Sensory garden design – Architecture for the specially-abled

Every garden prompts the sensory organs in one way or the other. Not only do plants use senses uniquely, but also do they boost the moods of an individual. Furthermore, sensory gardens provide the daily dose of Vitamin D, encourage interaction and promote repetitive tasks for specially-abled people.

Horticultural elements used effectively at the Bishop Auckland (© The Northern Echo)

Sensory gardens are self-sufficient places that trigger the senses, not only individually but also by combining various ways. They prompt both new and familiar experiences and make the visitors respond positively to the surroundings. They allow children and adults to boost their motor abilities and functions while remaining in a limited environment. Thus, they provide educational, therapy-like, and recreational benefits.

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Benefits of sensory gardens for the specially-abled:

Specially-abled people face problems to manage their routine. They may find it a little hard to do particular tasks on their own. They often go through various emotional phases and may turn ultra-sensitive. Thus, these discrepancies, tackled by a sensory garden, keep senses entertained and repressed. Depending on the type of equipment and seating layouts, sensory gardens can bring learning and educational progress within the specially-abled. The cleverly calculated, diplomatic plan of a sensory garden aids reflex actions, consciousness, awareness, and emotional satisfaction.

Math teaching elements in a sensory garden that stimulate sound and pacify hyper-attacks (© Ruchika Deshpande)

Elements of design for sensory gardens:

  • Braille labels stand at human-arm heights and include text and symbols. Additionally, they aid the visually impaired to read names and descriptions of plants in a sensory garden.
  • Tactile maps that assist navigation are a crucial addition to the sensory garden. These maps include raised features and stimulate the sense of touch. For long-term installation, orientation maps prefer magnesium, bronze, and metal-foil, whereas disposable materials make up temporary, portable tactile maps.
A long term installed orientation map at Balkalyan Sanstha, Pune (© Ruchika Deshpande)
  • Flowering, aromatic fruits, vegetables, and herbs are fragrance enhancers of a sensory garden. They not only improve aesthetics but also stimulate the smell and taste buds accordingly.
  • Wind-chimes of various designs and types are available that trigger hearing with pleasant sounds. Furthermore, they can be included in the sensory garden, along paths to assist the visually impaired and in-play areas to entertain the autistic.
  • Water-features include fountains, ponds, and fish areas of a sensory garden that stimulate hearing and vision.
  • Birdbaths and drinking fountains can act as centers of attraction.
  • Raised flower beds play a vital role in tactility for the wheel-chair users as they won’t reach the ground.
  • Lawns prove to be lively spaces and the basic features where the sense of touch stimulates. They allow interaction, games and boost friendliness among the specially-abled.

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Tips and design ideas to stimulate various senses in a sensory garden:

Vision:

Color, texture, massing, light and shadow effects, and contrast all prompt the sense of vision and sensory experiences. Furthermore, it adds symmetry, order, balance, unity, rhythm, and focal points to a garden. Warm colors make the surroundings lively, boost interaction and urge activity, whereas cool colors ease tranquillity. Flowers, foliage, and designed landscapes all trigger the vision and stimulate sight. Smooth, rough, fuzzy, ruffled textures prove to be excellent additions to a garden’s master plan. Furthermore, coarse textures will give brimming looks, whereas soft ones will look sparse.

Landscaping plants are available in many forms. Not only upright trees, but open, weeping, cascading, and columnar trees add up to visual appeal. Round, toothed, and spherical fruits of these trees stimulate vision, and hence, must be present in a sensory garden. Movement is another handy tool to trigger the sight. In the site section, various ways add to the movement. For instance, swaying plants, pools with floating leaves, butterflies, birds, and leaf blades add to the movement and prompt the eye. Subsequently, movement is boosted by planting beds that draw the eye to focal points and vistas. To aid senses with contrast, one can use subtle shadows like diffused sunlight or dramatic shadows of willow tunnels within the sensory garden design. Floodlights, torches, mirrors all enhance visual quality and stimulate the senses.

