The perfume garden
by Helen Babbs
Helen Babbs follows her nose to discover the secrets of creating a successful urban scent garden, and finds out what makes fragrant flowers so appealing.
Although it’s not relied upon in the way sight, sound, touch and taste are, smell is possibly the most emotive of all the senses. The vapours that creep up our noses can transport us to other realms. “Scent cuts through time in an instant and makes a connection that you might not have thought of for years” says Stephen Lacey, author of Scent In Your Garden and a fragrance aficionado with a sensitive nose.
Perfume may be powerful stuff but it is often an afterthought for gardeners, and many plants have been bred to look rather than smell good. “Scent has always been greatly valued, but the scented garden as a genre has never been a major thing – it’s more of an undercurrent. For me, perfume doubles the pleasure of a plant. And it puts the experience of the garden into another orbit when you walk around and get these ambushes of scent,” says Stephen.
Powerful flowers for small spaces
Some flowers hold their scent, while others float it on the air. In general, you want to be able to get up close and personal with scented flowers and leaves so you can stick your nose among them and get a deeper draught. Tiny urban gardens, balconies and window boxes, are therefore all perfect places to experiment with fragrant flowers. Position plants close to nose height: on tables, window ledges and wall tops.
“Some plants have scents that act as beacons for night-flying insects. Honeysuckles and tobacco plants, for example, can fill a little garden with fragrance. I know a small London garden that’s filled with the tropical perfume of Japanese honeysuckle,” says Stephen. “Warmth brings out the smells. Shelter is also important, as wind can disperse scent really quickly – that’s where a town garden really scores because it can usually capture the fragrance better with its walls and screening.”
Stephen’s recommendations for urban scent planting include Daphne odora, which is compact and has a really fruity scent; Magnolia x loebneri ‘Merrill’, a small tree with white spidery flowers and a spiced smell; spicy spring viburnums and Rosa primula, a delicate pale yellow rose that smells of incense. Lots of bulbs have scents too, which is often missed. “Most crocuses smell of honey. For my London balcony, I always plant up a pot of crocuses and miniature irises and keep it on a table,” says Stephen.
Tara Maloney works at the gorgeous Petersham Nurseries in Richmond where, among other things, she runs a workshop that explains how to blend fragrances into an urban garden. Tara believes it’s really important to do your research when planning a scent garden. She recommends you keep a journal of smells you find and like, as everyone’s sense of smell is different – one person’s ‘sweet’ could be another person’s ‘rotten’.
“Plants flower and smell for quite a short period of time – classifying plants into the type of scent and when they flower is important, so you get a flow of fragrance throughout the year,” says Tara. “Plants serve their pollinators not us, and are in tune with their natural environment. The Mirabilis jalapa, for example, opens its flowers and pushes out its fragrance at 4pm because that’s when the insects it wants to attract become active.”
Tara – inspired by Stephen’s book – explains that we can group plants into distinct scent families so that they’re easier to identify and combine – exotic/heady/tropical (such as jasmine, nicotiana, tuberose, lillies); spicy (such as dianthus, daphne, primula, phlox); vanilla/almond (such as clematis, heliotrope, buddleja); fresh/lettuce (such as wisteria, coronilla, lupin, acacia); complex French perfume (mahonia, skimmia, sweet pea, hyacinth, cyclamen); rose; fruit (lemon-scented evening primrose and Mirabilis jalapa, plum-scented freesia, apricot-scented Amaryllis belladonna) and honey (such as Crocus chrysanthus and Euphorbia mellifera).
Plant like a perfumer
Blending different types of scent is trickier but it’s a great way to create a stronger and more complex effect outdoors – Tara often takes inspiration from perfumes when designing these combinations. Louise Bloor makes bespoke fragrances to order and can explain a little more about how perfumers use and blend smells.
“I associate scents with different styles, for example vanilla is soft and child-like, whereas bergamot and clary sage are clean and crisp. The fashion at the moment is definitely for clean and citrusy scents.”
Perfumers talk about scent in terms of ‘notes’ or ‘chords’, and a blended perfume will usually be a mix of a head chord, a heart chord and a base chord. “When I’m mixing a perfume I always start with the base – something like vetiver, frankincense or pine, which all have a ‘green’ fresh smell,” explains Louise. “The heart note might be something citrusy and sweet, like may chang or laurel, and the head note might be bergamot, lime and blood orange.”
Scented planting projects
Tara recommends a website called Basenotes, which lists the ingredients of over 11,000 perfumes and can be used for planting ideas. The projects below are some others she suggests:
Choc mint pots: combine chocolate cosmos, which has pretty brownish-red flowers, with pots of chocolate mint and peppermint to create the scent of a sweet shop.
Fruit punch bowl: plant pineapple broom with an apple-scented modern shrub rose, blackcurrant sage, lemon verbena and dianthus for a combination that smells rather like a glass of Pimm’s.
Fragrant window box: spicy pink dianthus works well with floral lavender and fresh-smelling bergamot.
Cut flowers / houseplants: sweet peas are perfect cut-and-come-again blooms for perfuming your home – the more you pick, the more flowers will appear. Tara also suggests picking flowers from shrubs – two or three blooms from the Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Anne Russell’ will fill a room with fragrance. Stephanotis, which has a tropical scent, is one of Stephen Lacey’s favourite house plants. He also recommends indoor jasmine but warns that some find the scent to be quite animal-like.
• Go on a scent gardening course – Tara Maloney is leading a workshop on using perfumed plants in your garden at Petersham Nurseries on Tuesday 29th May, from 11am to 12.30pm. Tickets cost £25 and can be booked via 0208 940 5230 or email@example.com.
• Louise Bloor runs a regular Fragrant Supper Club – contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to be put on the mailing list.
• Seek out rose gardens for a powerful hit of heady perfume this summer – Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in London both have delicious examples.
• Alderley Grange in Gloucestershire features aromatic plants and is open by appointment this June.
• The University of Oxford Botanic Garden has a secret spring scent garden that is tucked away but a treat for your nose.