By Jay Ladell
Summer is almost here and it is time to get out outside and experience nature! Nature helps us to relax, restore and re-energize. You can bring nature to your backyard with a sensory garden that appeals to all five of our senses. The colour, fragrances, texture, sounds, and taste awaken the mind.
Imagine being in your backyard and listening to blades of ornamental grass rustling against each other in the breeze. Or smelling the soothing scent of English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), feeling the velvety touch of a Jackman clematis (Clematis x Jackmanii) and tasting freshly picked blueberries (Vaccinium). These sensory experiences will trigger the delight you felt in childhood when you first discovered nature.
Sensory gardens are healing gardens. They improve mood, clear out the mind and increase both memory and attention spans. Children are healthier and more active when they reduce screen time and go out in natural settings and play.
Here are some tips that will show how to include all five senses in your garden.
The simple act of handling fresh, rich soil releases serotonin, the so-called feel-good chemical in our brain. Feel different textures: run your fingers along a blade of ornamental grass, touch the velvety-fine hairs of field pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), or dip your hand in the fountain. Go barefoot and experience sponge-like moss or sink your toes into pea-sized river stones.
Two of my favourite activities are sitting on soft, smooth flame-treated limestone step and soaking up the sun, or curling up in a hammock and reading a good book.
Sound advice for the restorative garden: When street noise or the constant drone of a neighbour’s air conditioner interferes with your wish for peace and quiet, you can help mute these undesirable sounds with sound-absorbing shrubs, bushes and hedges.
Water features lull us into a deep relaxation state. A fountain with a bubbling rock and a waterfall mimics the sounds of a gurgling brook. Or try a fountain with slow-moving water that cascades in channels that reminds you of a slower-moving winding stream.
Sounds in a sensory garden often go hand-in-hand with motion. Moving water attracts thirsty birds looking for fresh water. Their tweets and chirps are delightful. Consider adding tinkling wind chimes or taller plants such as the downy and smooth serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea and A. laevis) that whisper in the wind.
Movement can continue into the evening with an outdoor fire. Propane, natural gas and alcohol-based fire features conform to City of Ottawa by-laws for urban properties. The radiating heat together with the flickering and glowing flames make us instinctively huddle around in a circle on a cool summer’s night.
Fragrant plants improve cognitive abilities, mood and sense of well-being. Try pinching a bit of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) or lavender between your fingers. Your fingers will be left with an evocative, relaxing scent. Juniper and pine produce a sharp, clean fresh smell, while moss produces a spicy one: both of these smells stimulate the brain. To promote relaxation, consider a Dwarf Korean Tree (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ std.), the mock orange shrub (Philadelphus coronarius) along with the European snowball (Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’). These scented flowering plants will entice children to smell and touch and with encouragement, to make indoor bouquets.
Last on the sensory garden list are edible ornamental plants. Enjoy edible rhubarb in spring and blueberries in summer. Grow sweet peas up a garden trellis or consider a herb garden. A herb garden allows you the luxury of going straight from the garden to the plate. If you have a youngster, ask them to pick the herbs so they get to know the differences between thyme, basil, rosemary, and chives.
Sensory gardens allow us to get lost in nature. When we notice the sights, sounds and tastes we can’t help but be drawn from our hurried lives into the tranquility of the present moment.
Article originally published in the O.S.C.A.R. newspaper