If sales of plug-in room fresheners, fragrance sticks, scented candles and bags of potpourri are any indication, we all want good smells in our homes and spend millions of dollars every year to get them.
How sad that when we step outside, what we often smell is either nothing or the fumes of petroleum that power our lawn mowers. With a little judicious planning and planting, however, an outdoor living space can smell wonderful throughout the growing season. As a bonus, the flowers are pretty, too.
I grow a variety of beautiful plants that scent the air from early spring through late summer, and so can you. There are thousands of fragrant plants, but I'm not writing about ones like the adorable little Parma violet that you have to kneel in the mud to experience, nor the scented geranium that needs to be stroked to release its fragrance. Nor do I mean annuals, such as sweet peas, that have to be planted every year, or brugmansia, the white fly prone tropical plant that you should probably bring inside for the winter.
I'm talking about hardy "outdoor room fresheners" that are generous enough with their fragrances that on a warm still day you can smell them from 10 feet away. These plants send their lovely smells out to meet you like a friend. Plant them once and enjoy them for years.
One of the earliest to bloom is Daphne odora. An almost evergreen shrub with glossy leaves with a slight white edge, Daphne odora has small piercingly sweet-smelling pink flowers that bloom in April in my Connecticut garden. Its fragrance always takes me by surprise when it wafts my way on a chilly breeze. The flowers can be damaged by freezing temperatures but new ones often open with the next warm spell. An easier, hardier May blooming one is the variegated daphne 'Carol Mackie.' Daphnes are not long lived shrubs, but their delicious fragrance makes replacing them every decade or so well worth the effort.
Everybody knows hyacinths. Their fragrance is heavy when the cut flowers or forced bulbs are brought inside. It's downright unpleasant when they start to fade. However, when planted outside in groups of 15 or more, their perfume is fresh and heart lifting. Plant hyacinths right outside a much used doorway to sweeten your comings and goings. Doesn't it make sense to plant fragrant plants near doors and windows?
I wonder how many people today, when they smell the first lilac of the season, are reminded of when they were little and were adored by a grandparent? I'm one of the lucky ones. Far from being a little old lady, my grandmother was a modern woman who sold real estate, drove a Mustang convertible and lived in a townhouse condo. But she still treasured the old fashioned white lilac in her tiny backyard. White lilacs always remind me of her, as do Ford products in general.
I don't have any grandchildren, but if I did, they could run from lilac bush to lilac bush in my gardens, from white to lavender to the wine red 'Charles Joly,' comparing the fragrances and choosing a favorite. Some lilacs smell better than others, so it's best to buy them in bloom. At the garden center, close your eyes to their beauty and inhale deeply, choosing the ones whose fragrances really speak to you or that remind you of people you loved long ago. For many, the scent of lilacs is a joy mixed with a hint of sadness. If lilacs remind you of no one, then chose one that smells so great that, in years to come, it will remind people of you.
Some viburnums smell wonderful and some don't. Generally speaking, the ones with really good looking structure, great berries and wonderful fall color don't smell like much, and the lumpish ones with boring leaves and little fall color will turn your head from 20 feet away when they bloom in spring. My favorite, which is called the Korean spice bush, has ethereal blush-colored flowers worthy of a bride, as well as smelling spicy-sweet and strong. If its dull, post-bloom appearance bothers you, plant a smallish clematis at its feet to scramble up and give it some summer color.
Most rhododendrons flower in spring and have but little scent, but one, the native Rhododendron viscosum or Swamp Azalea, has powerfully fragrant white flowers in mid June. Plant it next to a sitting area in full to part sun and enjoy two weeks of spicy sweetness close up. Similar, but later to bloom and in more colors, are Weston Nursery's introductions, 'Lollipop,' 'Pink & Sweet,' and 'Ribbon Candy.'
Anyone who has attended a funeral knows what lilies smell like. "So funereal..." intones a friend who has had many losses in her life and can't abide them. Lucky me, I've mostly experienced my lilies outside in the garden. On a sultry summer evening, lilies, especially the richly scented Auratums, Regales, and Orientals, smell hauntingly romantic and seem achingly evocative of some romantic encounter I never experienced, but should have. Hell, I might still... The last fragrant lily to bloom is the species Lilium rubrum, a speckled pink that also comes in white. Its early September fragrance is possibly the loveliest of any garden perennial. You can order a summer's worth of lily fragrance from bulb catalogs now. Plant the bulbs in October and if you plan it right, you can enjoy them for much of next summer.