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Fragrance in the Garden

Fragrance has a powerful impact on all of us and holds a stronger connection to memory than any of the other senses, even sight. But though fragrant plants can elicit the loudest “oohs” and “aahs” from garden lovers, scent is often an afterthought when designing beds, borders, and containers. But it can (and should) be one of the key factors in selecting plants and placing them in the perfect locations.

There is no shortage of options, whether your garden is sunny or shady, large or small, city or country, formal or wild. Many scented plants are so versatile that they can adapt to suit your personal or landscape style – it’s all in how you use them. Lavender, for example, is equally at home in a straight row along a path, dotted through a cottage garden, or as one plant in a pot. While most fragrant plants do like the sun, if you have a woodland garden, look for the hostas with the sweetest scents, and native plants like blue phlox and spicebush.

You’re covered as far as seasons, too. While spring and summer have the greatest abundance of scented plants, from spring’s daffodils, hyacinths, and stock to summer’s lilies, dianthus, and four o’clocks, fall and winter have their intoxicating contributions, including sweet autumn clematis, witch hazel, Chinese holly, and winter daphne.

Every category of plants – annuals, perennials, vines, trees, shrubs, bulbs – offers choices. Need something to cover a fence? Try sweet peas or moonflower. Want a shrub to anchor a bed? Put in a wintersweet, lilac, or clove currant. Of course, roses have always had a prominent place on any top 10 list of scented blossoms, from shrub forms to climbers. A few of the most scented are ‘Double Delight’, ‘Honey Perfume’, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, and ‘Fourth of July’. If you have a really big space that can handle a tree, southern magnolia, linden, and catalpa take scent to new heights.

Not all scented plants rely on flowers to tickle your fancy (and your nose). Many, including herbs like rosemary, basil, and thyme, are noted for their fragrant foliage, as are bee balm, scented geraniums, salvias, sweet woodruff, and hummingbird mint. While these scents might not waft distances on the breeze as with flowers, running your hand over the plants will leave the fragrance hanging deliciously in the air.

When you’re considering which fragrant plants to include in your garden, first think about which ones are your true favorites. Maybe you’ve enjoyed heliotrope in a good friend’s yard, or your grandmother was noted for her sweet petunias, or you have a fond memory of lavender fields from a trip to France. If those plants are in your garden (as long as your site and hardiness zone are suitable), you’ll recall those memories every time you breathe in the scent. And fragrance is a very personal matter, as any perfume maker will attest. Not everyone is drawn to the same scents. Lemon, pine, clove, mint – some will pull your heartstrings more than others. There are people who adore the fragrance of paper-white narcissus, while others run from it.

When placing scented plants in your landscape, the most important factor to keep in mind is maximizing your enjoyment of the fragrance. Put them where you can smell them! Whether it’s outside a window where you often read, near a porch or patio that’s a gathering place for friends and family, by a gate you pass through often, along a path where you can allow your fingers to trail through fragrant leaves. And don’t forget – a lot of fragrant plants make excellent cut flowers for bouquets, so you can bring the pleasure of scent indoors.

Read the next Article: Weaving Annuals Into the Garden

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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • Several options are available to overwinter a favorite geranium. The first is to cut it back and pot it up as a houseplant for the winter to replant outside in the spring. The second is to pull it up, brush off any clinging soil, and hang it upside down in a cool, humid basement until replanting in spring. Or, you can cut 4-inch lengths of new stem and put them in water or damp vermiculite to root. Once rooted, transfer to individual pots and treat as houseplants.