Bartlett on Gardening: A Garden for the Senses

The garden of the imagination is always a visual feast. There are as many visions of this Eden as there are gardeners. Volumes have been written on making the vision a reality. Yet to feel like a paradise, it must appeal to all the senses.


As a child, my favorite flowers were fragrant. When I remember the freesias or sweet peas, I recall the scent first. Regretfully, many once-perfumed blossoms are now odorless. When hybridizers get to work, fragrance is often the first trait lost to progress. Fortunately, we can still find a few fragrant favorites.

To be honest, if every plant had an intense aroma, the effect would be overwhelming! Plant odors range from sweet to spicy to

musky. What delights one person may be off-putting to the next, so try to catch a whiff before planting something unfamiliar.

Fragrant foliage can provide a continuous effect throughout the season. Scented geraniums are increasingly popular for this reason. They are not hardy here, so grow them in containers and overwinter near a sunny window. Perennial herbs such as lavender, rosemary and mint can be planted near paths or seating areas. Many aromatic annual herbs can be used in the same way and are available in a wide range of scents.

Unfortunately, many famously fragrant flowers dislike hot weather. Cleome thrives here, happily reseeding for years. My favorite peacock orchids ​​(aka Abyssinian gladiolas) are only good for one season, but I have to have them every summer. I have had good luck with heliotrope and stock by giving them afternoon shade. Stock is clove scented while heliotrope reminds me of vanilla. Tall evening-scented nicotiana stands up to sun and wind alike.

Because of their short blooming period, I regard fragrant perennials as exclamation points. It is relatively easy to orchestrate a series of scents. Hyacinths and narcissi bloom in early spring followed by peonies, irises, and clove-scented dianthus, along with roses in their first flush of bloom. In midsummer’s heat, bee balm, lilies and repeat-blooming roses carry on until fall.


​​I used to hate petunias because they were sticky, but texture adds an important dimension to the garden. Who can resist the velvety leaves of lamb’s ears or echinacea’s spiky cone? Ferns and acanthus add terrific textural interest in the shade. Feathery plumbed and crested celosia are brilliantly colored additions to the border.

Hearing, Movement

We hear wind rustling the tree leaves as well as birds and insects. Gardeners can embellish on the sounds of nature by adding wind chimes or the sound of running water.

Thinking of the wind, kinetic sculptures add mesmerizing movement. On a recent trip, we saw two sculptures in a front yard that were fascinating to watch.

​​In the 1932 garden classic, The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder asked, “Why do garden makers of today so seldom deliberately plan for fragrance?” Let’s not limit our plan to fragrance, but add sight, sound and texture to create a garden of earthly delight.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett looks at, sniffs, listens to and pats a plethora of plant life in the ornamental beds around her home.

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