While all gardens are by nature sensory, the term “sensory garden” is generally reserved forspaces that have been expressly designed to heighten our awareness of them, which is why these gardens are often deployed in therapeutic horticulture.
When it came to colour, Smyth wanted a lot of it. While Melbourne’s botanic gardens don’t generally make a feature of bedding displays, this space flaunts pink, orange, yellow, blue and purple bedding classics such as carnations, marigolds, salvias, pelargoniums and heliotrope. One sweep of plants is almost entirely golden in colour while another area is largely purple and another spot more pink.
‘A sensory garden is about the connections between you and nature.’
The garden also contains a wide suite of aromatic offerings such as guava-scented pelargonium, four Thymus species, lavender, cut-leaf lilac, lemon-scented tea tree and native mint. These, like some of the more tactile plants, such as Stachys bizantina, tend to be beside pathways.
As for sound, there are the birds and bees attracted to these plants but there is also a thicket of bamboo, with leaves that rustle in the wind. You can also hear the noise of running water. The sense of taste is touched on more obliquely. While this is not an edible garden, it does contain culinary plants including herbs, a pink form of Camellia sinensis (used to make tea), and seven persimmons.
As with all sensory gardens, it was a matter of choosing plants to suit both the site and the senses. This sunny, exposed patch has areas with relatively good drainage, a stretch of heavy clay and one particularly anoxic spot. The plants also had to meet the garden’s climate-change risk assessments and be able to accommodate Melbourne’s increasingly hot conditions, while not being weedy. Finally, the entire space had to blend in with the rest of the gardens rather than looking, as Smyth puts it, like a new room.
Smyth says the success of the garden is largely due to the collaboration between all those involved with it, which included everyone from the garden’s staff to private collectors and volunteers. But her advice for anyone wanting to plant a sensory garden at home is to choose plants that suit your climatic conditions and that also “mean something to you”, even if it’s just because you like the look of them.
She also encourages the inclusion of water, both because it “makes you feel fresh and alive and grateful” and for how it attracts birds, bees and other creatures. “While most people can’t have a lake or stream, you can have a bird bath… or a solar-powered mini fountain.”
Seating is essential (“even a rock or log”) as are areas of shade. “But making a sensory garden is really about going with what you can do,” she says. “As long as you love it and you feel happy in it.”