Ode to the Scented Garden
Photography Kirsten Shultz
Fragrance can be a magical transformer. Inspired by the lingering fragrance of madeleine cake dipped in tea, Marcel Proust wrote his famous Swann’s Way. Studies show that fragrances can improve health by creating a relaxing atmosphere and reducing stress. And it is no secret that fragrances can summon strong memories.
The earthy scent of moss, for instance, transports local gardener Kim Peterson back to her childhood days on Mercer Island in Washington. She recommends creating a fragrance garden that will soothe your soul with scents that bring back your own warm sensory memories.
“When you design a garden,” she says, “think about what you remember as a kid. Remember what feels good. For me, it’s nice to be able to go barefoot. I don’t really want artificial pavers. I didn’t have that growing up. I had a lot of great moss and ivy to walk on, not just tons of grass. In my gardens, I want to re-create the scents that bring me back home.”
One fragrance that sends Peterson back to her grandmother’s garden is the full, sweet scent of old-fashioned roses. In the garden of her first home in Seattle, Peterson found similar rosebushes that had been blossoming for many years. “They were incredibly disease-prone. They would get black spots and lose all their leaves, but their ability to produce flowers and fragrance was huge. They were just incredible . . . very sentimental for me.”
In contrast, some modern roses can be almost completely lacking in scent—an unfortunate side effect of hybridization, which is often used to improve color, size, and disease resistance. That is why freshly picked heirloom flowers are such a treat, with typically languorous blossoms drenched in luscious scent.
Thankfully, there are still ways for gardeners to rediscover that original perfumed richness. David Austin Roses, Ltd., and others sell wonderful old-fashioned roses, and local garden centers often have sources for plants that have not been blanched by hybridization.
Peterson’s fragrant garden is divided into many outdoor “rooms.” Red Gate, the garden for her cut-flower business, is situated behind huge, rustic, red wooden gates. Red Gate in bloom is profuse with heady scents, partially because of its wall of old-fashioned sweet peas. Enclosed gardens (like the ancient walled gardens of Persia) can raise the temperature within, creating more temperate conditions and
capturing the perfumed air.
To Peterson, as to British gardener Gertrude Jekyll, a garden is a canvas to be brushed with color and scent. Just as Jekyll was influenced by the Impressionists, Peterson is influenced by Jekyll. Instead of two or three plants of a particular type, she includes 25 or 50, for lavish color and an abundance of wonderful aroma.
Through the French doors of Peterson’s kitchen, a lovely fragrance drifts languidly into the house from masses of roses and lavender planted in a glorious swath. Farther into the garden is a sunken herb garden, an essential element in the fragrant yard. Just brushing by the herbs can release their lovely, subtle scent, which is also brought out by the heat of the day, or moisture in the air.
“Fragrance isn’t just about flowers,” Peterson says. “There are plants I love that smell good, but aren’t necessarily a profuse explosion of sweet scent. Tangerine artemesia has an incredibly icy, orangey scent when you bruise the leaves. Catnip has a minty scent. Bells of Ireland smell like green, sweet hay. All the different mints are worthy of being in the fragrant garden. I love chocolate mint. And basil or cinnamon basil. And sage.”
Herbs can be appreciated not only in the garden, but also as aromatherapy inside the house. Lavender has a clean, refreshing scent that promotes relaxation. Peterson uses it to make sleep pillows, potpourri, and sachets. Many other herbs are known to have relaxing qualities, and can be used in teas and bath oils to enhance well-being.
Planting around benches and chairs is a good way to bring scent closer, so Peterson’s garden is full of cozy niches with benches that place plants at nose level. Recently she designed an Asian-style garden for a new mother, planting black elderberry around a bench so the woman could nurse her child while surrounded by the sweet cherry aroma.
Different scents arise in the garden at different times of year. Part of the goal for scent gardeners is to stagger scented plants for a mélange of fragrance and bloom, while taking care to balance fragrances so that they won’t clash or be overwhelming.
Starting around Memorial Day each year, the celebration of scent begins in Peterson’s garden with a few early-blooming sweet peas. June welcomes heady lilacs, roses, peonies and crab apples, among many others. July brings more peonies along with different varieties of roses along with rudbeckia, daisies, and lavender. Many annuals—such as sunflowers, zinnias and larkspurs—don’t have a scent, so it’s a good idea to couple them with perennials such as roses, lilacs, and phlox (but not wild phlox, which doesn’t have a fragrance).
Asiatic lilies are faster growing and easier to coax into bloom than oriental lilies, but although the orientals take more work, their perfume is probably the most intoxicating fragrance in Peterson’s garden in late July and August. Happy, healthy oriental lilies can grow to dinner-plate size, and the white ones are Kim’s favorite because of their rich, heavy perfume. During warm summer evenings, when the last light is glowing on the white lilies, the hummingbird moths go wild for their scent.
In fact, the various creatures drawn to a garden by scent are another reason to create a perfumed paradise. Peterson enjoys the company of graceful swallowtail butterflies, neon dragonflies, and beautiful bohemian waxwings with their exotically masked eyes.
Fragrance is, indeed, a magical transformer. Observe the near delirium of a cat in a bed of catmint, or the delight in the eyes of a child surrounded by cascading, sun-warmed strawberries cascading. Skiers rejoice in spring at the fresh, pungent scent of warm sagebrush on Baldy’s slopes. Nature reminds us in these and in many more ways to stop for a moment—and smell the roses.
Crystal Lee Thurston is a freelance writer who has contributed many articles to Sun Valley Magazine and other publications. She is a mother and an avid local volunteer.