Learn from a Leader: How to Build a Sensory Garden for Everyone

At ioby, we are  lucky to be surrounded by experts from across the country. Our ioby Leaders  can do some amazing things;  They can  build bat houses, make beeswax candles, teach  kids how to tell stories through dance!  And best of all, they’re not stingy with their knowledge.  That’s why we like to  feature some of our favorite  Leaders in our Learn from a Leader series. We hope you enjoy!

This  post comes from   Jamie Young and the other members of the Washington Bottoms Community Garden. The Garden is part of the GrowMemphis network of organic gardens. Based in Midtown Memphis, Washington Bottoms makes all decisions by consensus through their seven-member board. A number of plots in their garden are maintained by their owners, and one is a free-for-all for the community.

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A sensory garden is made to stimulate all five senses, and emphasizes the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and feels of a garden in an intentional way. While sensory gardens can be especially wonderful for people with sensory impairments, people of all abilities enjoy them. They’re truly gardens for everyone!



  1. Start with your budget. It’s pragmatic but important! We got a $2,000 grant to build our garden and planned everything with that in mind. For example, cinder block raised beds fit within our budget, so we used those; lumber would have been more expensive. If you have a $0 budget, you can still build a sensory garden! You’ll just need to plan farther in the future, so you can do things like raise seedlings from an heirloom seedling club instead of buying plants (ask around about the most fragrant varieties).
  1. Get up to code. It’s really important that you collaborate with local advocacy groups to ensure you’re building your garden to accessibility standards. We worked with our local chapter of the disability rights activism group ADAPT to plan the most exciting garden we could. For example, we were concerned about how to account for the “sound” sense, and ADAPT suggested we feature bee- and butterfly-attracting plants so visitors could hear buzzing and fluttering sounds. On another occasion, we got the idea to label our plants with metal tags that could be printed with Braille as well as English. And we made sure our pathways were ADA compliant, and that our raised beds were a few different heights, for kids, adults, and people in wheelchairs. Our contacts at ADAPT weren’t gardeners, but they had a lot of great ideas.
  1. Schedule, schedule, schedule. For your opening day, you want as many plants in bloom as possible, so draft your planting schedule to align with that and any other events you want to hold. Schedule enough workdays for volunteers, too, and make sure you pick the right people for the right jobs. Your engineering-minded friends can help you build cinder block beds, for example; young volunteers make enthusiastic guides, painters, and planters. Attract a wide volunteer base and make them privy to your planning process so they know they’re important.
  1. Let ’em in! Once your garden’s ready, schedule tours of it with local schools and any other groups that might particularly appreciate experiencing plants in a different way. Visitors to our garden always want to see the sensory garden first, because they know we’ve picked exciting things for it that they’ve never seen or heard of before. It’s a show-off garden!
  1. Go beyond gardening. Think of other ways to make your plot a full-on sensory experience: maybe build a playground around the beds with activities that relate to the plants nearby—we have a bamboo xylophone! You can use found objects to build experiential exhibits, too. A garden like this is not just for plants—make it a celebration of the senses in every way.



We took a month to build our raised beds, working only on weekends. That was about 20 hours for five beds with 36 blocks each, which is a pretty large garden. If you’re planting in-ground, you could do it in one or two weekends, if you have tillers. Your timing within the year depends on whether you’re using seeds or live plants: unless you have a greenhouse, you’ll want to plant seeds in spring; we used mostly short-growing seedlings. We started our garden in March and opened in June (though we’re still working on building up the playground!).



$2,000 was plenty for our needs; you could build a small sensory garden with seeds for half that. We bought 25 yards of soil, which was a lot. Again, a smaller garden will cut your costs.



For raised beds, make sure you get string and a level, and possibly rebar to reinforce the corners. You might need sand to help you level the ground (the cinder blocks will settle into it). Other necessities include a wheelbarrow, shovel, and all the regular garden tools.


Additional resources:

  • Kitchen Gardeners International gives grants of up to $500 each year to up to 200 food gardens. They’re also a great source of garden info!
  • ADAPT is one of many local and national advocacy groups that can help you think of solutions to any accessibility questions you encounter—including those that might arise with the owner of your garden’s land.
  • Volunteer possibilities span all ages and abilities: the Eagle Scouts, Sierra Club, and local victory garden associations are all great places to find helping hands, as are homeless shelters and senior groups. Remember who your garden is for!