Scent for all gardening seasons

Posted on: 16 September 2010 by Mark O'haire

Gardening expert Maxine Farmer offers her best recommendations to help you design a scented garden.

Scented gardenWhen 50connect asked me to write about scented gardens, I thought: what’s left to be said?  Even chocolate-scented cosmos is old news.  But then it occurred to me... What would I do if a client asked me to design a scented garden for them? It got me thinking. What are my best recommendations?

What I’m advocating is creating a mini scent-garden that works year-round (or as much as possible) and where you get the benefit: in big containers by your front door, back door or balcony, and growing up the walls of the house. Why? What a delight to come home from a stressful shopping trip or doctor’s appointment and be hit by a little cloud of nature’s perfume. After all, while wafts of jasmine halfway down the garden are all very well in the height of summer, they are not much use in the middle of winter when it’s lashing down with rain and the garden looks skeletal.

You may be thinking that I’ve lost the plot completely and that surely I know that most plants only smell fabulous in summer? Well, largely but not entirely true, because there are enough scented plants around to ensure sweet smells in most of the cooler months. And what I find so enchanting is that these are often lighter, more delicate fragrances compared to the thuggish puffs of soapiness that you get from some of the over-hybridised roses and lilies in summer.

That said, you do have to be clever with the limited choice and also bear in mind that many winter-scented plants tend to be fairly dismal in the summer (sorry Wintersweet, a.k.a. chimonanthus praecox, but we both know this is true).

So, from a design point of view, I recommend using winter-scented shrubs as the backbone, and then having prettier, flowering plants winding their way through them in summer. Take for instance winter-flowering viburnum, which smells delicious in winter, butis a solid if rather unexciting shrub in summer. So let some sweetpeas scramble through its branches and you can achieve scent for a couple of seasons (and by the way, sweetpeas are in my opinion happier and arguably even prettier when allowed to twine their way around everything else - who needs bamboo canes?).

The third leg to my ‘scented garden’ concept is sweet-smelling bulbs. These are ideal for filling in gaps and bringing both perfume and flower power, particularly during the spring months. If space for soil is becoming too tight, then I’d advocate planting them in black pots (two or three bulbs to a 2 litre pot) and sinking these into the soil of the main container. When flowering is over, simply lift the potted bulbs and store until next needed.

Here are my top plants for scent, with an indication of when they can be expected to do their star turn (though do bear in mind that this will vary according to region of the country, aspects and recent weather conditions).

Winter-flowering shrubs

Witch hazel – can grow reasonably happily in a large pot and has fabulous coppery-orange or reddish brown spidery flowers. They like a neutral to acid soil and will withstand some shade. Do not allow to dry out in summer.

Daphne Odora – it won’t love being in a pot forever, but it will withstand cramped treatment for a few years and if you are lucky, will reward you with its fragrant pink blooms. If you have the room and patience, plant in the soil, close to a sheltered wall and it will perform even better.

Sarcococca humulus – the winter box is a great all-rounder: a neat, evergreen shrub that has the most divine fragrance – think spicy vanilla – in the winter months.

Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’  – OK, I confess it is a bit large for most containers, but it does respond to some very hard-pruning. When we moved to our cottage, we inherited one that lived in a massive half barrel very happily for years. It is now a majestic giant in the garden and is still throwing out its perfume every winter. 


Flowering honeysuckle - Lonicera purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ carries very fragrant small clusters of flowers. It looks a bit scruffy and may need some severe pruning from time to time, but it is worth the effort.

Clematis - Clematis cirrhosa and clematis armandii both bravely flower in even the briskest of spring winds. They recover well from frost damage.  My clematis armandii has had several near-death experiences and only seems to get better, plus its fabulous evergreen foliage covers a multitude of sins. Clematis cirrhosa is rather more delicate, with pretty little bell-shaped blooms.

Winter-flowering jasmines – I’m a huge fan of this family: everyone should grow jasmines, both summer and winter. Jasminum nudiflorum has small but very vivid yellow flowers on bare stems in winter and is incredibly easy to grow, being tolerant of most conditions.


Grape hyacinth –throw a handful of muscari bulbs into a pot, cover with the recommended amount of soil and hey presto: come spring, behold a sea of what are miniature versions of their big cousins.

Jonquil daffodils – not all daffs have a fragrance, but these are one of the exceptions, with the bonus of delicate flowers too.

Bluebells – they can be thugs, so my advice is to plant them in a pot of their own (which I can report from experience works just fine). I’m sure anyone who has smelled Penhaligon’s ‘Bluebell’ scent will agree with me that they are worth the effort.

Summer flower power

Pinks -  I don’t know why these lovely little plants have gone so out of fashion. For me, their sweet-shop scent is evocative of childhood and again, they are very tolerant little plants.  Look out for one of the dwarf varieties.

Sweet peas – obvious, yes, but hard to beat! Try out some of the old fashioned varieties – these often have stronger, longer-lasting fragrance than more modern ones.

Tobacco plants – I always think nicotiana smell like an expensive brand of perfume, so its common name is very misleading. With a bit of bottom heat and skill they are quite easy to grow from seed, but also widely available as plug plants. By day, their white trumpet flowers add elegance, then as dusk falls, they release they powerful fragrance.

These are just a few of the scented plants available.  For more ideas, ‘Scent in Your Garden’ by Stephen Lacey and Andrew Lawson is – in my view – the definitive read.

Picture-070By Maxine Farmer

Garden writer and consultant Maxine Farmer writes specialises in writing about garden challenges and people who have fascinating plots.  She has written for The Daily Telegraph, Housebuilder & Renovation, and the RHS’ members magazine, The Garden.  Maxine has also published ‘Wet and Dry’, a book of advice about helping gardens to  survive the extremes of hot summers and wet winters. 

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