Sensory Gardens Heighten Engagement with Nature

Popcorn Cassia smells like buttered popcorn.
Photos & story by Kristen Smeal

Sensory Gardens Heighten Engagement with Nature

Photos & story by Kristen Smeal

The past few weeks of Spring enthusiasm have certainly activated the sense of sight. Bright, bold, blooming flowers and trees present on every street of Alameda, but sensory gardens are much more than just ocular delight. A gardener can curate the sensory environment by choosing a variety of interactive and engaging plants to heighten all five senses; sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

Visual stimulation can be achieved by planting in rows or clumps, or simply by mixing up the colors of decorative stones in the hardscape. Varying shades of green plants can be just as appealing as colors that pop. Movement, light, and shadows can also add to the sensory experience. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), lush moss, and other thick ground cover can bring contrast and texture to a garden space.

Mounding plants and planting in containers, rather than on flat ground, will create a sense of layering that can lead the eyes on a sensory experience. Ornamental grasses and tall flowers, like yarrow, will catch the wind and create subtle movement and ambiance. Tall sunflowers cast a lovely shadow.

Adding textures to a garden can lend to the tactile experience of gardening. Perennial plants with soft leaves like Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) and Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) tend to grow well in Alameda’s dry, sandy soil. Even smooth stones and rough gravel can provide an interesting contrast. Since a sensory garden is an invitation to touch, stay away from planting any prickly or dangerous flowers and plants nearby.

To engage the sense of hearing, add a water feature or wind chime. Rustling leaves and grasses will complement the natural sounds of birds and bees.

The sense of smell is closely related to memories and linked to emotion. Finding a scent that reminds a person of pleasant times can elevate the mood and evoke good memories. Aromatic plantings like lavender, rosemary, basil, and citrus can be uplifting and energizing. Try some non-traditional varieties like chocolate mint or lime basil. The best way to smell an herb is to gently rub a leaf between the finger and thumb.

Edible fruits, herbs, and vegetables allow sensory garden visitors to fully immerse in the experience. Bitter, sweet, spicy, tart; the taste buds can sense an exploration of their own. Herbs such as parsley can grow pretty much year-round in Alameda, and will complement any garden tasting experience. Edible flowers such as calendula, violets, and nasturtium will add a colorful bite.

Another important component of a sensory garden is labeling the plants. Large print signs with a photo of the plant can assist in plant identification, and be used as spelling and reading lessons for children. To increase community accessibility, consider printing the signs in several languages.

Planting native and pollinator plants will bring birds, butterflies, and bees to the garden for an ultimate connection to all the senses and a true interaction with nature.

Sensory gardens can provide a fun, safe way for children and adults to explore the garden and acquire knowledge of the plant world.

Kristen Smeal volunteers and serves on the Board of Alameda Backyard Growers (ABG). She is also a Master Gardener and Garden Science teacher at St. Philip Neri School in Alameda.

ABG is dedicated to teaching our neighbors how to grow food. During this difficult time, ABG’s education program has moved online. Visit and join the ABG mailing list to receive timely gardening information.

Visit ABG’s Free Seed Libraries on the Main Island at 2829 San Jose Ave. and 305 Santa Clara Ave. and on Bay Farm Island at 16 Cove Road to pick up seasonal seeds.

ABG’s Project Pick is always looking for fruit trees to pick and volunteers to help pick them so we can deliver more fresh fruit to the Alameda Food Bank. To sign up, email