The 5 Senses in Gardening
Hello and welcome to the magical month of May! This month gardeners are looking forward to the world famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which is back to its springtime spot in the heart of London for the first time since 2019.
Did you sign on to take part in Virtual Chelsea in May 2020 and 2021? Or perhaps you watched last September’s Chelsea on TV or visited the show in person? As an autumn event, it had a very different feel from the spring event we’re used to.
Greenfingers is a UK wide charity dedicated to supporting children who spend time in hospices. The benefits of being outside in a garden, surrounded by plants are good for all of us, mentally and physically. For these children, time spent away from their beds, playing with their siblings or simply resting with family is crucial.
Play, fun, exploration – why should any child not have the opportunity to be outside and discover the benefits of nature? Both the Greenfingers gardens across the country and the show gardens at Chelsea can offer ideas for our own gardens. And May 28th – 5th of June is National Children Gardening Week, there seems to be even more reason to explore how we can make our gardens a better place for all children.
There are over 60 Greenfingers Charity Gardens, all of them specially designed to be used and enjoyed by these children with life-limiting conditions, whether they can run around or use a wheelchair.
But what would you find in one of these gardens? Each is slightly different as the space available is not identical. Also, as the needs and wish lists of the children, their families and the hospice staff are asked for as part of the design brief there will be minor differences in these requirements. These two elements of the garden designs are the same as you would find in any design for a garden.
But to what extent are they different to a child-friendly garden designed for a domestic back garden? You’d expect wheelchair accessibility, but here it is for play elements such as willow tunnels as well as for paths. And there will be room for beds to be wheeled out for the children to enjoy either a sunny spot or the dappled shade of a tall tree.
There needs to be something of interest year-round, even in the depths of winter. And of course, reflecting the seasonal changes. A covered area or two so that the children can be outside or surrounded by the outside even when the weather is wet or chilly is important too.
Catering for all five senses is important too. Sensory input to both stimulates and relax is critical for these children, more so than it is for the rest of us. However, there are some key elements that are relevant to any good garden design, so I hope you find some inspiration here for your own garden.
We all think of fragrant flowers but remember aromatic foliage too. Herbs obviously come into this latter category, but there are also non-herb shrubs with pungent foliage. Think evergreen herbs such as Rosemary and Thyme and shrubs such as Santolina chamaecyparissus, also known as cotton lavender. Thyme grows particularly well in containers and raised beds.
It may surprise you, but, depending on where in the country you live it is possible to have fragrant flowers blooming every week of the year. The flowers are scented in order to attract pollinators and yes, there are some around in winter and in the evening. Try Viburnum x bodnantense ‘dawn’ for scented flowers on bare stems. For evening, Matthiola longipetala subsp. Bicornis, Night scented stock, is an easily grown annual.
It can be exciting to be safe inside listening to tree branches creaking in a storm, but most of us like softer sounds in the garden. Such as ornamental grasses that rustle in the wind; autumn leaves crackling beneath feet and wheels; birdsong and the buzzing of bees; water playing slowly from a fountain.
We often forget that the sound of a garden changes throughout the day and from season to season. The quietness of an early spring morning as the birds waken but before the traffic starts up is very different to a lush summer afternoon with a warm breeze wafting grasshopper chirrups from the lawn and the almost unheard flap of a butterfly’s wing.
Including edible plants in a garden is remarkably easy. Perennial fruit such as apple and pear trees, gooseberry bushes, raspberries and strawberries need little regular maintenance. All of them can be grown in raised beds or containers as well as in the ground, although cordon and espalier fruit trees are at a perfect picking height for small children and those in a wheelchair.
Herbs and edible flowers are other possibilities. Add in growing some spinach or lettuce to be picked when young. A pleasant task for almost any child, would be to eat a simple salad they’ve picked themselves.
Including lots of soft fluffy foliage is a delightful way to add both tactile pleasure and a different ‘look’ to the garden. Stachys byzantina, also called lambs ears, is evergreen, as is Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound', Angel's Hair Artemisia, which is a compact plant excellent for a raised bed or pot. Wispy grasses such as Pennisetum varieties where a hand can brush through them offer a different texture again.
And don’t let’s forget water to trickle over fingers. A rivulet made from brightly painted drain pipes and set at a height for all to enjoy makes a decorative feature in itself.
And while we’re talking bright colours … these are more easily seen by younger children as their eyes have not fully developed, and also vision may have faded for those who are sick.
However, too much stimulation may not be wanted, so areas of softer planting, particularly blues and whites will have a calming effect. Plus, these show up in lower light levels, allowing an evening wander around the garden to be soothing for all. Especially if some of those white flowers are giving off evening scents.
Hospice gardens are about giving pleasure, fun, solace and creating happy memories; feeding our bodies, hearts and minds: a therapeutic space. But shouldn’t all gardens have at least an element of therapy included within them?
And remember, if you can’t get along to the show to say hello to British Garden Centres staff in person, look out for them on the TV coverage. The Greenfingers’ stand, EA453, is located on Eastern Avenue where many of the retail stands are.
I’m on the Plant Heritage cloakroom on Wednesday and possibly Friday, so do say hi to me too if you visit RHS Chelsea.
That’s all for this month, happy and thoughtful gardening until next time,
About the author
Marie Shallcross is an advocate of edible ornamental gardens - beautiful, practical spaces that are both human friendly and wildlife friendly. She is the owner of Plews Garden Design, offering bespoke Gardening Lessons where your garden is your classroom. As well as Garden Design, Planting Designs, and Garden Consultancy.
A member of the prestigious Garden Media Guild, Marie writes a weekly award-winning gardening blog – Plews Potting Shed - plus articles for various publications and websites.