When shopping at a garden centre, it’s easy to be seduced and overwhelmed by delectable eye candy. So here are a few guidelines for choosing sensory plant varieties for raised planters. You’ll offer your garden visitors a wide range of sensory experiences, make the most of your money and time and avoid costly mistakes (aka invasive plants).
Print out the sensory plant list and bring it with you. Bring a snack. If plant toxicity is a concern, bring a reference with you (see below). Most garden centres and nurseries have a bathroom available for customer use.
Give yourself lots of time and relax into the sensory pleasure and fun of choosing plants. If your time is limited, focus on choosing plants for one raised planter so you can make sure the colours, textures and sizes go well together, and come back for the rest another time. Your new purchases will be healthier if they get planted soon, and there will be more to see at the garden centre next time.
Look beyond those first LARGE gorgeously blooming plants you see. Seedlings in six packs cost less and don’t take long to catch up. Ditto for herbs and perennials in smaller pots. Better to drop a bundle on a thriller centrepiece or two that provide instant and long-term impact.
Look at plant labels for the information you need. Ask specific questions. Sometimes a staff person will save you time by showing you the best choices in stock for your situation.
You’re looking for plants that are:
Sensory plants have to pay the rent for the space they take up. It’s a waste of space if they’re just pretty to look at. The plants I’ve selected have other qualities too: enticing to touch; fragrant leaves or flowers; edible parts; and/or attractive to birds, butterflies and bees. Most have a long blooming season or other interesting features.
Plants in raised planters must be polite about sharing space. Mint is a valuable sensory plant that insists on taking over, so plant it alone in its own container. Any plant that says ‘spreads quickly’ (or words to that effect) should be avoided for raised planters. Like Moroccan mint and golden oregano, they may be desirable in their own container. It’s easy to ignore this recommendation when you have the cutest little plant in hand that looks so innocent. Be strong and resist! Ivy, Houttuynia, gooseneck loosestrife, Lamium, Vinca, bamboo and some Campanulas are culprits I’ve dealt with, and there are plenty of others.
Choose scented plants that require you to rub and sniff the leaves, or to put your nose close to the flower. Avoid scented flowers that waft on the breeze, like Stargazer lilies. They can be overwhelming to some people, as well as overwhelm other scented plants.
As your cart fills up, consider how your plants will look growing together. Leaves always provide a longer season of interest than flowers, so choose a variety of foliage colours. For example: black mondo grass, and silver, yellow, blue or reddish-leaved plants, as well as an assortment of green leaves. Also consider contrasting leaf shapes, sizes and textures.
Seasonal interest and bloom time are also important, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed at this point, rest assured that you can return to the garden centre to buy plants when your garden develops bald spots. You’ll be better able to choose by flower colour and scent at that point, anyway.
Plant toxicity is a concern in some therapeutic gardens. In any garden, it is unwise to grow toxic plants right next to edible plants. For instance, pods of fragrant sweet peas look just like edible pea pods, but they’re toxic. So designate one or more containers for edible plants, and other containers for ornamental plants. In the sensory plant list I included toxicity information for daffodils and choking hazard for cherry tomatoes to alert you to the dangers. To the best of my knowledge and resources (see below), the other plants I’ve selected are not toxic, but I make no guarantees. It’s invaluable to have a toxicity reference with you while you’re shopping.
With these shopping guidelines and the Sensory Plant List for Raised Planters in hand... with your nose and fingers twitching in anticipation of sensory delights... with your desire to buy now contained long enough to focus on what each plant label says... you're sure to make wise plant choices that you and your garden visitors will enjoy for months and years to come!
Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System is a searchable online database, that is useful when it works (don't rely on it as your only resource).
The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms book will help you avoid poisoning your garden visitors if you bring it with you while shopping. Nancy J. Turner & Patrick von Aderkas, 2009, Timber Press.
The Sunset Western Garden Book is a valuable tome to bring with you for choosing plant varieties and avoiding invasive plants.
West Coast Seeds Gardening Guide is much more than a free yearly seed catalogue. Available by mail within North America, online, or at stores with a purchase of their seeds.
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Looking to engage your garden visitors with sensory plants? I've listed 56 of my favourites. These plants are specifically suited to raised planter gardens in Southwestern British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, and other places with a similar temperate maritime climate.