When a Landscape Architect Builds Her Own Children’s Sensory Garden

We’re living through some really strange times right now. Downright surreal.

With folks urged to stay home, with kids out of school, the quality of the home environment is more important than ever before. That’s why I want to share with you a project I’ve been working on at our home for the past year. I’m building <with my own two hands> a sensory garden for my twin girls (whom I affectionately call the “Twin-ado”).

I’m a nature play nerd. Have been for 20 years, before the term even existed. Even before the moment the girls came into our lives, I was already re-imagining our home landscape to be a child’s paradise. I daydreamed of forts and dens and log climbers.  I craved the idea of cut flower gardens and “wild” spaces where the girls could rub elbows with pill bugs and garter snakes. I sketched out art sculptures. With so many ideas, I wondered, and with my limited budget, what would be most beneficial and potentially grow with them. Sometime during my work in designing play, learning, and therapeutic landscapes for children with diversities, I realized what we needed at our home, what my children needed, was a sensory garden.

Want this sign, too? Visit natureplaysign.com/

Why did I decide to build a sensory garden at home? Well, quite a few reasons. I’ve been a plant fanatic since the time I learned to walk. I’ve been an avid gardener since my teenage years. As a cancer survivor, I’ve personally experienced the healing powers of Mother Nature. My career path has led me to specialize in designing nature-based play, learning, and therapeutic environments for children of all abilities. All of this hit me like a 18-wheeler when I took my first look at my tiny infant pair. I wanted them to benefit from having a sensory garden within arm’s reach. Plus, selfishly, what better guinea pigs can a designer like me ask for??

Planning Our Sensory Garden

About a year after we bought our little pink farmhouse on two acres, I started the garden planning. I identified where in the yard I wanted it and approximately how large. I wanted the garden near the main entry of the house in a corner that would be visible both from the house and something you feel drawn into once you walk through the front gate.

Now, I’m a landscape architect and we’re trained to plan and design our projects. I know the value of a well-thought out design and the time and money it will save in the construction process. Did I do this for myself? Well, not exactly <eye roll at myself>. I did do some general space planning, though. Over an aerial image, I sketched the garden out with a Crayola marker one child graciously lent me. This gave me enough direction to know where to start digging out sod and wrangling one space at a time.

I’m planning the following spaces and features for our garden, and, mind you, I’m building 99% of it myself:

  • Entry statement and garden fence
  • An extensive sensory path with natural materials and artful stones mosaics
  • Log climber/retaining feature
  • “The Lookout”, an elevated fort-like structure with an upper nest and cozy space underneath (I’m particularly excited about this one, coming Summer 2020!
  • Art sculptures (a large painted metal swallowtail butterfly is in works! This beauty will be post-mounted as a statement piece)
  • Smaller garden ornamentation (birdhouses, statuary, wind chimes, wind spinners…)
  • A musical instrument or two
  • Loose parts area
  • A living red osier dogwood den
  • Sensory plantings
  • Nooks and secret spaces for the girls to do their thing. They’re already finding places around the garden to build gnome homes and other imaginative creations

Construction Begins

Here’s what I tackled first:

The girls looking at home on the newly placed log rounds

We had some log rounds sitting on the property from a black locust tree that was a windstorm casualty the year before we bought the place. I was absolutely dying to roll them into the yard for a nature play feature. The first piece of the garden I focused on was building up a corner berm using the log rounds for retaining. These rounds were SO cool with their weathered grey color, funky growth circles, and craggy bark. With my spud bar and shouts of encouragement from my tiny human fan club, I shimmied them in place and stepped their height to provide an easy-to-log climber for the girls, who were two years-old at the time.

I planted the berm with zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’) divisions that I pilfered from my mom’s yard (thanks, Nana!). I added Mellow Yellow spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Mellow Yellow”) in the middle ground. Along the log rounds, I mixed in lavender (‘Phenomenal’ variety), June-bearing strawberries, Autumn Joy sedum, and lamb’s ears. I plan to add more perennials and locate a small flowering tree on the berm, but I have yet to decide which tree we’d like. That will be a this-spring addition.

The view from our front door…the garden and it’s sensory path, very much under construction (August 2019)

Our sensory garden is a work-in-progress and I’m so excited to share our heartfelt project with you! In the following blog posts, I’ll be sharing my garden installation process, the little stories and discoveries that happen in a project like this, and instructions for building your own garden and nature-based play/learning/therapeutic features that are purposeful and playful.

This summer, I’ll be tackling three major features: a concrete walk/patio space at our house front entry, the figure 8-shaped sensory path, and “The Lookout”. Perhaps I’ll get more done with stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures. You won’t hear me complaining.

I hope my journey in building our sensory garden inspires you to do something with your home’s outdoor spaces, however big or small. In truth, it’s the whole reason I started this blog. I want to encourage you to make the most out of your landscape for the benefit of your children. Your own yard will be a child’s paradise…a place of wonder, exploration, sensory engagement, and family bonding.

Time to get your garden gloves out, my friends!

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