Howick Hall’s Sensory Garden

A bench in an abundant flower garden
A bench tempts the visitor to linger and enjoy a visual feast of flowers

What makes a sensory garden different to any other garden? We can expect the boundaries to be pushed, as they are in Howick Hall’s new sensory garden. Starting, as in any garden, with the soothing power of green, contrasting textures and colours are layered on to stimulate us.

Silvery heart-shaped leaves, grasses and hydrangeas
Silver brunnera leaves with dwarf hydrangea and golden Japanese hakone

We respond with an instinctive head-turn as we half-spot a flash of wings between rustling leaves. Our thumbs and forefingers are stained and scented from crushing a rosemary leaf, just one of many fragrant plants around us. We tune in to sounds – water splashing, birdsong and the blunt music of windchimes. 

Silver leaves with a furry texture
Furry-leaved stachys overspills a concrete and pebble path

Even the floor disrupts us with treadable creeping plants, gravel, concrete and pebbles laid underfoot in different areas to capture our attention. A circle of astroturf helps protect one high-use area and was the only bit to stay green during our last, dry summer.

Throw in as many extras as the the designer can imagine (and the garden’s owners can afford) and we have a full-blown sensory garden worth its label, designed to intensify our experience of the Great Outdoors. This one includes a circular labyrinth, carved tree snags, activity centre, treasure chest, willow dome, mirrors and a river of blue glass crossed by a wooden bridge. My favourite part? Designer Natasha McEwen’s plant combinations.

Long slender apple tree in a sensory garden
A columnar apple tree growing in Howick Hall’s lush Sensory Garden helps feed its visitors’ imaginations

Still it can be tempting to conclude, in response to my initial question, that all gardens are sensory gardens, even the odd ones where your senses do a quick sweep and conclude “Not for me”. When I met Debie Deaton recently, I mentioned that I’d been mulling over this. She thought for a moment and agreed that a garden is always sensory – it’s more a case, she said, of whether the person is receptive and open to the sensations.

Prickly flowers over a river of bold blue broken glass
Structural elements include a bold blue river of glass edged with pebbles, a wooden bridge and a labyrinth-style floor pattern

That made a lot of sense. Labelling an outdoor space as a sensory garden gives us permission to submerge ourselves in sensations rather than carry on busily by: making the most of where we are instead of looking for what’s next.

Scented herbs: hyssop, bergamot and vervain
Scented herbs include spider-like Monarda ‘Scorpion’ (bergamot) and fluffy agastache (hyssop) with ethereal verbena bonariensis at the rear

Gardeners often focus on the practical aspects of any garden we visit – “Will that plant grow in my garden?”, “Could I use that technique?”, “How on earth did they drag that stone there?”, “That’s a good use for my dead tree!”, etc. A sensory garden gives us a firm nudge in a different direction, suggesting that we make the most of the opportunity to simply see, hear, taste, smell and feel.

Droopy, pink tassel-like flowers with a flower border behind
The planting has a painterly feel: tassels of pink sanguisorba are combined with whip-like grass, soft lamb’s ears, coneflowers and flat-topped heads of achillea

And, of course, most gardens the public are invited to visit are made to be enjoyed from a judicious distance. Only the gardener has full trampling rights and intimacy with all the ins and outs of the garden. The flat stones that permit access to tidy are out of bounds to the visitor, as is the the gated area around a toolshed or propagation zone. The best looking seating areas are often chained off. Devices that keep the public at bay may be deemed neccessary protections, but each “Keep out!” sign disrupts the illusion that any garden we enjoy spending time in is partly ours while we wander in it, not through deeds of ownership but in natural affinity.

In contrast, sensory gardens need us to be interactive to fulfil their mission. We have the illusion, at least, of access-all-areas passes. And so it is at Howick Hall. Tools and toys are left out to tempt us. Pinecones, layered rocks and feathers prompt us to puzzle over some of nature’s everyday mysteries. Jugs hang beside the water feature in a silent appeal to the inner child that loves to divert, collect and splash water at any age.

