Make Your Garden Sensual

By Jim Janke | Dec 03, 2012

Vegetable gardeners are obviously concerned about how things taste. The rest of us concentrate on how the landscape looks. But what about the other senses: hearing, touch and smell?

Designing a garden for sound and touch requires a lot of thought and experience. But adding great scents to your garden is easy; just select the right plants. Here are some of my favorite fragrant plants.

Use annual and perennial herbs to add fragrance to any garden, not just the herb plot. Place these plants at the edges – allowing them to grow into walks and paths - where you’ll bump into them as you wander about. Taller, bushier plants like large-leafed basil, sage, rosemary, and lavender are best. We have all of these herbs in our landscape.

Many roses are known for their intense aromas, and catalogs generally do a good job indicating which roses are fragrant. The only problem with traditional roses is that you can’t get up close and personal to smell the flowers because of the thorny stems; cut flowers are the best way to appreciate them. Although they are not as good for cutting, KnockOut® roses planted en masse don’t require deadheading and add great fragrance to an area with minimal maintenance. Roses should be planted in as much sun as possible.

Abelias are wonderful shrubs with a mounded habit that will grow in full sun to part shade. Different cultivars can be as little as 3 feet or as much as 8 feet high and wide. They start blooming in late spring and continue until frost, and the flowers have a wonderful aroma. Two popular varieties are Glossy Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) and ‘Edward Goucher’ (Abelia x ‘Edward Goucher’). Both areused extensively by NCDOT to landscape highway areas. 

Peonies (Paeonia sp.) are long-lived perennials that require half to full day sun and well-drained soil that will not be disturbed after planting. Many fragrant varieties are available. Plant away from the house; the sticky secretion covering the flowers may attract ants.

Peonies are great planted with taller plants that require shaded roots, like clematis vines. Once the flowers have faded in late spring, the foliage is attractive until fall. Cut down to the ground after the first frost.

Lilacs (Syringa sp.) are moderate to fast-growing shrubs in a variety of sizes. Most bloom in spring with pink, white, blue or lavender flowers; the fragrance can be noticed from quite a distance. Full sun or part shade is best.

Weigelas (Weigela praecox and Weigela florida) are underutilized in the mountains. Larger varieties get to 8 feet high and wide, while compact ones may only spread to 24 inches. Many are repeat bloomers after a sensational show in late spring. Fragrance varies with the varietal. Weigelas like full sun to part shade, and are pest and disease free. We’ve used a taller variety adjacent to a sidewalk as a backdrop to smaller plantings.

Go to, type “fragrant” in the search field, and you’ll get a list of over 200 odiferous plants good in Zone 6. The list can be narrowed further by plant type, light requirements, flower and foliage color, and other features.

The most fragrant area of our lot is the 100-foot long driveway from the street to the house. One side of the drive has a row of ‘Edward Goucher’ abelias, with KnockOut® roses on the opposite side. Even though our joints protest (the driveway is very steep), we walk it regularly because of the wonderful smells these plants provide all summer.

Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575. © 2012 NC State University.

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