Gardens are a Sensory Indulgence

colorful garden

A colorful, fragrant, delicious planting in summer.

A garden plays to the human condition, offering a sensory indulgence that sparks curiosity, engages memory, and tickles connection.

For most of us, sight is our primary sense in the garden, the one that points out the weeds and wilting thirst, as well as brilliant bloom and level of the noonday sun. Most of us began planning and planting our garden with color. Glorious color!

While perhaps less obvious on the face of things, sound can disrupt or manipulate our experience in the garden on an almost primal level. Surfaces determine the nature of sound – consider the “pling” of metal, a resonant thud of earth, or the crunch of gravel underfoot. I once visited a masterfully planted perennial border rich with color, texture, and fragrance yet I found the constant rabble of the hazelnut shell pathways to be distracting. Excluding unwanted noise is as much a component of privacy as shelter and seclusion. Hard surfaces refract sound while soft ones absorb and muffle. For years I lived with a constant soundtrack of a bouncing basketball on the neighbor’s paved patio – to this day I savor the quiet.

sweet violets by Lorene Edwards Forkner

A thimble-sized bouquet of potent sweet violets from the winter garden.

If some sounds go directly to our pain centers, our sense of smell mainlines into our memories. It’s a crying shame that our sense of smell diminishes with aging — perhaps it’s an evolutionary parting gift that fragrance lingers in our recall to be called forth with the merest unexpected whiff. 

Most gardeners can tell the time of the year, if not the time of day, by the scope of smells in a garden.  Angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia, flowering tobacco, Nicotiana, evening primrose, Oenothera, and the truly homely-but-delightful night scented stock, Mathiolalongipetala, all exhale their fragrance at the end of the day. While the scent of winter blooming daphne, too much for some, and witch hazel tide us through these last few weeks of winter. Do we include scents in our gardens for the memories they evoke or build those memories with every passing season? 

Summer strawberry plant

Strawberries in summer, if I can get to them before the birds.

Our sense of taste is almost inseparable from that of smell — together they offer flavor, one of life’s daily pleasures. A juicy ripe strawberry still warm from the sun is enhanced by its perfume; one bite holds summer in concentrated form.

It is impossible to garden without touch. Hands are the gardener’s first tool and the only one that is never misplaced. Skin, the body’s largest organ, is a conduit of touch; cold, heat, wet, dry, scratch, tickle, stroke, heft, burn, smooth, silky, abrasive, hard, soft, prick, sting, itch. Pleasure and pain are the often-quixotic interpretation of temperature, texture, pressure, and mass. The softest worn t shirt feels like a caress to one person and more like sandpaper to someone suffering a sunburn.

red thorns white rose by Lorene Edwards Forkner

Stunning but wicked thorns on the aptly named bloodthorn rose. I once bore a scratch on my forehead for months following a pruning session gone sideways.

Sight, sound, taste and even smell to a degree can be a shared experience but touch is singular, strictly perceived in the first person. Some of gardening’s most appealing gifts are tactile. The silky furred leaves of lamb’s ear invite fondling while sharp spines remind us to keep our distance from the agave or barberry or brambles. An enclosed sunny patio on the east side of the house captures the warmth of the sun providing the perfect spot to enjoy morning coffee while the cool shade of a porch offers relief from summer’s midday sun. Even the slightly sore muscles of good effort signal a pleasant day spent among our plants.

Being in the garden, the act of gardening, the observation of a garden — hone perception in ways that awaken and refresh. Senses dulled by daily life get a chance to sync with nature and deliver us back to our lives more fully aware of our human experience.