Sensory gardens

Sunlight filtered through the leaves of a Cabbage Palm Frond. Image courtesy of Tony Markham. All rights reserved. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tony_markham
The first variable on texture and colour is the reflectivity of light.
Paul Thompson, Australian Planting Design

Sensory gardens are designed to stimulate sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound.  They may have a therapeutic purpose, or just be developed for general interest. Plants can be chosen for their scent, texture, colour, structure or for being edible. A popular way of setting out a sensory garden is along a path that includes interesting shells, pebbles or mosaics and scented ground covers that release their perfume when walked on. Plants of interest are placed alongside the path where they can be touched, smelt or admired.

How to achieve the look:
  • choose textured gravel for a crunchy sounding path, or use an interesting textured mulch with elements such as She-oak needles for visual effect.
  • place interesting items beside pathways, such as shells, driftwood or unusually shaped logs or rocks that will also provide habitat for native fauna
  • place plants along the path where they can be seen, smelled, or touched
  • plan for year-round interest, with plants that flower or fruit at different times of the year, and plants with an interesting appearance providing a year-round structure to the design
  • be aware of how light strikes plants in the garden and what effects this can create, such as leaves that are shiny when lit up by the sun, and the patterns of light and shadow cast as the sun moves across the sky each day.

Taste

For plants that engage with the sense of taste, see the Bushtucker gardens page or use the plant search tool to look for edible plants.

Sight

Select plants according to the shape, texture and colour of their foliage, flowers, fruit/berries, bark and the overall form of the plant, as appeals to you. Some suitable plants include:


Trees
Notes
White Beech (Gmelina leichhardtii)
Tall tree with large pale green leaves, purple and white flowers, purple fruit; full sun or part shade
Red Ash (Alphitonia excelsa)
Medium tree with felty-textured leaves and pleasing bunches of creamy-white flowers; full sun or part shade
Kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus)
Medium to tall tree with neat rounded crown, white bell-flowers and large, interesting seed pods; full sun
Scentless Rosewood (Synoum glandulosum)
Small elegant tree with white flowers and orange-red fruit; full sun or part shade
Snow Wood (Pararchidendron pruinosum var. pruinosum)
Small tree with showy, fragrant pom-pom flowers that age from yellow to orange and interesting seed pods; full sun
Hairy Clerodendrum (Clerodendrum tomentosum)
Small tree or tall shrub with furry leaves, showy flowers and attractive fruit; part shade
Shrubs

Small-leaved Bleeding Heart (Homalanthus stillingifolius)
Dense, shade-tolerant shrub to 1.5m with heart-shaped leaves that turn red before falling; part shade
Toothed Daisy-bush (Olearia tomentosa)
Neat rounded shrub to 1m, hairy serrated leaves and white or purple flowers; full sun or part shade
Orange Thorn (Pittosporum multiflorum)
Shrub to 2m with round leaves, orange fruit; rather prickly (caution required); part shade
Austral Indigo (Indigofera australis)
Shrub to 1.5m with arching branches, lacy-looking foliage, purple flowers and long seed pods; part shade
White Correa (Correa alba)
Grows to 2m, grey-green leaves and white flowers; sandy soil and full or dappled sun
Lance Beard-heath (Leucopogon lanceolatus)
Shrub to 3m, often sparse and angular, the new leaves unfold from a spear-like spike; part shade
Wedding Bush (Ricinocarpos pinifolius)
Striking shrub to 3m with needle-shaped leaves and beautiful white flowers; sandy soil, part shade
Climbers

Silkpod Vine (Parsonsia straminea)
Long cigar-shaped pods in summer or early autumn; sun or shade
Native Passionfruit (Passiflora herbertiana)
Scrambling vine, with beautiful flowers, though sadly no edible fruit; part shade
Trailing Guinea-flower (Hibbertia dentata)
Delicate climber with beautiful red stems and yellow flowers; part shade
Groundcovers and ferns

Rock Felt Fern (Pyrrosia rupestris)
A very low fern with a mix of long and round fronds, useful for growing on tree trunks or rocks; shade
Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum aethiopicum)
Tough fern with beautiful lacy pale green fronds; part shade
Prickly Rasp Fern (Doodia aspera)
Very tough clumping fern with upright fronds and reddish new growth; part shade or full sun in a sheltered spot
Plants with long strappy leaves

Branching Grass-flag (Libertia paniculata)
Strappy leaves, white iris-like flowers; part or full sun
Settlers’ Flax (Gymnostachys anceps)
Long strappy leaves, blue fruit on tall stems; shade tolerant
Bulbine Lily (Bulbine bulbosa)
Spring onion-like foliage and yellow flowers on long stems; part sun
Swamp Lily (Crinum pedunculatum)
Large strap-leafed plant with fragrant white flowers, very tough; full sun to part shade
Red-fruit Saw-sedge (Gahnia sieberiana)
Tall, tussock-forming plant with striking black flower spikes; full sun
Long-leaved Mat-Rush (Lomandra longifolia)
Super hardy, strap-leaved plant; full sun or part shade
Blue Flax-lily (Dianella caerulea)
Tough with bright green leaves and purple flowers and fruit; full sun or part shade
Grasses, sedges and rushes

Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides)
Low, tough clumping grass, can be mown; full sun or part shade
Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra)
Taller clumping grass with interesting flower spikes; full sun preferred
Silvertop Wallaby Grass (Rytidosperma pallidum)
Mid-sized clumping grass with elegant habit and tall attractive flower spikes; full sun
Hedgehog Grass (Echinopogon ovatum)
Light mat-forming grass with distinctive flower heads that look like hedgehogs; full sun

Sound

Choose a few plants that make an interesting sound, when moved by the breeze, while producing flowers or seeds, or if shaken by a human hand. Sound effects can also be introduced by other elements, such as wind chimes, gravelled paths or by attracting birds to the garden.

Some plants to consider include:


Trees
Notes
Black She-oak (Allocasuarina littoralis) and Rose She-oak (Allocasuarina torulosa)
The wind whistling through the branches of these trees makes a very distinctive sound; full sun
Illawarra Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius)
Tall rainforest tree with large leathery seed pods that rattle on the tree
Shrubs

Golden Tip (Goodia lotifolia)
The seed pods of this 3m shrub rattle when ripe; full sun
Large-leaf Hop Bush (Dodonaea triquetra)
Shrub to 3m, whose flat papery seed pods rattle when the seeds are ripe; full sun or part shade
Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca ericifolia)
Bushy low to tall shrub with tea-tree scented foliage that rustles in the breeze; full sun
Rainforest Senna (Senna acclinis)
Dainty shrub to around 3m, with bright yellow flowers and long flat brown seed pods that rattle when dry; part shade
Grasses, sedges and rushes

Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra)
Clumping tall grass with masses of tall seed heads that rustle in the breeze; full sun
Red-fruit Saw-sedge (Gahnia sieberiana)
Tall, tussock forming plant with striking black flower spikes; the leaves rustle in the breeze; full sun

Smell

Scented plants, whether the flowers, leaves or bark, are an important part of many gardens, and can draw people in. Flowers tend to spread their fragrance when they open, whereas other parts of a plant such as leaves generally need to be crushed or at least pressed to release their scent. Some are more fragrant during the day, and others more at night.  

Some plants to consider include:


Trees
Notes
Sassafras (Doryphora sassafras)
Tall rainforest tree, the leaves have a beautiful spicy fragrance when crushed; full sun
Oliver’s Sassafras (Cinnamomum oliveri)
Tall rainforest tree with reddish new growth and cinnamon scented leaves; full sun
Grey Myrtle (Backhousia myrtifolia)
Upright low tree or large shrub with neat leaves with an aromatic smell when crushed; full sun or part shade
Coast Canthium (Cyclophyllum longipetalum)
Small tree or tall shrub with masses of fragrant flowers that turn from white to orange then brown; full sun
Celery Wood (Polyscias elegans)
Small tree with neat rounded crown and glossy leaves, whose bark releases a celery scent when scratched; full sun or part shade
Victorian Christmas Bush (Prostanthera lasianthos)
A small bushy tree with aromatic foliage and appealing purple flowers; pretty but tricky to grow and may become top heavy; full sun and well-drained soil
Shrubs and taller herbaceous plants

Native Elderberry (Sambucus australasicus)
Woody shrub to 3m with three-part leaves and pleasantly scented creamy flowers; part shade and a moist position
Narrow-leaved Mint Bush (Prostanthera linearis)
Bushy shrub to 3m whose foliage is faintly but pleasantly aromatic; needs well-drained but moist sandy or gravel soils and part sun
Lance Beard-heath (Leucopogon lanceolatus)
Shrub to 3m, tending to woodiness, with delightful scented white flowers; part shade
Musk Daisy-bush (Olearia argophylla)
Large bushy shrub with musk-scented foliage; part shade
Tree Violet (Melicytus dentatus)
Much-branched shrub to 3m, with masses of flowers that are highly fragrant in the evening (can be over-powering in a small space); part shade
Sandfly Zieria (Zieria smithii)
Sometimes sparse shrub to 1m, with small white flowers and a pungent scent; part shade
Swamp Lily (Crinum pedunculatum)
Upright, clumping plant with tough strappy leaves and sweetly scented white flowers; full sun to part shade
Fishweed (Einadia trigonos)
Low shrub whose edible leaves have an interesting rather ‘fishy’ smell; part shade
Vines, climbers and scramblers

Scented Marsdenia (Marsdenia suaveolens)
A moderately vigorous climber with sweetly-scented white flowers and long green seed pods; part shade
Silkpod Vine (Parsonsia straminea)
A tall, robust climber with bunches of fragrant creamy, white or pink flowers; part shade or full sun
Grasses, sedges and rushes

