10 Engaging Garden Signs (article)

10 Signs to Engage your Garden Visitors

This article was published in the winter edition of the newsletter Growth Point, issued by the UK charity, Thrive, which uses gardening to bring about positive change in the lives of people living with disabilities or ill health, or who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable.

Garden Activity Signs logo

“I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use the garden.”

“I thought I shouldn’t touch the plants.”

These comments are the tip of the iceberg. Years of leading therapeutic garden programs in healthcare and social service settings showed me that it’s not always enough to provide a garden. Many people need permission, encouragement and instruction to spend time in a garden, engage their senses and do hands-on garden activities.

When I personally introduce garden visitors to fragrances and textures, or ask them if they hear the songbirds, they brighten with delight and fascination. How can I provide this kind of experience to everyone who visits the garden, whether I’m there or not?

Signage seems to be the answer. Signs communicate. They invite participation even when there isn’t a guide or program facilitator on site.

Therapeutic gardens have multiplied since the 1990’s and there’s now a solid body of research on many health and wellness benefits of spending time in nature. But so far there is little information available on using signs to encourage engagement, other than recommendations to use wayfinding signage to guide visitors to the garden.

Signage seems to be a fairly undeveloped strategy for encouraging engagement in therapeutic gardens. My theory is that more garden engagement generally means more therapeutic benefit.

Signs can offer a sense of independence and empowerment. Signs inexpensively invite people to experience nature, providing distraction and restoration during challenging times and circumstances.

Yes, signs can be a scourge on the land (sign, sign, everywhere a sign!), but used thoughtfully with the goal of enhancing experience, they can be a useful tool, especially in gardens that are meant to provide restorative, enabling, or educational experiences.

I’ve compiled a list of ten ways to encourage engagement using garden signs. Included are two sets of signs that I designed when I couldn’t find suitable signs to buy. They’re now available to purchase.

1. Directing to the Garden

People need to know the garden exists and how to get to it. In the year 2000, Clare Cooper Marcus, a leading authority on therapeutic gardens, wrote: “In field visits to over 70 acute care hospitals that had usable outdoor space, only three (!) included signs to the garden in their way-finding system, or included information in printed material given to patients and staff” (Marcus, 2000).

If a garden and its entrance can’t be readily seen, signage can provide direction to the garden. Signs can be as simple as these small ones on an elevator button panel.

Garden wayfinding sign in elevator

Banfield Pavilion, long-term care residence at Vancouver General Hospital, British Columbia, Canada

2. Welcoming to the Garden

A welcome sign gives permission to enter and enjoy a garden. This sign can be seen through double glass doors that open automatically when approached. Without the sign it’s not obvious that the door leads to a garden. Only upon going through the door and turning to the right does the visitor see the first glimpse of lush greenery.

Garden welcome sign

Banfield Pavilion, long-term care residence at Vancouver General Hospital, British Columbia, Canada

3. Explaining the Garden’s Purpose

Why have a children’s garden in a hospital? Why does it matter? This sign explains that the garden was designed to meet goals through pleasure and playfulness along with focussed programming. Visitors are made aware that the garden is a treatment and educational area and that enjoying social and leisure activities is encouraged.

Sign explaining the purpose of Emmanuel Children's Hospital Garden

Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, Oregon, USA

4. Orienting Within the Garden

Larger gardens are often divided into sections or rooms, some with themes. This ‘Meditation Garden’ sign invites visitors to enjoy a quieter experience and prepares them for the possibility that other visitors might be meditating.

Anderton Therapeutic Meditation Garden sign

Anderton Therapeutic Garden, Comox, British Columbia, Canada

Other themed signage might indicate an edible garden, butterfly garden, rose garden, sensory garden, a specific ecosystem, a children’s play area, etc. In addition, wayfinding signs within a large garden can provide orientation and direction back to the entrance.

5. Offering Sensory Nourishment

Garden visitors may not touch plants because they think they’re not supposed to, or they don’t know which plants smell heavenly, or which ones require a gentle rub of the leaf to release scent. I created six sensory signs to invite garden visitors to savour sights, sounds and smells. You can order these signs in sets or individually. Click here to see the choices.

'Rub and Sniff' sign amongst golden oregano

‘Rub and Sniff’ plantable sign amongst golden oregano

Home-made signs work too, such as this ‘Touch me’ sign in a pot of soft furry-textured moss.

'Touch Me' garden sign at Pitt Meadows Elementary School Therapeutic and Enabling Garden

Pitt Meadows Elementary School Therapeutic and Enabling Garden, British Columbia, Canada

6. Inviting Hands-on Gardening

In some gardens, simple gardening tasks like watering, sweeping, and harvesting can be done by garden visitors. This inspiring sign reminds us that there’s always ‘some needful job’ to be done, and each person can find a job to do no matter their condition.

The Glory of the Garden, by Rudyard Kipling

Good Samaritan Hospital Healing Garden, Portland, Oregon, USA

To encourage independent gardening, I designed six movable signs, each graphically illustrated with a simple hands-on task to be done. 

‘Water Me’ plantable sign amongst petunias and geraniums

7. Inviting Play

Children might enjoy gardening or exploring the garden through play. Nothing like having a spot reserved for digging and a sign that says ‘Digging welcome’. Dig for the sake of digging, or look for bugs and buried treasure.

'Digging Welcome' sign at Pitt Meadows Elementary School Therapeutic & Enabling Garden

Pitt Meadows Elementary School Therapeutic and Enabling Garden, British Columbia, Canada

8. Indicating Ownership & Care

When a resident gardener tends to their own plot or container, a sign indicating ownership lets visitors know not to garden in that area. Some of the benefits include pride of ownership, a sense of belonging, satisfaction from nurturing their own plants, and creatively contributing to the larger garden. Other residents see these signs and ask for a container of their own.

Banfield Pavilion garden ownership sign

Banfield Pavilion, long-term care residence at Vancouver General Hospital, British Columbia, Canada

9. Motivating Thought

Ask a question and it begs an answer. Signs that make us think get the brain in gear and may hone our observational skills. This sign combines two different ways to experience a garden: sensory exploration and a question that promotes abstract thinking.

Legacy Emmanuel Children's Hospital Garden Activity Sign

Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, Oregon, USA

Educational garden signs (appropriate in some gardens) are an invitation to think, notice and learn about plants, wildlife and ecosystems.

10. Encouraging Walking

Imagine that: I could walk a mile in this garden! I could turn around every couple of laps to enjoy the garden from a different view. I could stroll slowly and peacefully, meander from one point of interest to another, or walk briskly, flushing birds out of the bushes and bringing a healthy flush to my cheeks.

'Walking for Health' garden sign at Legacy Emmanuel Children's Hospital Garden

Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, Oregon, USA

The signs listed here encourage engagement in a garden: sensory nourishment, hands-on gardening, play, movement, thought, and most importantly, getting to the garden and feeling welcome to spend time there.

Which kind of signage are you inspired to add to your garden to encourage visitors to engage more fully?

Garden Activity Signs

Shelagh Smith, HTR, MAEEC, is a horticultural therapist, consultant and educator in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She created garden activity signs to encourage garden visitors to independently engage with nature for health promotion and therapeutic benefit. 


Marcus, C. (2000). Gardens and Health. The International Academy for Design and Health, 61–71. Retrieved from https://www.brikbase.org/sites/default/files/Clare-Cooper-Marcus-WCDH2000.pdf
Back to blog