Create a Garden of the Senses

Create a Garden of the Senses

Sensory gardens look, smell, feel, taste, and sound beautiful. They are designed to be therapeutic for those with special needs.

Yet the greatest healing of these magical places comes to those who lovingly create them.

By the time Ethan Boyers turned two years old in 2004, he had already undergone more medical interventions than some octogenarians will ever know. Suffering from severe and frequent seizures, his tiny body had been put through endoscopies, bronchoscopies, MRIRIs, genetic testing, metabolic testing, placement of a gastric feeding tube, and a medically induced coma. He had been started on a ketogenic diet and a combination of phenobarbital and Depakote. His team of doctors—pediatricians, neurologists, gastroenterologists, nephrologists, urologists, pulmonologists, critical care specialists, and geneticists—was stumped, and nurses, home aides, and physical and occupational therapists were brought in for 80 hours each week. Open to non-Western medical options, his parents took Ethan to an acupuncturist, looked into cranial sacral therapy, and consulted long-distance with a shaman.

But no one could figure out what was wrong with Ethan. Despite the ceaseless battering on his body, Ethan was able to find happiness and peace in the backyard of his family’s Vermont home. Observing how relaxed their son seemed outdoors, his parents, Rachel and Richard Boyers, brought Ethan out as often as possible so he could look up through the pine trees at the sky, enjoy the breeze in his hair, and feel the sensation of water running through his fingers.

Because outings were largely limited to doctor’s visits, the family, which also included Ethan’s sisters, Talia and Maya, spent much of its time at home. In response, Rachel and Richard, both trained landscape architects, decided to create a backyard haven the entire family could enjoy. There would be plants, of course, but also wind chimes for Ethan to listen to, and even what they called a “teahouse,” with sliding screen 61doors and a bed for Ethan to lie on. It would be wired, so that Ethan’s hospital equipment could be plugged in.

The family applied for and was accepted for a grant from the Make-A-Wish Foundation to create the garden, but they had not yet begun it when Ethan suffered pneumonia and kidney failure, at age two and a half. The day he died, Ethan’s parents and sisters spent time with him outside, where—even in his final moments—he seemed relaxed and calm.

Although the grant was no longer available, Talia and Maya were determined that the family forge ahead with their plans for the space, which they referred to as “Ethan’s Garden.” So, beginning in late 2005, the Boyers family turned their spacious backyard into a sensory-therapy garden with the help of relatives, friends, neighbors, and several local master gardeners.

The Opening of a Garden
“Our thoughts of sharing it with other children came more after Ethan passed,” Rachel explains. “It helped us to make some sense out of why he was put in our lives and why we had gone through the experience of caring for him.” A new long-term goal thus formed: to open the garden to visitors, especially other children who might benefit from its accessibility and therapeutic effects. To further that, Rachel began horticultural therapy certification studies at the New York Botanic Garden, so that she might offer horticultural therapy programs to the garden’s visitors.

In the garden, perennials are grouped according to a particular sensory feature, such as texture (hens and chicks), color (delphiniums and geraniums), fragrance of flowers (roses and lilies) or leaves (sage, rosemary, and lavender), and sound (grasses). A long, curving stone wall built by Richard himself—says Rachel, “He found solace in the cathartic process of laying each stone”—retains the perennial border. The wall’s height was intentionally kept at 20 inches so the beds would remain accessible to wheelchairs. Japanese bells hanging in tree branches ring softly in the breeze. The family planted more than 4000 bulbs, including countless daffodils that create a unique springtime maze. There are vegetable beds, fairy houses that were built and nurtured by the girls, a pond with fish and a waterfall, and crabapple trees that bloom in spring and are covered with bright red fruit in winter.

To date, the majority of visitors have been youngsters with special needs who are the children of family friends and coworkers. In the near future, when time allows, the garden will be opened even to those whom Rachel and Richard do not know personally. Says Rachel, “Education is an important part of our mission.” They have offered a number of tours to local gardening groups interested in sensory gardening, as well as a tour to a Girl Scout troop whose members wanted to create a sensory garden at their school. In addition, she explains, “We hope to continue adding some things—accessible surfaces, a variety of raised beds, vertical gardens, and so forth—that are related to accessible gardening, so people can come here and get ideas about how to help a disabled family member or an elderly parent, for example, continue to garden as they become less physically able.”

