gardens call for different maintenance techniques too. For example there may be a deliberate policy to retain lower tree branches so children can balance and climb on them and to prune shrubs and trees into interesting shapes. Or to train fruit trees along wires to keep them at a lower height for picking.

It is also important to identify any particular user needs that you are aware of. For example, if the area is mainly for children it will be important to make sure that the overall scale and take this into account, keeping in mind both disabled and non-disabled children.

When designing for people with specific disabilities, think about who else might share the space, especially friends and carers. If they enjoy the garden they are more likely to encourage others to use it more.

Comfort

Comfort is very important and often overlooked. Seating is one of the most important and most neglected features in landscape design. Seats make a space more accessible to people who tire easily, and more enjoyable generally by giving people more chance to pause.

Shelter from sun is important and the ideal is to create a range from solid to dappled shade so people can choose what best suits. Shelter from rain and wind are important too and will extend the period of use. Temporary shelter (from pergolas, fold-out canopies etc) makes for more flexible use and it's a good idea to incorporate fixtures in the design, like holes for pergolas and brackets for fixing canopies to a wall.

Access to toilets and changing facilities is a critical issue. If you don't have scope for toilets as part of the garden development it is important to consider where the nearest facilities are and how you will let people know. The Changing Places website has information on accessible changing facilities.

Sensory experience

An essential aspect of the design is thinking about what range of experiences will be available in the garden. People must be able to get around and so the routes must be accessible, but it's important to think about how these journeys can be made interesting and varied. For example using different textured path surfaces, creating areas of shade and avoiding straight, uniform routes.

Successful design relies on imaginative use of materials and opportunities. Consider ways of concentrating or 'stage managing' natural events, for example by introducing nest boxes and feeders so that birds can be seen or choosing nectar-rich plants to encourage butterflies and other pollinators. Think of ways of bringing in materials that would otherwise require venturing further afield, such as piles of autumn leaves, a load of straw, bark chips, flowers etc.

Involving an artist or sculptor will add other creative elements and can help provide all-season sensory experiences. Including storage space is useful for things like extra summer furniture, equipment for creative making and play, temporary shelter, and items used in other outdoor activities. Water points give the option for introducing water features, or water play. Electricity points are useful for adding lighting, music etc.

In some gardens it might be appropriate to introduce more challenge in selected areas that are not part of the main route. This could include the provision of slopes, steps or other features to test or stretch mobility skills.

A robust design

Sensory gardens are usually places where the whole idea is to encourage users to explore, touch, pick, smell and crush plants and interact with objects. This places challenges on the design, particularly a need to make things robust and to choose plants and materials that can tolerate the inevitable damage from inquisitive hands. Where resources allow, you could include disposable plants that get regularly replaced, or you can choose plants that are tough and can withstand a lot of handling.

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More sensory garden design advice

Whether you are planning a new sensory garden, or making an existing landscape more sensory-rich, we've written these guidance notes to help you develop your ideas.

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