Our Moonflowers are just beginning to bloom. There are dozens of buds coming along and I am so looking forward to their beautiful evening fragrance. The following is an excerpt from my book on garden design, which I both wrote and illustrated, titled Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities: Notes from a Gloucester Garden, published by David R. Godine.
The Fragrant Garden
Located on the southeast side of our home is the primary pathway, which we walk up and down many times in the course of the day. We built the path using bricks from a pile of discarded chimney bricks. Ordinarily I would not recommend chimney bricks, as they are ﬁred differently from paving bricks and are therefore less sturdy. We laid the brick in a herring bone pattern and luckily they have held without cracking and splitting. The warm red tones of the brick complement the creamy yellow clapboards of the house. A tightly woven brick path is a practical choice for a primary path as it helps keep mud out of the home.
Planted alongside the house walls and on the opposing side of the path, in close proximity to our neighbor’s fence, are the larger plantings of Magnolia virginiana, ‘Dragon Lady hollies,’ Syringa, Philadelphus, and semi-dwarf fruiting trees, Prunus and Malus. Weaving through the background tapestry of foliage and ﬂowers are fragrant ﬂowering vines and rambling roses. These include the most richly scented cultivars of honeysuckle and Bourbon roses. Viburnum carlcephalum, butterﬂy bushes, meadowsweet, New Jersey tea, and Paeonia rockii comprise a collection of mid-size shrubs. They, along with perennials, bulbs, and annuals—narcissus, tulips, iris, herbaceous peonies, lavender, Russian sage, lilies, and chrysanthemums —are perfect examples of fragrant plants growing at mid-level. Closer to the ground is a carpet of scented herbs, full and abundant and spilling onto the brick walkway. The length of our pathway is lined with aromatic alpine strawberries, thyme, and sweet alyssum. This most sunny area in our garden permits us to grow a variety of kitchen herbs. The foliage of the herbs releases their scents when brushed against. Including herbs in the ﬂower borders provides an attractive and practical addition to the fragrant garden.
The fragrances are held within by the house and neighboring fence and the living perfumes of ﬂowers and foliage are noticeable throughout the growing season. All the plants are immediately available to see, touch, and smell. The intimate aspects of the garden are revealed by the close proximity of plantings along a much-used garden path.
When selecting plants for a fragrant garden, it is not wise to assume that just because your Mom had sublimely scented peonies growing in her garden, all peonies will be as such. This simply is not the case. Take the time to investigate nurseries and arboretums during plants’ blooming period and read as much literature as possible. There is an abundance of information to be gleaned and sifted through to ﬁnd the most richly scented version of a plant. When seeking a fragrant cultivar, one may ﬁnd that it is usually an older variety, one that has not had scent replaced for an improbable color, convenient size, or double blossoms by a well-meaning hybridizer. And despite our best effort to ﬁnd the most richly scented version, there will be disappointments along the way, as fragrance is highly mutable. Soil conditions and climate play their role, and some plants simply don’t perform as advertised.
A well-thought-out pathway looks inviting when seen from the street and the fragrance beckons the visitor to enter. The interwoven scents emanating from an array of sequentially blooming ﬂowers and aromatic foliage create a welcoming atmosphere. Have you noticed your garden is more fragrant after a warm summer shower or on a day when the morning fog has lifted? Scented ﬂowers are sweetest when the air is temperate and full of moisture. Plant your garden of fragrance to reﬂect the time of year when you will most often be in the garden to enjoy your hard work.
There are few modern gardens planted purely for fragrance. Maybe this is because there is now a tremendous variety of appealing plant material, offered by growers to eager gardeners ready to purchase what is visually enticing, by color and by size. Perhaps it is so because in the past fragrant plantings served the function of disguising unpleasant odors from outhouses and farmyards, and we no longer have to address these concerns. But the pendulum has begun to swing (albeit slowly) toward planting a garden designed for fragrance. Scent, along with rhythm, scale, harmony in color, and form, should ideally be an equal component in garden design. Plant scented ﬂowering shrubs under windows and close to and around the porch. Plant fragrant vines to climb up the walls near window sashes that will be open in the summertime. Plant scented white ﬂowering plants near to where you might brush against them while dining al fresco or to embower a favorite garden spot designed for rest and rejuvenation.
“True vespertine ﬂowers are those that withhold their sweetness from day and give it freely at night. “(Louise Beebe Wilder). Imagine the dreamlike enchantment of the fragrant path through the night garden. The vibrantly colored ﬂowers have vanished. All that you will see are the white and palest shades of pink, yellow, and lavender ﬂowers reﬂecting the moonlight. Perhaps you will have the breathtaking experience of an encounter with a Lunar moth. Syringa vulgaris ‘Beauty of Moscow,’ Madonna lily, Philadelphus, Japanese honeysuckle, Lilium regale, Nicotianna alata, Oriental lily, tuberose, night phlox, peacock orchid, Stephanotis ﬂoribunda, gardenia, Jasminum sambac, Angel’s trumpet, and moonﬂowers are but a few of the white ﬂowers with exotic night-scents for an entrancing sleeping garden.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
— J o h n K e a t s ( 1 7 9 5 – 1 8 2 1 )