Your sense of smell stirs up old memories, enhances the flavors of foods, and keeps you out in the garden until it’s too dark to see. Getting more fragrance from your garden is surprisingly easy to do, and it’s interesting, too.
Here are 10 simple ways to help your garden deliver more wonderful whiffs of captivating aromas.
Find your landscape’s sweet spots
Areas that are sheltered from passing breezes capture and hold fragrance that might otherwise be lost to the wind, so spots near walls, privacy fences, or other natural windbreaks are ideal for fragrant favorites. The molecules that travel from a flower to your nose are extremely small and easily dispersed, which is why flowers always seem more fragrant when you bring them indoors. By stocking still spots with strong fragrance producers, you create invisible clouds of perfume in your garden.
Close the space gap
It’s easy to miss the fragrance of a rose grown in a distant flowerbed, so move sweet-smelling plants close to your deck, patio, or outdoor living area. Make the most of special niches near outdoor sitting areas. For example, edging a walkway with thyme can turn your footsteps into atomizers. Raised beds or planters can showcase the huge perfumed blooms of Oriental lilies (Lilium hybrids, Zones 3 to 8), while providing perfect drainage for the plants’ roots.
Enhance your nose zone
The closer flowers are to your nose, the easier it is to breathe in their perfumes. Move containers planted with fragrant flowers to nose-level display spots when buds begin to open. For example, place a container of heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) on a high table or pedestal to make sure you don’t miss its scent of soft cherry-vanilla. If your fragrant flowers are in hanging baskets, adjust the chains to keep the blossoms close to nose-level. You may discover that plants you previously dismissed as unscented pack a perfume punch after all.
Pursue petal power
Flower fragrance can be produced by nectar, stamens, or pistils, but petals are usually the main wellsprings of scent. This is why double peonies such as pink Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and red-tinged white P. ‘Festiva Maxima’ (both Zones 3 to 8) often produce more perfume over a longer period of time than single-flowered varieties. Aroma-producing petals often have a waxy or velvety finish that’s caused by the oil in aromatic compounds. When a honeybee moves about on scented petals, oils that rub off on its body are carried back to the hive, which spreads the news to other bees that a plant worthy of repeat visits has been found.
Explore fragrant shrubs
Shrubs usually produce small flowers with few petals, but even a knee-high daphne (Daphne spp., Zones 5 to 8) may cover itself with thousands of fragrant florets. Lilacs (Syringa spp., Zones 3 to 7), mock orange (Philadelphus spp., Zones 4 to 8), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia, Zones 3 to 9), and other scented shrubs gush with alluring aromas when they come into bloom.
To maximize the scents of these shrubs, plant them so prevailing winds carry the flowers’ scents toward your house rather than down the street. Working with fragrant shrubs is also a great way to discover distinctively different smells from nature’s perfumery, such as lemony winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima, Zones 4 to 8) and the invigorating spiciness of Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii, Zones 5 to 7).
Fill up the seasons
Floral fragrances are welcome in any season, but they’re most precious during the chilly days of spring or the waning days of fall. Begin spring’s perfume parade with heady hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis, Zones 5 to 7) and dainty dianthus such as ‘Bath’s Pink’ (Dianthus gratianopolitanus, Zones 3 to 8). Close out the season with holly tea olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus, Zones 7 to 9) or native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana, Zones 4 to 9) where winters are colder. If you don’t have space for these big woodies, grow the petite annual sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) in containers, and enjoy its sweet scent indoors for a few weeks after freezing weather arrives.
Turn it on with touch
Swish your hand through the foliage of fragrant herbs such as basil, lavender, and rosemary to release invisible clouds of spicy scents. Decide which plants to rustle based on your mood or desires—lavender can set a relaxed mood, mint tends to perk us up, and the aroma of rosemary helps clear an overly cluttered mind.
Go out at night
Some plants use fragrance to attract night-flying moths. These flowers are scentless during the day, but begin releasing their perfume just as the sun goes down. Fragrance is often linked with purple color in petunias, and fragrant varieties like ‘Alderman Purple’ continue to be sniffable first thing in the morning. The sudden jolt of sweetness from flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) will often take you by surprise as it wafts through the garden at twilight.
Try indoor bloomers
When winter shuts down your outdoor garden, invigorate your indoor garden with paperwhite narcissus and other easy indoor bulbs. Winter-blooming jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) willingly blooms indoors if you let it stay outdoors all summer and well into the cool days of fall, which is when it sets buds that will open in February.
Supplement natural scents
We think nothing of using air fresheners or scented candles indoors, so why not do something similar in your garden?
A few drops of essential oil mixed with water and left to evaporate in the sun makes a great fragrance booster. Try clove oil if you love the scent of dianthus, or orange or tangerine oil if your tastes run toward citrus. You’ll find these and many other essential oils in health food stores.
Barbara Pleasant is a garden writer in Virginia and a contributor to the Site Specific column in Gardening How-To.