Gardens as Therapy

We all know that gardening – the most popular pastime in the United States, if not the world – is good for us. “We garden and landscape our homes because horticulture produces a sense of peace and tranquility in a troubled world,” says Richard Mattson, professor of horticultural therapy at Kansas State University. His studies at KSU have found significant changes in brain-wave activity, pain sensitivity reduction, and immune system functioning as a result of gardening-related activities. A variety of studies have also shown that even looking at a garden through a hospital window eases pain and speeds healing.

What makes sensory gardens different from regular gardens it that a sensory garden is created with a specific intent, as in the case of Ethan’s Garden. Such a garden might be designed expressly for the visually impaired, for individuals limited to wheelchairs, for the developmentally disabled, and so forth. Although primarily therapeutic, sensory gardens can also be used to teach. Unlike most public botanical gardens, those that are labeled “sensory” often invite hands-on learning. So a garden created for children to indulge their sense of touch might include soft-leaved Stachys (Lambs’ Ears), mosses, rough-barked trees, and even thorny roses.

More recently, “Alzheimer’s gardens” have been recognized as beneficial to those who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Many such individuals are frequently agitated or restless; having a safe place to move around that is also visually appealing can be considered part of a holistic treatment plan. In creating such a garden, easily navigable paths are of primary concern, as are handrails and seating areas. In addition, only nontoxic plants are used, to avoid the potential for poisoning. As with all therapy gardens, the needs of the intended users must be taken into account.

Mattson explains that it is important to try to experience the garden through the senses of the intended audience. For example, while a so-called “garden for the blind” might call for fragrant flowers, it might not be necessary to go over the top with scents. A blind visitor to a garden likely has a naturally honed sense of smell to compensate for his or her inability to see. An abundance of powerfully perfumed flowers, therefore, might be overwhelming.

For the most part, however, there is no wrong way to design and nurture a sensory garden. Explains Rachel Boyers, “Gardening is universal. It is for all ages and abilities and it crosses all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.” And, as exemplified by her own backyard, it can help heal.

Expand Your Senses

Sensory gardens can be found all over the world—at children’s museums, within botanical gardens, at zoos, at long-term care facilities, and as stand-alones within communities. Here are some great places to go for ideas.


Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, Nebraska

This garden is filled with over 250 species of herbs, perennials and trees, along with blankets of roses and flowers and is designed so all five senses can be ignited. Aromatic flowers and herbs are scattered throughout the garden. The different textures of various plants, Braille identification signs, and bronze animal statues allow visitors to experience the world through the sense of touch. Visitors can sit back and hear the chirping of birds, listen to the fountains, and splash in the water.


Davis, California

This sensory garden is part of an extremely successful garden collaboration
between community volunteers and the City of Davis. The Gardens offer many classes as well as numerous ways to volunteer.


The Museum of Arts and Sciences, Daytona, Florida

The Sensory Garden is at the entrance to the 90-acre nature preserve and has special areas for native wildflowers, herbs, a butterfly and hummingbird garden, and a rock garden.


Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay, Maine

This one-acre sensory garden opened last June and includes a labyrinth and reflexology walking area, as well as “sound stones” and a special area devoted to the sense of taste. The goal is to open the senses to better explore the entire 250-acre Botanical Gardens.


Botanica, Wichita, Kansas

The new Sensory Garden allows visually impaired visitors to touch the plants along the plant wall, feeling the different textures and enjoying the various fragrances. There are special planting bays where wheelchair-bound visitors may work with plants, as well as displays that show techniques and tools that will aid gardeners with special needs.


The Chicago Botanical Garden, Chicago, Illinois

In the entry garden, the focal point is a large sycamore tree in the center bed. Around it are many bulbs, annuals, and perennials chosen for both their fragrance and their harmonious echoes of color. Visitors who choose the upper walk will stroll next to raised beds, which bring the plants, in all their glory, as close as possible. The lower woodland path takes you on a cooling walk through birch trees, wildflowers, and other companion plants partial to shaded conditions.

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