Transform your garden with the heady scents of fragrant flowers and aromatic herbs. Benedict Vanheems explains how you can enjoy a year-round nasal extravaganza
Gardens should stimulate as many of the senses as possible if they are to give us maximum pleasure. Visual elements are essential, with colour and texture creating a palette of ocular joy. Take, for example, the bright, crimson tones of autumn leaves, the golden shock of a springtime carpet of daffodils or the quenching wash of a verdant lawn. Sound also plays its part in captivating garden users; who hasn’t been seduced by the summertime hum of bees or the hypnotic swoosh of bamboos caught in the breeze? But of all the senses it is perhaps fragrance that is the most beguiling.
A garden without scent is difficult to imagine. Smells conjure up memories of times gone by, providing a soothing backdrop to our often hectic lives
Choose the right plants, such as this old-fashioned rambling rose, and your garden will be filled with sweet perfume
A garden without scent is difficult to imagine. Smells conjure up memories of times gone by, providing a soothing backdrop to our often hectic lives. The sweet perfume of summer jasmine, spicy fragrance of an old-fashioned rose or the crisp, ozone waft that follows a sudden rainstorm are smells most of us will have enjoyed at some point. Packing the garden with as many nasal charmers as possible will make it all the richer while adding a further level of pleasure to your floral empire.
Scents of appeal
Flowers can be divided into those that are pollinated by the wind and those pollinated by insects. The former include many of the grasses which, while elegant in their own right, will rarely produce showy flowers; the wind is blind after all! Blooms drawing in pollinators such as bees and butterflies need to attract these winged critters through a combination of flower colour and fragrance. Flowers with the gaudiest colours and biggest proportions tend to carry less scent, relying on their good looks to draw in the insects. But those flowers with the headiest scents can cast their net wider, catching the attention of any pollinator passing near its waft. Fragrant blooms tend to be slightly less flamboyant, clustering in the pastel shades with delicate refinement and a subtler beauty. Of course, if you’re after bold and brazen blooms, there are plenty that tick both boxes.
Any plant with fragrant blooms will draw in more pollinating insects, helping to feed the bottom of the food chain and ensure a greater variety of visiting wildlife to your garden. A scented garden is one that’s alive and well.
No two scents are the same and any one fragrance will coax different reactions from different people. There’s a real smorgasbord of smells out there, from the subdued sweetness of the lowly winter snowdrop to the floral blousiness of a summertime wigwam of sweet peas. While most flowers freely distribute their wares, other plants such as the many Mediterranean-type herbs will need a sunny day to fill the air with their resinous aroma. Knowing how and when a plant releases its smell is key to choosing the right plant for the right place.
Deciding what to grow
Every group of plants – from bulbs to perennials to shrubs – has something to titillate the nose. Deciding what to grow is a question of working out what you have room for, when you want the fragrance to fill the air, and the local conditions, soil and aspect you can offer. Flick through a gardening book and make a list of fragrant plants you like the look of. It might not be the most concise list, but don’t worry about that for now!
With a list prepared you can now work systematically through it to cross off any plants that are likely to grow too large for the space you have, those that won’t match your soil type, and those that simply won’t thrive given the light levels that will be available to them. Bear in mind other attributes and further edit down the list. Does the plant have attractive leaves, bark colour or seed heads that will make it work harder for its keep? Will it look good enough at other times of the year when it isn’t doing its fragrant thing?
Different scents will fill the air at different times of the year. There’s little point picking several plants that all flower at the same time as this will leave gaps in the nasal experience. Think about how far the scent might travel too – don’t pack in lots of contrasting smells into a small space, confusing the nose and reducing the impact of each individual fragrance. Be ruthless and you’ll soon have a well-honed list of options to take with you to the garden centre.
A little thought is needed when incorporating fragrant or aromatic plants within the garden. Most scented blooms are best positioned in a sheltered spot, free from strong winds that will carry the scent away as quickly as it’s released. Suitable places might include a patio close to the house, against walls or afforded the protection of a nearby hedge.
Get the most from your smelly selection by planting them where you know you will linger. For example a charming old-fashioned rose scrambling over an arch that frames a well-used bench, or how about a bank of deliciously scented stocks underneath a window to allow the scent to drift indoors? Aromatic herbs are a great choice for lining paths where they will release their odour every time they are brushed against. Rosemary, lavender, thyme, southernwood and sage are prime candidates for this treatment and look great.
Another idea is to create an aromatic seating area by planting the base with thyme or chamomile so you literally sit among the aroma. Improve the compost you use for the base with added grit to aid drainage and set plants about 15cm apart so that they can grow and eventually ‘knit’ together. Keep well watered until fully established then keep your living cushions neatly trimmed to maintain a bushy, fulsome effect.
Climbers such as honeysuckle and jasmine will create a soothing backdrop. Train them along trellis, over pergolas or onto wire supports to bring the olfactory extravaganza up to nose level. South and west-facing walls will catch more of the day’s sunshine ensuring scents hang about for longer. Other climbers to try include the late-summer bloomer Clematis rehderiana, the elegant peach-coloured flowers of rose ‘Ginger Syllabub’, or the myrrh-scented rose ‘The Pilgrim’.
As well as extending the seasons with year-round fragrance, try perfuming the night air so that long summer evenings are filled with intoxicating scents. Tobacco plant, the appropriately-named night-scented stock and the delicate creamy blooms of evening primrose hint at their night-time enchantment. Position these plants where you can enjoy them – where you will entertain or dine al fresco on warm evenings.
If space is limited try planting up tubs of aromatic herbs. The step-by-step project on page 38 is easy to put together and will reward you with year-round aromas and tasty additions to liven up your cooking. Patio containers, hanging baskets and window boxes can be packed full of scented, floriferous annuals, including stocks, marigolds, snapdragons and alyssum. For a dramatic statement and a real sense of the exotic try the 30cm-long blooms of the angel’s trumpet (you may also know these as daturas).
Take a look at the palette of scented wonders on page 37 and discover a whole new world of fragrance that will relax or invigorate the senses with their library of signature smells. They are certainly something to sniff at!
Some of the very finest scents can be enjoyed in winter. This may surprise you, but it makes sense (and scents!). At this time of year there are few pollinating insects around so the flowers that need pollinating have to waft their fragrance that little bit further to attract them. Now’s a great time to buy in these heady bloomers so they can settle in for winter. My personal favourite is the sweet box (Sarcocca humilis var. humilis or S. confusa). There’s nothing quite like happening upon the intense sweetness of this hardy shrub at a time when everything else is still.