Bartlett on Gardening: Planning and Planting for Fragrance

In the 1932 garden classic, The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder asked, “Why do garden makers of today so seldom deliberately plan for fragrance?” With the notable exception of herb gardens, the situation is largely unchanged today.

Like many of you, my childhood garden memories are closely linked to scent. Some of my favorites were the naturalized freesias which spread their perfume in the warm March air. As an adult I love the scent of honeysuckle on a sultry Southern summer evening.

(Photo: Fragrant Iris)

Scent is one of the first traits lost to hybridization. The gardener wanting to add this dimension often must search for heirloom seed sources and older perennial cultivars. Sometimes these have smaller, less intensely colored flowers, but they earn their keep among their modern kin with their aromas.

In planning for fragrance, keep in mind that some plants are soloists while others are invaluable members of the choir. The soloists need to be used where they can dominate the scene. A few aurelian lilies need no accompaniment to fill the area with their fabulous fragrance in midsummer. Similarly, hyacinths can be overpowering indoors but are a welcome addition near walkways in early spring.

In the spring garden I rely on a few intensely fragrant narcissi (left) to perfume the border, while tulips provide a kaleidoscope of color. “Cheerfulness” (introduced in 1923), a creamy, ​​cluster-blooming double narcissus, and “Yellow Cheerfulness” (1937) follow the hyacinths in mid-season. “Geranium” (1930) blooms in late mid-season. “Sir Winston Churchill” brings its long-lasting gardenia scent to the late mid-season. These are generally fading as the early peonies start to bloom.

In May, my backyard is a sonata of scent. The heirloom roses are in full bloom alongside the peonies and irises. The very early -looming day lily, “Lemon Lily,” brings just a hint of citrus to counterbalance the sweetness of the peonies and irises. Dianthus “Clove Pink” adds a warm spicy note. A clump of Sweet William would be overbearing here, but works wonderfully alone in the front border. Did you know that all clove-scented flowers except Sweet William are included in the term “gillyflower?”

Moon gardening focuses on the use of pale-colored, night-scented flowers. These plants rely on night-flying insects for pollination. Select Seeds features a collection of night-scented white flowers this year. These annuals are a wonderful introduction to using fragrance.

Keep in mind that what is delightful to one may be nauseating to another. For example, nicotiana has a scent that is favored by some but disliked by others.

(Photo: Fragrant Rose)

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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