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Gardening with your senses

Get the most out of your garden by choosing plants that enliven your senses

I have a lilac bush that is probably one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen, but when I bury my nose in the flowers and drink in that amazing smell, it doesn’t matter what they look like. We can deepen our sensory experiences in the garden by planting for sight, taste, feel, smell, and sounds that are important to us.

Kelly Allsup is an Extension horticulture educator at the University of Illinois, and has developed a sensory garden program. She says during her classes, she takes students through an imagination exercise where they pretend they’re in a garden, and thinking about their memories and senses.

"Think about what does the sky look like, what flowers do you see, what do you smell? I have them pretend to touch plants in the garden and they have to tell me what that feels like, then we talk about the sounds," says Allsup. "Then at the very end, I kind of bring in that nostalgia."

Allsup says going through this exercise has caused some gardeners to reevaluate what they’re planting. Sure, flowers are pretty, but is that what deepens your sensory experience in the garden?

"I think we need to go beyond sight because when you walk into a garden center or greenhouse, everything looks good," she says. "But, how are you going to interact with these plants? Speaking of my father in the last few years of his life, if the plant did not smell good, he was not going to plant it."

Allsup says when children are involved in interactive activities such as digging in the soil and listening to what they hear in the garden, they’re more likely to appreciate nature and the outdoors.

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