Gardening for Fragrance

Gardening for Fragrance

If your first impulse upon seeing a flower is to bury your nose in its petals in search of a sweet scent, why not create a garden that will not only delight your eyes, but engage your sense of smell? A lilac planted by a doorway, a rose-covered arbor, or a path lined with rosemary can invite you into the garden and beckon you to stay, adding a new, invisible dimension of fragrance to your garden. And although many classic fragrant plants are spring and summer-flowering, you might be surprised to learn that there are plenty of options that offer fantastic fragrance even in winter! Keep reading for design tips and plant recommendations to help you create a year-round garden oasis perfumed by fragrant trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and annuals.

These fragrant oriental lilies are planted along a path at the Farm where their fragrance can be appreciated up close, just a few feet from a neighboring mock orange.

Designing a Fragrance Garden

Flowers come in a range of scents variously described as sweet, spicy, fruity, musky, and onward — and not everyone agrees on what a given flower smells like. But whatever your nose says, it's hard to ignore that smell has a powerful impact on our mood. Different scents may relax or even invigorate us, and we can use this to our advantage! By harnessing the power of aromatherapy, we can design outdoor spaces that we want to spend time in, that provide a place to recharge, and enhance our overall wellbeing.

When planning your garden around fragrance, it's important to consider a few key factors:

Location, Location, Location

While some particularly fragrant shrubs could perfume a whole block, others are more subtle. Consider placing fragrant plants near a seating area or along a pathway where you are most likely to interact with them, especially if you don't often have time for a leisurely stroll to the far corner of your garden. Considering that pleasantly perfumed plants come in a multitude of growth forms and sizes, it's easy to keep fragrance front and center in your garden.

That being said, you may not want to site plants whose respective fragrances you find to compete with one another within the same vicinity, especially if their bloom times overlap and they are strongly scented. There's no shame in picking one over the other. Of course, if you have the space, you could give them each their own corner of the garden to create a variable scent-scape.

Blooms for Every Season

By selecting plants that bloom at different times throughout the year, you can ensure a near-continuous display of fragrant flowers. If you're looking for more "bang for your buck," consider fragrant plants with a long flowering period. Star jasmine is consistently a top-seller at the Farm for this very reason (in addition to being evergreen and decently shade tolerant). Similarly, many modern roses have a long bloom period or send up flushes of repeat blooms throughout the growing season, as is the case with many viburnums and warm-season daphnes. While the latter tend to have a particularly strong flush at one point in the year, we'll never say no to a smattering of flowers outside of that window!

Time of Day Matters

From an evolutionary perspective, fragrant blooms developed as a way to attract pollinators, some of whom — like bats and moths — are active primarily at night. As such, some plants offer blooms that are primarily (or only) fragrant in the afternoon or after the sun has gone down. If you spend a lot of time out in your garden or entertaining on your patio in the evening hours, consider looking for night-scented plants such as moonflower, four o'clocks, night-blooming stock, and many flowering tobaccos. Conversely, if you tend to retire with the sun, focus on plants that are fragrant during the daytime!

 

Don't Forget Foliage

Some plants offer fragrance in unexpected places. Even if they produce flowers, their leaves may just be the star of the show. This is certainly the case for many conifers (that classic "pine" scent is a fragrance, after all!) as well as many culinary and medicinal herbs, whose leaves contain highly aromatic oils and compounds.

Trust Your Nose

Smell is notoriously one of the most subjective senses — not to mention one of the hardest to describe. And considering it is highly linked to memory, personal associations abound. When curating a fragrance garden for your own enjoyment, listen to what your nose tells you. It's okay not to incorporate a certain plant into your garden if you don't care for its scent or don't find it to be strong enough, no matter how much your friend may rave about it.

This is one reason why it's a good idea to shop for fragrant plants while they are in flower whenever possible. Another reason is the simple fact that some plants — particularly highly-hybridized ones — vary widely in scent from one variety to the next, roses being chief among them.

Consider Care

When planning any sort of garden, it pays to think through the maintenance it will require on the front end. Because woody plants will set flower buds on either new or old growth (or both), it helps to know which strategy your particular plant has adopted. If you are growing a plant that only blooms on old wood, you shouldn't prune it until right after it flowers, or else you risk sacrificing the following year's floral display and corresponding fragrance! This is why it's important to choose plant varieties whose ultimate size is appropriate for the amount of space you have to give them, as they won't require aggressive pruning to keep them in check. Similarly, not all fragrant flowering shrubs are suitable for a hedge, as the repeated shearing necessary to maintain their shape will prevent them from forming flower buds.

Additionally, different plants have different fertilizer needs, so be sure to do a little research ahead of times. Generally speaking, when it comes to flowering plants, you'll want to avoid nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, as these can lead to foliar growth at the expense of those fragrant flowers you so desire!

Our Picks for Portland

If you're gardening near us or in a similar zone (we're USDA Agricultural Zone 8b here at the Farm), you're in luck! There are plenty of fragrant plants that will thrive here, from annuals and perennials to shrubs and trees. The following are a few of our top picks, organized according to their primary season of interest — plus a bonus category of plants with fragrant foliage across many seasons. And keep scrolling to peruse a visual collection of some of our favorite fragrant plants that are currently in stock.

Winter

Spring

Summer

Fall

BONUS: Fragrant Foliage Plants

    * = Fragrant foliage

    † = Not All Varieties Fragrant

    At Cornell Farm, we carry a wide array of plants with fragrant flowers or foliage, and our staff would be happy to point you in the direction of any of our favorites. If you'd like more hands-on help with your garden — including incorporating more fragrant plants — we also offer individualized, 90-minute Garden Coaching sessions with our experts, which are offered throughout the year.