Steven WellsSensory gardens and some favourite things

I love a good sensory garden and how they can delight and heighten our senses, how they can evoke fond memories and how they can draw us in to be immersed within the garden. Immersed in a visual, audible, olfactory, gustatory and tactile kind of way!

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Sensory gardens are designed to encourage us to connect with the plants and other elements within the garden with each of our senses. This style of garden should really invite us into it rather than just providing a nice visual to be enjoyed as you casually wander past.

As a designer I thoroughly enjoy the fact that there is no set recipe for a sensory garden. While this could make it more challenging to design them, I believe that it actually makes them more exciting. These gardens are not something that come off a production line with each one being uniform and looking exactly the same as the next one, with an obligatory wind chime, fragrant rose, a lavender and a pot of mint!

Design Steven Wells

Design Steven Wells

We all engage with gardens in different ways depending on our interest, ability and also our stage of life. A successfully designed sensory garden is one that recognises these aspects and is in tune with those who will be using it. Which, amazingly, is the same principle for any garden design. I’ve seen a variety of sensory gardens with each one being completely different and I’ve really enjoyed each one. I’ve seen ones designed for the elderly that have a focus on reminiscence and familiarity, for children that focus on fun and discovery of new experiences within the garden, and for those with disabilities that incorporate a blend of both these focuses. Each garden met the needs of the users wonderfully.

There are just so many plants that work well for a sensory garden and it is difficult for me to limit my favourites, but in true sound of music style, these plants are a few of my favourite things for a sensory garden.

Pelargonium tometosum

Pelargonium tometosum

Pelargonium tomentosum – Peppermint Geranium
I love the soft texture and fragrance of the leaves, but interestingly I’m told it can also apparently be used when making a chocolate cake to add a peppermint flavour and also as a soothing effect for sore nipples of breastfeeding mothers! Suffice to say I’ll only try one of these suggestions!

Tradescantia pallida

Tradescantia pallida

Tradescantia pallida – Purple Hearts
This is an absolute favourite of mine. With its great purple foliage and small pink flowers. I think it just looks sensational especially when contrasted with lime green like the agave attenuata.

Passiflora – Passionfruit
This is a double whammy – fruit and an amazing flower. How can you not like a passionfruit flower with its layered structure and fabulous detail?

Passiflora edulis & a bee doing its thing.!

Passionfruit flower & a bee doing its thing!

Rainbow Chard

Rainbow Chard

Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla – Rainbow Chard
It’s edible and it has wonderful foliage contrast colours. It reminds me of a map with green fields and roadways


Helianthus annus – Sunflower
This is a great bright and cheery flower that attracts the pollinators. It’s also a great plant for children as they can grow tall and tower over.


CannaCanna ‘Tropicanna’
This canna has striking strong foliage variations with a brilliant bright orange flower.

Iris germanica – Bearded Iris
These irises have a nice subtle fragrance and there are so many colours and varieties to choose from depending on whether your colour palette preference is strong and bold or soft and pale, or even a combination of both.

Bearded iris

Bearded iris

Heliotrope arborescens

Heliotrope arborescens

Kalanchoe beharensis

Kalanchoe beharensis

Heliotrope arborescens ‘Cherry Pie’
This has a lovely subtle sweet vanilla fragrance with soft purple flowers.

Kalanchoe beharensis – Felt Bush
While this is not the most glamorous looking plant, it has an amazing statuesque presence with wonderful large soft velvety leaves that are in contrast to its rough stem.

Rosa ‘Mr Lincoln’
I’m a sucker for a fragrant rose and this one just sends me back to my childhood at the local floral shows and I have a vivid memory of smelling a single stem specimen in a green wine bottle … brilliant!

Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’
One of my favourite pelargoniums! Rough textured leaf with a strong citrus fragrance.

Aeonium 'Schwartzkopf'

Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’

Aeonium arboreum var. atropurpureum ‘Schwarzkopf’ – Black Rose
This is a great structural succulent with deep burgundy foliage and a bright yellow flower. I just love how the sunlight heightens the richness of the burgundy leaf colour and when you get close enough you can see it highlighting the finely toothed leaf margins.

Oh, but there are just so many more that I want to include, like curry herb, daphne, rose geranium, lamb’s ear ….. but that’s what I love about plants, there are just so many to choose from.

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Steven Wells

About Steven Wells

Steven has successfully combined his nursing and horticulture careers to be working as a nurse, a horticultural therapist and the gardens and grounds project officer at Austin Health in Melbourne. He studied horticulture at The University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus and is the 2012 ABC Gardening Australia ‘Gardener of the Year’. Having grown up on a market garden and orange orchard he has ‘green blood’ and is a keen gardener. He is passionate about sharing the benefits of gardening, horticultural therapy and people-plant connections.

7 thoughts on “Sensory gardens and some favourite things

  1. lovely, lovely Steven; I wanted to touch and sniff the screen all through reading your post. Fantastic pictures. love the purple and lime combo, too. I have that happening a lot in my garden, as well.

    • Fantastic Julie, glad you enjoyed it. If only we could have scratch and sniff computer screens! That would be particularly handy when researching a plant on the internet before buying it!

  2. Great post Steven, I would certainly love to visit a garden with all these plants 🙂

    I am planning on creating a small sensory garden (one section of a larger garden) at my local community garden. I would like it to appeal to children, the elderly and those with disabilities but many of the plants you’ve picked as your favourites are not suitable for our area which experiences long, cold winters (we’ve already had our first frost (mid – late April), our last frost is usually in December and we regularly get temperatures down to -10 degrees Celsius and lower).

    Can you possibly suggest some additional plants that are suitable for areas with heavy frosts?

    • Hi Kelly. Your project sounds great, albeit a little challenging with the frosts. I don’t have a great deal of experience with frosts like those that you experience. However, depending on your space you could possibly consider some of these plants for fragrance and texture –
      Osmanthus fragrans and Osmanthus delavayi – Sweet Osmanthus
      Philotheca myoporoides – Waxflower
      Prostanthera rotundifolia – Roundleaf Mint bush
      Sarcococa – Sweet Box

      Perhaps some of the ornamental grasses might work too for some nice textural or visual impact –
      Miscanthus sinensis ‘Sarabande’
      Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
      Poa labillardierei

      I hope that is of some help.

    • Thanks Helen. I must admit the passionfruit and bee photo is one of my favourite photos. I love capturing flowers and insects working together.

  3. Hello
    Fabulous post and article in the Gardening Australia magazine. Do you consult? We are looking to develop a couple of contained areas as sensory gardens in our nursing home/retirement village – and we are looking for a starting point!!

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