Sensory Gardens

What is a sensory garden?


Sensory gardens provide intimate spaces where young children can be immersed in the scents, textures and colors of plants and related elements. Along with specially selected plants, sensory gardens may also include elements such as wind chimes, wind socks, flags, and children’s art. Two popular forms of sensory gardens are sensory pathways and keyhole gardens.

Sensory pathways

Sensory pathways can be constructed of smooth, flat, stepping stones or tree cookies with gaps wide enough for in-between planting. Stepping stones can be natural stone or concrete or made by children to include hand prints, leaf prints, shells, marbles, colored tile mosaics, or smooth glass. Glass blocks or clay bricks can be laid in the sensory pathway to add additional sensory richness and variety. Sensory pathways should be considered part of the larger pathway system and should not dead end. They can be installed as a narrow (18"-24"), short loop off the primary pathway (Figure 1) or a broad (36"-72") connection between settings (Figure 2).

Keyhole gardens

Keyhole gardens provide an intimate space to rest while immersed in sensory plants. Keyhole gardens are shaped like a skeleton keyhole with a narrow entry and bulbous, interior space wide enough for a young child or two to sit and reach the plantings on either side (approximately 24” - 36” wide). Keyhole gardens can be installed as a subspace along a sensory path or be designed as a stand-alone setting.

Sensory Garden Diagram

Figure 1. Sensory pathway as a short loop off primary pathway. Keyhole garden added along sensory pathway.

Sensory Garden Image

Figure 2. This wide, sensory pathway connects the classroom porch to a vine-covered pergola.

Sensory plantings

Sensory plantings should be hardy, vary in height, color, texture and scent, provide year-round sensory interest, and be planted within easy reach. Perennials, groundcovers, ornamental grasses, small shrubs and edible plants can be incorporated, including the following:


Allium schoenoprasum  Chives

Aloysia triphylla  Lemon verbena

Mentha x piperita  Peppermint

Monarda didyma  Bee balm

Ocimum basilicum  Sweet basil

Origanum vulgar  Oregano

Osmunda regalis  Royal fern

Perovskia atriplicifolia  Russian sage

Polystichum acrostichoides  Christmas fern

Salvia officinalis  Sage

Sedum spp.  Stonecrop, sedum

Stachys byzantina  Lamb's ears



Ajuga reptans  Ajuga

Lysimachia nummilaria  Creeping Jenny

Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana'  Dwarf mondo

Sagina subulata  Irish moss

Salvia lyrata  Lyreleaf sage

Thymus vulgaris  Common thyme


Ornamental grasses – soft to the touch and provide year-round sensory interest

Acorus gramineus 'Minimus Aureus'  Dwarf golden sweet flag

Calamagrostis × acutiflora  Feather reed grass

Chasmanthium latifolium  Inland sea oats

Muhlenbergia capillaris  Pink muhly grass

Nassella tenuissima  Mexican feather grass


Small shrubs

Lavandula stoechas  Spanish lavender

Lavandula x  intermedia 'Provence'  Provence lavender

Rosmarinus officinalis  Rosemary



Fragaria ananassa  Strawberries

Vaccinium spp.  Blueberries


For more information on installing stepping stones, download the Installing Stepping Stones InfoSheet.

For more information on pathways check out the rest of the Green Desk pathways posts.


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