Tiny, yellow star-shaped flowers with a lilac-pink buddleia flower
Fennel flowers provide a pop of pattern behind scented trusses of buddleia

Shells and carvings on tree stumps add texture to texture so the best of us pause to trace out the patterns with mind or fingers. If we dart across the lawn to catch a falling leaf, or creep inside the willow dome, nobody bats an eyelid. We’re here to take part.

New in 2018, the sensory garden is beautifully planted and showed few signs of being a young garden, other than a wonderful sense of balance. It will be interesting to see how the planting develops after one or other plant has had time to hurl its weight around through seeding or spreading. I feel sure we’ll be tempted back before too long to find out.

Flower garden with a tall brick wall at the rear
The softly coloured brick wall adds a classical element, provides shelter and is a home for climbing plants that add height behind the well-packed flower borders

Credits and links

Howick Hall’s Sensory Garden was made in partnership with the National Autistic Society, with funding from the National Garden Scheme. The idea was to make a safe, inclusive space that is both stimulating and calming.

It was designed by Natasha McEwen, garden maker, plantswoman and professional gardener.

One of the best ways to increase awareness of autism is to listen to what autistic people have to say about living in a neurotypical world – for example, by checking out some of the bloggers on the Actually Autistic Blogs List.

Shooting willow stems used to create a dome-shaped shelter with an entrance
A hidey-hole made from live willow stems that root readily and sprout fresh green shoots

Sensory Garden Plant List

The plants in Howick Hall’s Sensory Garden include:

Agastache (hyssop)
Alchemilla mollis
Hakonechloa (Golden Japanese hakone)
Stachys (lamb’s ear)
Verbena bonariensis

A fenced flower garden along a long, tall brick wall
The sensory garden’s plant combinations include rich, bold, pastel and neutral colours; contrasting habits and textures

Earl Grey Tea Trivia

The black tea and oil of bergamot blend, Earl Grey tea, was created for Prime Minister, Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, to disguise the lime taste in the well water at Howick Hall, which was his ancestral home. Guests loved the lightly scented, refreshing blend so much that tea company, Twinings, was allowed to release a version of it. The tea was never trademarked, so you’ll find various versions of it today.

44 Replies to “Howick Hall’s Sensory Garden”

        1. It would be very summery, that’s for sure! We were there in late August and it looked great but I’d love to see it on a balmy summer’s day when the roses were in flower – early July at a guess.

  1. One of the reasons my colleague in Southern California likes pampas grass so much is that it adds the element of ‘motion’ to a landscape. I would not want to touch it, but it really is nice at a distance. So is the sound of wind through a pine. My colleague of course uses wind chimes and fountains for sound.

  2. Oh, my word! I wish there were a “love” button for this post. So much to love, but I was especially taken by the purple flowers and the blue-glass river. Wonder if I could do that in Maine. Wonder what would happen to the glass after being under so much snow.

    1. You could always give it a try! It does guarantee colour. I imagine Howick is under snow now, although not a patch on your snow. I have a couple of friends who have sourced offcuts or broken fragments of coloured glass from glass art studios.

  3. This is what I wanted my garden to look like, but it doesn’t even though I have several of the plants shown here. Possibly it is because I neglect mine! 🙂 🙂 🙂 I will keep this as inspiration for next spring. How lovely it was to visit it while we are in the middle of polar temperatures and high winds. At least we have sun today! But it’s -1 now, up from -5 when I got up.

    1. It’s cold here too. I fancied visiting Dunham Massey’s winter garden yesterday afternoon but it was closed due to snow, which seemed ironic. It would have been great to get pictures of a winter garden in the snow.

    1. We were on our way to Alnwick, but received this tip at breakfast, so called in at Howick first. We were amazed to look back and realise we had enjoyed Howick Hall Gardens more than the famous Alnwick Gardens when we were comparing the two experiences afterwards. They have very different characters – Howick has a more natural feel and for those of us who enjoy walking there is an arboretum.

  4. A stunning garden, for stimulation, relaxation or pure enjoyment. I do believe in the healing effects of Nature as well. I’m sure you would have loved this.

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