Here are some plant suggestions, categorized by each of the five senses, for adding sensory appeal to your garden. Of course, many plants fall under two, three or even four of the senses -- consider rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), for example. Allow your eyes to linger on its tranquil and calming blue-green color. Run your finger up the stalk to enjoy the feel of the needles, soft and strong at the same time. Finally, draw your hand to your nose to inhale the astringent, piney aroma before taking a nibble -- rosemary is a sensory bonanza!
Some ornamental plants are almost irresistibly touchable. Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), is beloved by children and adults alike for its velvety gray leaves. Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) is another plant featuring appealingly soft, suede-like leaves of greenish-gray which contrast vividly with the plant’s brilliant magenta flowers. Although short-lived, rose campion seeds freely. Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) invite touching because of the contrast in texture between the floppy petals and the spiky seed heads. The spiny flowers of globe flower (Echinops ritro) and sea holly (Eryngium planum) practically dare you to touch them -- be careful! The pointy tips of hens and chicks (Sempervivum calcareum) and the succulent, rubbery leaves of various types of sedum also offer tactile enjoyment. Peony flowers are famous for their scent, but a gentle caress of the silky-soft petals and perfectly round buds is equally pleasurable.
Many gardeners consider the smell of a flower to be just as important as its appearance. Try to plan your garden so that you can enjoy fragrance throughout the season, such as from hyacinths and lily of the valley in spring, oriental lilies and phlox in summer and chrysanthemums and autumn clematis in the fall. Heliotrope (Heliotrope arborescens) and alyssum (Lobularia maritima) are two unassuming annuals that will prompt your garden visitors to inquire about the source of the delicious scent. Heliotrope, or cherry pie plant, is an old-fashioned favorite with tiny purple florets that fill the air with a sweet cherry-vanilla fragrance. The mounding white flowers of alyssum are so low to the ground that they’re easily overlooked, but the honey-like scent they emit as they soak up the sun is like a garden ambrosia.
Even plants not normally grown for their flowers can provide delights for the nose. Rub the attractively-shaped leaves of a scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) for an instant pick-me-up. If you grow bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), a host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly, you may suddenly detect a strong note of the plant's anise-like scent from several feet away. When this happens, inspect the plant closely. You’ll likely find a black, white and yellow caterpillar munching away at the fennel. If you’re very quiet, you can even hear it chewing!
The sense of sound is usually little-considered when planting, but it can add immeasurably to your garden experience. Consider adding a source of moving water, such as an electric or solar-powered fountain. Water features needn’t be big or expensive -- even a small, quiet trickle of water fosters serenity to a garden. Some of the best plants for bringing sound to the garden are the many varieties of ornamental grasses. Tall, downy plumes of miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis) rustle and sway in the wind. The slightest breeze causes the pendulous seed heads of northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) to make music, much like a natural windchime. A day-long concert of bird song can be had by enclosing your plantings with shrubs and trees that provide a bird-friendly habitat. The hypnotic drone of bumblebees and honey bees is a welcome sound in any garden -- encourage these hard workers by planting nectar-rich flowers like salvia, penstemon, verbena and snapdragons.
Our sense of sight is usually bombarded with stimulation in a flower garden. Obvious choices with visual appeal are plants with relatively large flowers in exciting colors -- vivid zinnias, marigolds, impatiens and hot pink petunias. But our eyes appreciate subtlety as well. Some plants may not demand your attention immediately, but on closer examination arouse your curiosity. Two examples are the jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), with its distinctive leaf structure, and liatris (Liatris spicata), which unlike most other stalk-flowering plants, blooms from the top down. Garden colors don’t always have to be bold to be interesting. Quiet color combinations -- such as gray and white, or even green foliage alone, in all its varying shades and textures -- can compel us to stop and reflect.
We don’t usually associate flowers with taste. Vegetable gardeners, naturally, are experts at making gardens appealing to the sense of taste. If you have plenty of sun and plenty of room, you can create a charming cottage garden with vegetables like lettuce, tomatoes and sweet peppers interplanted among the flowers. Otherwise, try tucking a few herbs into your ornamental garden. Place a rosemary or basil plant near the border’s edge, where its scent will stimulate your appetite each time you brush against it. A planter filled with several varieties of refreshing mint allows guests to taste-compare peppermint, spearmint and apple and pineapple mint. Keeping their roots contained will prevent the mints from overtaking your flowers. Of course, you should educate your garden visitors, particularly young children, about which plants are safe for eating.
This list of sense-sational plants is intended only as a jumping-off point -- you'll undoubtedly wish to add your own sensory favorites to your garden. The physical limits of your property may constrain the number and type of plants you use, but with planning, even the smallest plot can offer delights for the senses. Let your imagination (and your five senses) be your guide when designing a sensory garden.
Garden Chair by nutmeg66
DG Member Photos:
Lamb’s ear by fastvince
Heliotrope by htop
Northern sea oats by frostweed
Zinnia elegans 'Benary's Giant Orange' by alicewho
Rosemary by DaylilySLP