Time spent in a garden can engage all our senses and lift our moods, but one has to be intentional in their approach, an expert in therapeutic horticulture has said.
Dr Kate Neale, a researcher at Southern Cross University’s Faculty of Health and Centre for Children and Young People, believes people can reap benefits whenever they sit in a garden.
“It’s often about spending time on yourself, about attentively noticing, slowing down, just taking in your surroundings and thinking about your heart rate or your breathing,” she told Hope 103.2.
“(It’s) focusing on blocking out a lot of the outside noise and focusing on what is in front of you that’s actually really lovely.”
Different people will be drawn to different aspects of a garden, she said.
“(This is) usually based on senses, whether it’s knowing how something smells or just loving the way the light filters through foliage, or food gardens and all the delectable things that we get to eat.
“It’s just limited by our imagination, and curiosity is often one of the best tools we can have in the garden to experience things through our senses.”
Dr Neale is also an educator at Digability, which explores the benefits of therapeutic horticulture for people with cognitive disabilities, dementia and during the early years of development.
“I often do this with my students, (I’ll ask them to) sit there and will say ‘OK, let’s close our eyes, let’s remove one of the senses’,” Dr Neale said.
“(Let’s) see how that heightens the other senses that we might be able to use to enjoy this garden differently to which we’ve done before’.”
“Curiosity is often one of the best tools we can have in the garden to experience things through our senses,” – Dr Kate Neale, researcher at Southern Cross University
Although all gardens are sensory experiences, some gardens have been deliberately designed to engage with the senses.
“Sensory gardens are ones that have been curated in a way to make the most of the sensory aspects of being in nature, in green spaces, in a way that benefits people,” Dr Neale said.
“(They’ve) usually been specifically designed to capture sound or to incorporate water for different kinds of wellbeing benefits.”
These gardens are usually used in healthcare settings, often with people with special needs to help them develop a range of new skills.
“We see sensory gardens a lot in schools; they really help children who might have attention deficit disorder, who enjoy the sensory experiences of being in the garden,” Dr Neale said.
“People with intellectual and physical disabilities have different sensory receptors in the way that they process information and they often enjoy the tactile touch of plants.
“With people living with dementia, we often see that sensory gardens helps (them) connect back to past memories as well.”
“I don’t want people to think they have to walk through their local park to get to a sensory garden to enjoy a sensory delight in the garden; you can literally find it anywhere,” – Dr Kate Neale, researcher at Southern Cross University
How to start a sensory garden
Starting a sensory garden is easier than you would think and no fancy tools are required, Dr Neale said.
“You just need to have a space where plants can grow – are you getting adequate sunlight? How will it be watered? Is it a plant that requires a lot of maintenance or is it sort of a plant and forget?
“To choose… think about your own senses and your palate and, if it’s for you, what you’re attracted to, what do you like to see, what makes you feel calm?”
It’s not all lavenders and roses
However, not everything in the garden needs to be “soft and lovely” and “lavender and sweetly-smelling roses”, according to Dr Neale.
“Cactuses or succulents and really prickly things that we might not want to touch, they might not be a pleasant sensory experience, but they are also something that people can find curious or enjoyable.”
A young man was going through a difficult time in his life and his mental health was affected, Dr Neale said.
His mum, an avid gardener, tried convincing him to spend time in her garden, but he kept refusing.
“Instead, he planted this garden of – I don’t want to say doom and gloom – but this garden of curiosities, where it had spiky cactuses, super-hot chilies and plants like ivies and all of these things that were very atypical to his mum’s own garden and it piqued his curiosity,” Dr Neale said.
“They actually started gardening together based on all of the absolute opposite of what she was hoping to get him into the garden for.
“But that got him outside and got him into the sunshine, that got him talking to his mum and got him interested in other things, and from that he actually had beneficial mental health outcomes.”
Different people will be drawn to different aspects of a garden, according to Dr Kate Neale, researcher at Southern Cross University
Enjoying nature around us
While gardens are great sensory experiences, Dr Neale doesn’t want people to think they are the only places that engage the senses.
“I don’t want people to think they have to walk through their local park to get to a sensory garden to enjoy a sensory delight in the garden; you can literally find it anywhere,” she said.
“During COVID, I wrote a little piece about simply noticing nature in urban areas… (it can be) looking out onto pavements and seeing where nature was growing, where weeds were defying odds in growing up through concrete.
“It is an opportunity to see these benefits, to enjoy nature and derive benefit from that; it doesn’t need to be this special garden or… amazing green space.”