A dramatic willow tunnel that leads the way towards full sun-light (©Google Images)

While designing, one can prefer stone, gravel, or wood paths and colors like red and blues. Routes in the shape of the eight numeral are more mysterious and arouse curiosity as they reveal objects at the end, and thus, boost up orientation. Talking about softscape design, one can include plants that creep, climb, and trail and have different blooming habits and stems that appeal visually.

Sound:

Hearing new sounds opens senses and widens the horizon. Many plants like the bamboo stem that knock, the grasses that hustle, and the palm fronds that sway produce decibels. These sounds add up with efficient planning of air movements in the design. Seed pods make excellent maracas or sound shakers, whereas leaf shedding trees can produce a ground crunch during spring. Landscape design is an accessory to bring birds that prompt the ears in the site. Thus, the design should include waterfalls, fountains, harps, wind-chimes, and music pipes.

As in the case of hardscapes, sounds can radiate from pathways and trails. These different sounds from stone, wood, brick, paved paths give rise to different experiences. With benches and wind-chimes to club utility with aesthetic, this can add more effect. For soft-scape design, choose plants that whistle with air passage like the bamboo. Furthermore, include more plants that attract bees, crickets, and butterflies within the campus to stimulate hearing.

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Wind-pipes and chimes to attract birds in a sensory garden (© Google Images)

Smell:

The smell is a spontaneous and similar property that creates sensory experiences. The sense of smell is vital while designing sensory gardens for the visually impaired. While analyzing, a designer should study the release of fragrance in different situations and implement them accordingly. For example, some plants release fragrance only in the sun, and some when crushed. Thus, one must satisfy appropriate design decisions and requirements. Aromatic potted plants can adorn garden seating’s, whereas creeping herbs like thyme can be planted along paths so that walking on them will release their scents. Aromas can be therapeutic and calm, provocative like jasmine, and hence, are a crucial tool. Sweet-smelling herbs and plants provide olfactory stimulation within a sensory garden.

Touch:

Within a sensory garden, specially-abled children touch the plants to boost tactile cues. Thus, the plants should bear brushing and handling. Design tactility advances not only by soft flowers and fuzzy leaves but also by springy moss, rough bark, and succulent leaves. Furthermore, sticky fruits and gooey saps also stimulate the senses of touch. The landscape design can include species that provide multi-textured forms like the rose with delicate petals and thorny stems. However, it may be dangerous to the visually impaired and must be towards the back of plantations.

Tactile cues in a sensory garden
Pebbles providing tactile cues at Balkalyan Sanstha, Pune (© Ruchika Deshpande)

Taste:

Taste includes senses that twitters from edible fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. In design, include plants that produce different edible parts like onions instead of species that prompt limited production. Apart from this, food preparation units, cooking areas, and sales can be included in the site plan to generate income right in the garden. Additionally, pavilions for herbal tea will aid taste plus income from fellow fitness fanatics. These opportunities employ the specially-abled and boost their development.

The design intervention in a sensory garden:

Depending on the brief, a garden can be either active or passive. Actively dominant sensory gardens invite the user to explore, touch, taste and interact with plants and objects, whereas passively suppressed ones offer relaxation. Since built for the specially-abled, accessibility should be the main point in sensory gardens. Thus, the designer must use ramps for raised features and broader pathways that ease circulation. Easy, round corners and ergonomic slopes make a way in the master plan for the specially-abled. Bamboo gardens and hedging can innovate mysteries and virtual spaces in a narrow plot. In smaller sensory gardens, the designer can use wooden planters. These wooden planters allow the activities to engrave that stimulate tactility.

Planters in a sensory garden
Wooden planters for sensory play (© Pentagon Play)

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For landscapes, use short plants like mint, chives, carrots, oregano, and medium plants like lavender and tomatoes. For smaller gardens, the trellis can effectively create more private space. Additionally, pebbles boost sensory stimulation and enhance a garden’s visual character. Various path designs, widths, directional changes all influence orientation and mystery within an area. Thus, they provide scope for orientational skills by promoting motor activities like climbing and jumping. Though hard materials provide glory of textures and materials, they create color patterns. A designer must consider the changes in material appearance during wet and dry conditions. For softscapes, contrasting colored leaves like white and red flowers can benefit the visually impaired and facilitate sensing.

Sensory play garden
A sensory play garden (© Mark Lane designs
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