Sunday gardening: Makes good scents

By Meg Liptrot

Plant for fragrance as well as looks, suggests Meg Liptrot

The fragrant foliage on a manuka tree will give your garden a sweet, summer scent. Photo / Meg Liptrott
The fragrant foliage on a manuka tree will give your garden a sweet, summer scent. Photo / Meg Liptrott

Gardens are all about the senses - sight, sound, touch and smell. Our sense of smell cuts through time, linking instantly to memories and emotions. The scent of jonquils transports me to childhood, looking out for the first clumps of the late-winter flower in a forgotten suburban section on the way home from school. The smell of cut grass and musky wisteria recall the promise that summer is just around the corner. One of the most enjoyable aspects of being in a garden is the range of scents and taking the time to appreciate them. The promise of a rose awaits beside a garden fence - it was surely planted there for passers-by to enjoy, to pause for a moment to drink in the fragrance when out on a suburban walk. When designing a garden, the basic structure - in this case the "floor", "walls" and "ceiling" - provide plenty of opportunities to incorporate scent into your design.

The floor

Aromatic leaves that are lightly bruised when brushed against or walked on can emit a volatile scent year round. The idea of a chamomile lawn is a lovely one, but only for those who have plenty of time and don't mind weeding with tweezers.

Instead, consider planting chamomile or other groundcover herbs near stepping stones or where feet would rest below a garden bench, so the effect of the plants is gained with less effort. When we developed the hard landscaping at our place, we replaced our small, postcard patch of lawn with pavers in a gravel grid. I spent hours planting this grid with groundcover thyme, along thin trenches filled with garden mix. The idea worked really well for a year or two. Unfortunately, our courtyard doesn't get full-day sun in winter, so parts of the groundcover died off, leaving a very patchy situation. Needless to say, the grid has been returned to pebbles. In contrast, a garden I designed in Mt Albert had the perfect sunny situation for such an approach, and the plan worked well, set out with lime chip and pale pavers, which also increased the light for these mediterranean groundcovers. It was an ideal situation for the client, who was happy to weed with tweezers. Thyme, oregano and other heat-loving scented herbs hail from the Mediterranean, so find a spot in your garden that will echo those conditions. If your site is challenged, plant into pots instead so you can move the plants around to sunnier spots during winter.

The walls

Located in the right spot, a scented climber will fill not only part of your garden with fragrance, but will waft inside the home like your own brand of air freshener. A fence provides plenty of growing opportunities. We had to replace an old privet hedge with a fence, but it made the side of the house bare and boring. I planted a star jasmine beside our bedroom window in the tricky narrow spot to provide a screen, and got the added bonus of a glorious scent in spring.

Roses are a great option for training along fences, too. The old-fashioned types often have superior fragrance to their modern counterparts, but that is sometimes traded for a shorter flowering period. Though modern roses are often bred for repeat flowering, their fragrance is sometimes lost in the process. Our neighbour's scarlet 'Dublin Bay' climber is trained along her fenceline, and we get a nice view. This rose blooms for a long period as she regularly deadheads the spent flowers. 'Dublin Bay' was bred by famous NZ rose breeder Sam McGredy.

The rose is a popular standout for many reasons, but the scent isn't its strongest suit. Do the research before buying if scent is a high priority in your garden. Go for the scented, old-fashioned and heritage rose types: damasks, gallicas, bourbons, centiflolias, albas, moss roses and rugosas.

The ceiling

Trees provide the canopy of your garden and can therefore be considered the "ceiling". The canopy helps to protect lower-growing plants in a garden from frost and weather extremes, shading the soil, providing leaf litter and mulch to boost biomass for the rest of the garden.

At the height of summer, when the humidity is dripping, we often spend time on the back porch enjoying the cooler night air. We kept catching wafts of a divine fragrance that surpassed anything I had knowingly planted in our garden. I knew the magnolia was out of season - its fresh, lemony scent is an early spring standout. This elusive scent disappeared during the day, and through a process of elimination, the only remaining flowers in the garden were tiny, inconspicuous green bell-shaped flowers, clustered high up in the mountain paw paw.

The Carica family are thought to be pollinated by wind and assisted by moths, attracted to the scent in the evening. In Australia, scent in the air on a hot day is from the aromatic oil of eucalyptus trees; this is also the main cause of the blue haze over the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. In Aotearoa, our native forest has its own distinctive scent, depending where you are in the country. On baked coastal ridges, the scent in the summer air is usually from the essential oils of manuka and kanuka trees. I've captured this fragrance by planting a manuka hedge.

If you have room, plant a tree with fragrant foliage, the fallen leaf litter makes wandering along a path underneath these trees a delight.

- Herald on Sunday

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