Most gardens are designed to create a visual impact. However, adding plants and features that stimulate the other four senses — taste, smell, touch and hearing — will make the outdoor space so much more exciting to all visitors.
When planning a landscape, most gardeners concentrate on the visual beauty of the plants. They spend a lot of time seeking out plants that will provide continuous blooms throughout the growing season, or will captivate the eye during all four seasons. Whole books have been written about using color to enhance the emotional impact of the garden.
But vision is only one of the five senses that most humans have. Gardeners are short-changing themselves and their visitors if they don’t choose plants that stimulate the other senses. Additionally, gardeners who are visually impaired will find a garden that stimulates all of the senses to be more exciting.
The following suggestions and plant lists will help you choose plants that cater to your sense of taste, smell, touch and hearing.
Above: Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rotsilber’).
Below: Swis Chard.
Photos by Patrick Byers.
A Garden You Can Taste
Fruits, vegetables and herbs are perfect for stimulating your sense of taste. As long as you’re not spraying your crops with pesticides, you can munch your way across the garden any time during the growing season. If you do spray, check the label to find out how soon you can safely reenter the garden, and when you can harvest the crops. Sprayed crops should be thoroughly washed before eating.
Vegetables and herbs don’t have to be relegated to a boring rectangular garden. They can be interplanted with other ornamental plants to make an edible, yet attractive, addition to the landscape. Vegetables that are brightly colored when ripe, such as golden zucchini squash, red leaf lettuce and purple-podded beans, stand out from the surrounding green foliage and add color as well as flavor the landscape. ‘Bright Lights’ and ‘Neon Lights’ Swiss chard are delicious and surprisingly attractive.
Culinary herbs like oregano and thyme can provide low-growing masses of greenery. Mint is very refreshing to chew, and there are dozens of types of mint: not only the spearmint and peppermint everyone is familiar with, but apple mint, orange mint and many others can be planted in your garden.
Many fruiting plants can be added to the landscape. Dwarf apple trees, grown as an espalier, can provide easily accessible fruit in an eye-catching form. Grape vines can be used on trellises and pergolas. Blueberries, currants and cranberrybush viburnum can be used in mass plantings or hedges.
Strawberries can be grown in containers and raised beds to bring the fruit into easy reach. They can also be used as a ground cover plant. Another edible ground cover is wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). This shade lover is hardy to USDA Zone 3. The red berries can be eaten fresh, and the leaves can be used for tea, candies and other flavorings.
Even flowers can be edible! Nasturtiums have a wonderful peppery taste to both leaves and blooms. Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) has a mild, citrus flavor; violets are sweet and can be made into candies. Calendula petals are often used in garnishes.
Be cautious when tasting new plants — some may be toxic in large quantities, or can cause allergic reactions.
Grand Parade™ bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries.
A Garden You Can Smell
Every plant has its own scent. Different scents can subtly alter your mood, and your garden can help you take advantage of this. Try to create different “rooms,” or pockets in the garden. An area surrounded by the scents of lilacs, roses or lily-of-the-valley is a relaxing place to set up a hammock or lawn chair.
Some heavy scents, like honeysuckle, jasmine and wisteria, can make you feel sleepy, while herbs such as lavender, rosemary and lemon verbena energize and invigorate you. A stroll through a section of culinary herbs, like oregano, sage and thyme, will often help whet your appetite.
Some fragrant plants release their scents when they are touched or crushed. Herbs like chamomile or creeping thyme can be used as ground covers for pathways or between stepping stones, and will release their fragrances as you walk across them. Different herbal paths can lead to various “rooms” in your garden.
Scented geraniums and other aromatic herbs can be planted along pathways, and will release their scents when touched by garden visitors. Raised beds can be planted with fragrant ground covers, providing an aromatic resting area.
As you discover the wonders of the scented garden, you might feel the urge to keep adding to your collection. Try not to use too many scented plants together, because their different scents tend to blend together and become confusing. If you use the different “mood rooms” as described above, you can include many more scented plants, as they will be scattered in different parts of the garden.
Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries
A Garden You Can Feel
Our sense of touch can make the garden an exciting place to explore. Place plants with interesting textures in a small, enclosed garden with comfortable garden seats or mossy places to sit. Garden beds raised to a height of 2 feet and constructed with edges to sit on bring touchable plants within reach. Choose only nonpoisonous and non-prickly plants for the “petting garden.”
