When I walk out into my garden, too often what catches my attention are things that need to be done – weeds to pull, veggies to harvest, faded flowers to deadhead. While these chores require attention, I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees! I try to remember that my garden also offers a harvest of sensory delights to tickle my five senses and add dimension to my enjoyment of the plants I’m growing.
Children are especially open to experiencing the garden as a sensory wonderland. Encourage your children to explore plants with you throughout the growing season by using their senses of touch, smell, hearing, and taste as well as sight, and you’ll increase their connection to the world of growing things.
Recently, along with other KidsGardening staff, I designed and helped plant a sensory garden for the benefit of students at Army Trail Elementary School in Addison, Illinois. The plants we selected for the garden beds were chosen to offer a variety of sensory experiences all year long, from early spring into the depths of winter.
We started by planting two kinds of ornamental grass, ‘Hameln’ dwarf fountain grass and northern sea oats. Their graceful leaves will add sound as well as beauty and movement to the garden as they rustle and sway in the wind. Even in the depths of winter the sight and sound of the dry grass blades will bring interest to a bleak landscape. And the flower heads of the fountain grass, which begin to form in midsummer, are as soft and touchable as a bunny’s tail. What child could resist stroking them? Also touchable are the felty, gray-green leaves of lamb’s ears, as inviting to stroke as velvet and as soft as, well, a lamb’s ear! For contrasting texture we added the spiky, prickly rosettes of hens and chicks.
Of course, scent is where a garden can really shine! Odors evoke some of our deepest-seated emotional responses, in part because our sensation of smell is connected directly to the limbic system, the most primitive part of our brain, which responds even before our cortex or cognitive center consciously identifies what the scent is. For this garden we chose ‘Firewitch’ dianthus for the sweet, clove-like fragrance of their pink flowers in early summer, followed by the heady aroma of lavender in midsummer. The intoxicatingly fragrant white trumpets of ‘Casa Blanca’ Oriental lilies will perfume the air in late summer – and perhaps attract a hummingbird or two!
Many plants appeal to our sense of taste, but for this garden we chose chives for their multi-sensory appeal. Their narrow edible leaves have a pungent, onion-like smell when crushed and a mild, onion-y flavor when eaten. Their pretty globes of pink blossoms delight the eye and are also edible – add them to a salad for color and flavor.
Try some “sense-able” gardening this summer and have fun with your kids as you use all five senses to do some “sense-sational” garden exploration!