What are the health benefits of sensory gardens?

Carlyn Kilpatrick (right) is founder of the Nurture Project in Kettlestone, which uses sensory space

Carlyn Kilpatrick (right) is founder of the Nurture Project in Kettlestone, which uses sensory spaces for the purposes of horticultural therapy Picture: The Nurture Project - Credit: Archant

Charles Bliss explores the health benefits of sensory gardens for treating poor mental health.

Sensory gardens are multi-sensory environments that can enhance mood and cognition Picture: Get

Sensory gardens are multi-sensory environments that can enhance mood and cognition Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The human sensorium is a magnificent thing. Typically, we think of five classic senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. But in fact, we have many more: thermoception refers to our sense of heat and proprioception refers to the awareness of our bodies in space. Then there’s balance, pain, hunger... Eco-psychologist Michael J Cohen goes so far as to claim we have 53 distinct senses!

Experiences that appeal to sensory inputs are vital for our wellbeing, as connecting with the senses excites pathways in the brain to induce biochemical benefits. Find out how sensory gardens offer a balm to beat the lockdown blues.

What is a sensory garden?

Sensory gardens are multi-sensory environments that typically include graded accessible entrances and pathways, elevated planting beds and containers, water features and sensory-oriented plants selected for their colour, texture and fragrance.

Impressions encountered in sensory gardens can have incredible health benefits as they stimulate neural pathways that enhance mood and cognition. They assist children’s mental development through sensory learning, while research shows that sensory gardens can have positive effects for those suffering from dementia, as olfactory senses can awaken the memory. And even for those without mental health difficulties, sensory gardens offer a general sense of wellbeing and pleasure found in savouring the wonders of nature.

The Nurture Project

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Based in Kettlestone in north Norfolk, the Nurture Project is contained within a walled garden, which consists of vegetable and cutting gardens, an orchard, a quiet garden, a pond area and a woodland walk. These spaces are used for the purposes of horticultural therapy, which involves engagement in outdoor activities supervised by a therapist to help address mild to moderate mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism.

Carlyn Kilpatrick is founder and co-ordinator of the Nurture Project: “Our quiet garden concentrates on the sensory side of things,” Carlyn says. “In addition to the sensory garden, we grow a lot of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. We work alongside people, using nature and the garden to help people feel nourished.”

Gardening can have a profound influence on our biology. Indeed, using your hands and working with soil can help regulate emotions and immune response.

“There are beneficial microbes in soil which can trigger various chemical reactions in your brain that make you relaxed and happier, while boosting your immune system,” Carlyn explains.

“Researchers and scientists refer to something called the ‘biophilia effect’. This is our innate ability as human beings to be at one with nature. Anybody who immerses themselves in nature is relating back to that primal instinct which is therapeutically beneficial to us.”

Carlyn believes that sensory gardens can provide an escape from stresses and mental health difficulties. This could prove incredibly important during the time of coronavirus.

“Sometimes when we experience ill mental health, we catastrophise – reflecting on and worrying about things we have no control over,” Carlyn says. “The experience of a sensory garden can help you focus on the here and now. You can really appreciate what is in front of you by tuning in to your senses – be it sights, sounds, smells, touch or even your breath. This meditative effect will stop anxieties spiralling out of control.”

During the lockdown, the Nurture Project is providing weekly telephone support and a biweekly newsletter, which includes health and wellbeing advice as well as gardening tips. Carlyn and her team are also delivering gardening and produce boxes to clients. Carlyn stresses that you can keep it simple: “Even if you are living in a flat with a small balcony you can still enjoy plants in containers that evoke the senses. Some of my recommendations would include lavender, lemon balm, small ornamental grasses and scented geraniums.”

Common sense

Whether you or someone in your household is suffering from a serious health condition such as dementia, or you are just feeling a little claustrophobic and fatigued from Covid-19, we could all use a bit of horticultural therapy – it’s been a stressful year!

And now that garden centres in Norfolk are opening once again, perhaps it is time to start creating a sensory garden of your own. So, get outside and delight in the symphony of impressions that awaits you.

Find out more at thenurtureproject.co.uk

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