There are many different textures that you can include in the garden. Some plants have soft, fuzzy leaves or flowers, like lamb’s ear, woolly thyme and pussy willow. Many ornamental grasses, especially hare’s tail grass, have fluffy flower heads. The blossoms on some plants, such as hibiscus, gardenia and most lilies, feel silky to the touch. Blossoms of statice and globe amaranth have a papery feel, as do the seed pods of honesty (also called the money plant).
An overlooked part of the touch garden is a soft lawn to lie down on. This can be included in other parts of the garden so that one can relax and feel the soft grass blades while touching, smelling, tasting and hearing other plants.
Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus ‘Mariesii’).
Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries.
A Garden You Can Hear
The sounds that a garden makes can create subtle moods in visitors. The whisper of weeping plants, such as willows and birch, has a calming influence. The rustling of ornamental grasses and bamboo can create a sense of excitement and activity. Seed pods of some plants can rattle as they shake. Fallen leaves provide a crunchy accent in the fall.
A well-designed garden is also attractive to a number of song birds, especially if you add birdhouses and baths. Nut trees can attract chattering squirrels.
Non-plant elements can also be used to add sound to a garden. Tinkling fountains, wind chimes and waterfalls in a garden pond can add interest. Gardeners with limited vision can use these sounds as auditory clues to orient themselves in the garden.
Plants for a Multi-Sensory Garden
These plant lists are not meant to be all-inclusive, but to provide a jumping-off place for the interested gardener to explore the sensuous side of gardening.
Fragrant Trees and Shrubs
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
Citrus* (Citrus spp.)
Daphne (Daphne spp.)
Frangipani* (Plumeria spp.)
Gardenia* (Gardenia jasminoides)
Lilac (Syringa spp.)
Mock orange (Philadelphus spp.)
Rose (Rosa spp.)
Clematis (Clematis spp.)
Climbing rose (Rosa spp.)
Honeysuckle ( Lonicera spp. )
Jasmine ( Jasminum nudiflorum )
Passionflower ( Passiflora spp. )
Sweet pea ( Lathyrus latifolius )
Wisteria ( Wisteria floribunda )
Fragrant Flowering Plants
Basil ( Ocimum basilicum ) - many cultivars
Beebalm ( Monarda didyma )
Chamomile ( Anthemis tinctoria )
Heliotrope ( Heliotropium arborescens )
Hyacinth ( Hyacinthus orientalis )
Lavender ( Lavandula angustifolia )
Lemon balm ( Melissa officinalis )
Lily ( Lilium spp .)
Lily-of-the-valley ( Convallaria majalis )
Mint ( Mentha spp. ) - many cultivars
Peony ( Paeonia hybrids)
Pinks (Dianthus spp.)
Sage (Salvia spp.)
Scented geranium (Pelargonium spp.) - many cultivars, all with different scents
Stock (Matthiola incana)
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Violet (Viola odorata)
Fragrant Ground Covers
Chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria)
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
Woolly thyme (Thymus praecox)
Plants to Touch
Cape jasmine* (Gardenia jasminoides)
Cockscomb (Celosia cristata)
Feather grass (Stipa pennata)
Gay feather (Liatris spicata)
Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)
Hare’s tail grass (Lagurus ovatus)
Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina)
Lily (Lilium spp.)
Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
Mullein (Verbascum spp.)
Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)
Poppy (Papaver nudicaule)
Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
Rose mallow (Hibiscus coccineus)
Squirrel tail grass (Hordeum jubatum)
Statice (Limonium latifolium)
Woolly thyme (Thymus praecox)
Wormwood (Artemisia spp.)
Plants to Listen To
Animated oats (Avena sterilis)
Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus)
Bamboo - Many species
Chinese lantern plant (Physalis alkekengi)
Honesty or money plant (Lunaria annua)
Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)
Pearl grass (Briza maxima)
Trees to Listen To
Birch (Betula spp.)
Pine (Pinus spp.)
Poplar (Populus spp.)
* These plants are not considered hardy in the Midwest. If you wish to grow these, you may want to treat them as potted houseplants, and move them indoors during the winter.
From State-by-State Gardening January 2011. Photos courtesy of Bailey Nurseries and Patirck Byers.