succulents, groundcovers, flowering perennials and grasses that establish the surface of the planting bed with water

Sensory Garden Planting Design

Textural succulents, groundcovers, flowering perennials and grasses in the Sensory Garden with a building a cloud-filled sky in the background
The Sensory Garden from the perspective of the WATER bed. All photos courtesy of Kevin Philip Williams.
Trees and plants in the wood planting bed with the Martin Building tiles and a building in the background
The immersive thicket of the WOOD bed.
grasses and plants against a blue sky filled with white clouds
The SKY bed in the early summer.

The Denver Art Museum Sensory Garden, composed of three separate hubs, WATER, WOOD, and SKY, can float you over a botanical reef, pull you into a diaphanous thicket, or send you soaring through the atmosphere. By moving only a few feet, or simply changing their field of focus, visitors can be simultaneously anchored in intimate, experiential moments with plant life, and access the infinite, boundless expanse that surrounds the terrace.

Gardens, at their core, are site-specific installations or adaptations that use living organisms to transform the world around them. They need to be tailored to the conditions of a given space, as compliments, responses, or challenges to their surrounding environments. The stark, heavy presence of the Martin Building and the definitive, structured garden beds created by Didier Design Studio called for a looser, freer, and softer planting style for the Sensory Garden. An early vision for the garden proposed each bed to contain voluminous tufts of shortgrass prairie that once covered the Denver steppe. These eruptions would embrace the inherent change and temporality of plants to act as a foil for the permanent architecture they would be nestled in.

Working with Angie Andrade, Associate Director of Horticulture and Manager of Therapeutic Horticulture Programs at Denver Botanic Gardens, we identified plants that would work to fit the vision for the garden and create a dynamic sensory experience. These so-called sensory plants are any plants that evoke a human response either through a sense-memory or because of their immediate physical or chemical attributes. We targeted sensory plant all-stars, or sensory plants that many people likely have connections with, like lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), and oregano (Origanum vulgare) which are easily recognizable and provide almost universal sensations. Additionally, these plants are tough and can withstand varied environmental and physical stresses like drought, or being touched and pruned repeatedly.

Since many of the sensory plant all-stars hail from the Mediterranean and Madrean regions of the world, we took inspiration for the design from the garrigue, a plant community known for its soft-leaved shrubs, elegant grasses, and fragrant perennials. We combined these plants with those of the shortgrass steppe, a sister-biome of xeric grasses, wildflowers, and silver shrubs to create a novel plant community that allows for a uniquely anthropocentric experience and plays on the common visual aesthetics of both bioregions.

The three planting beds offered opportunities for the design that allowed us to group certain plants together, creating three different experiences that may be observed as a whole, or entered separately as unique realms.

WATER

The central feature of the Sensory Garden is the WATER bed, a floristic tidal pool, and a botanical touch tank. Textural succulents, groundcovers, and flowering perennials create a plant reef beneath a matrix of grasses that establish the surface of the pool. Taller, charismatic plants and shrubs break the surface. Visitors can peer through these layers to discover nested worlds. An infinity pool running through the bed reflects both the surrounding plants and the Martin Building above it, creating a superimposed connection that grounds the building and levitates the garden.

WOOD

Using trees and shrubs to both expose and obscure, WOOD is a companion for the height and density of the adjacent building. Layers of tall trees and thick, diverse shrubs draw awareness to the height and complexity of the world around us, pulling the senses deeper and higher. An airy, flowery understory offers a mirrored world of low foliage and high flowers to get lost in.

SKY

The SKY garden sits on the edge of the terrace. Raised above the other beds, its tall grasses and wildflowers block out any further view of the city, giving the sense of being deep in the prairie and the endless space above it.

Since we looked to spontaneously occurring plant communities to help carry a sense of wildness through the garden, we wanted to avoid any sense of heavy-handedness in the design. To ensure that we didn’t leave too much of ourselves in the gardens, we used a technique called wild systems emulation, which allows one to somewhat remove the designer from a naturalistic design. By loosely placing elements around an already evolving framework, one can avoid intentional, contrived feelings in gardens. In this case, a piece of unearthed concrete foundation was used as a basis for naturally occurring, seemingly random patterns. (See photo in slideshow below.)

The Sensory Garden provides the space and opportunities needed to experience through plantings designed to engage and inspire. The layout allows one to become entangled in the gardens and yet still and able to move into, through, and away from them, while the diversity and nuances of the plantings, combined with the familiarity of the plants themselves, hold the joy of discovery and the comfort of connection as constants.

Kevin Philip Williams in Utah in wild Artemisia filifolia, one of the plants used in the WATER bed.
A traditional planting layout showing approximate footprints of each species per ped.
Each bed filled and ready for planting.
Everything laid out for preplanting.
Bulbs were planted a few weeks after the main install.
The clean eruption of spring foliage.
Allium 'Ambassador' in its purple glory.
An upward glance through the WOOD bed.
Post-bloom Allium seed heads and Echinacea paradoxa offering pops of yellow.
Winter 2021, before emergence.
Weathered, eroded, and stained concrete used for wild systems emulation.
Kevin Philip Williams wears a hat and is sitting in a landscape in Utah with wild Artemisia plants
planning diagram of the sensory garden
soil in the 3 different beds
plants in one of the beds
soil and plants in one of the garden beds
green shoots coming up in one of the beds.
allium plants with purple tops in one of the sensory garden beds
plants and trees with the Martin Building's tiles and diamond and rectangular shaped windows
plants and flowers in one of the beds of the Sensory Garden
spent and brown plants and soil in the winter
close up of the weathered concrete