Scented-top Grass (Capillipedium parviflorum)
Clumping grass to around 80cm with lightly fragrant flowers; full sun or part shade
Spiny-headed Mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia)
Hardy, strap-leaved plant to 1m with fragrant flower spikes in early spring; full sun or part shade
Groundcovers and low plants

Bulbine Lily (Bulbine bulbosa)
Spring onion-like foliage and lightly scented yellow flowers on long stems; part shade
Dolly Bush (Cassinia aculeata)
Open shrub to 2m with white flowers and curry-scented foliage; full sun to part shade
Native Mint (Mentha diemenica)
Low spreading plant with mint-scented leaves; part shade
Cockspur Flower (Plectranthus parviflorus)
Low semi-succulent plant with lightly mint scented foliage; part shade
Australian Gypsywort (Lycopus australis)
A member of the mint family, with a distinctive rather minty smell; full sun to dappled shade
Orchids

Orange Blossom Orchid (Sarcochilus falcatus)
Small tree-growing orchid with beautiful white flowers that look and smell a bit like orange blossoms; part shade

Touch

Select plants with bark, leaves, flowers or fruit that have an interesting texture or feel. This could be rough, smooth, bumpy, sticky, prickly, cracked or fissured, depending on the plant. Textured plants need to be placed close to paths or other areas that enable easy access.  Plants that are thorny or prickly may not be suitable in some contexts.

Some plants to consider include:


Trees
Notes
Hickory Wattle (Acacia implexa)
Small tree to 10m featuring rough, cracked and fissured bark; full sun
Illawarra Plum Pine (Podocarpus elatus)
Dense but slow growing shrub or tree; the reddish bark on older plants can be deeply fissured; sun or shade
Native Quince (Alectryon subcinereus)
Small tree to 5m or 6m with mottled bark and a trunk with twisted, irregular fluting; full sun or part shade
She-oaks such as Rose She-oak (Allocasuarina torulosa) and Swamp Oak (Casuarina glauca)
Trees of various sizes with ridged bark and attractive rough-textured cones full of tiny seed; full sun
Native Tamarind (Diploglottis australis)
Eventually a tall tree, when young the leathery leaves with their covering of soft orange-brown hairs are a pleasure to touch; part shade or full sun
Sandpaper Fig (Ficus coronata)
A small tree with rough-textured, sand-papery leaves and fruit that grow directly out of the trunk; full sun or part shade
Brush Bloodwood (Baloghia inophylla)
A small shade-loving tree with large leathery leaves and grey-white bark that ‘bleeds’ a red sap when scratched
Shrubs

Rainforest Senna (Senna acclinis)
Upright shrub to to 2m with soft-textured leaves and interesting flat brown seed pods; part shade
White Correa (Correa alba)
Rounded shrub to 2m with furry grey-green leaves and pretty white flowers; full or dappled sun
Wedding Bush (Ricinocarpos pinifolius)
Striking shrub to 3m with soft, needle-shaped leaves and beautiful white flowers; sandy soil; part shade
Lantern Bush (Abutilon oxycarpum)
Dense to sparse shrub to 2m with long soft furry leaves that taper to a point.
Vines, climbers and scramblers

Old Man’s Beard (Clematis aristata)
Vigorous climber with attractive three-part leaves and masses of fluffy or hairy seeds in autumn; part sun
Native Currant (Coprosma quadrifida)
Small-leaved shrub to 3m with edible red berries; the softly-prickly foliage could be a textural feature; part shade
Grasses, sedges and rushes

Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra)
Clumping tall grass with masses of tall seed heads that crackle and buckle pleasantly when crushed; full sun
Tall Spike-rush (Eleocharis sphacelata)
Handsome tall sedge for wet areas, the round stems are hollow and snap into parts; full sun
Knobby Club-rush (Ficinia nodosa)
Tough clumping perennial sedge with knobby flower heads with an interesting shape and texture; full sun and a moist position
Silvertop Wallaby Grass (Rytidosperma pallidum)
A perennial grass that grows in wispy clumps, with long thin leaves with a dry slightly crackly texture; full sun
Groundcovers and low plants

Pigface (Carpobrotus glaucescens)
Succulent groundcover for sunny sandy sites, the leaves are succulent and the ripe seeds can be squelched around inside the fruit; full sun
Yellow Buttons (Chrysocephalum apiculatum)
Low groundcover with yellow flowers and densely furry grey-green leaves pleasant to touch; full sun or part shade
Native Flax (Linum marginale)
Delicate low perennial with slender but surprisingly strong and stringy stems; part shade
Prickly Rasp Fern (Doodia aspera)
Tough clumping fern with upright bumpy-textured (but not prickly) fronds and reddish new growth; part shade
Native Storksbill (Pelargonium australe)
Low spreading perennial whose many-lobed leaves have a beautiful velvety texture.


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