The role of scent in design

daisychain01(zone 3)February 25, 2012

When you are designing a garden is this one of the elements you consciously include and plan for?

In the unit on garden design that I teach to my 7/8 year old students, they design a fairy garden. One of the elements I have them consider is scent. One of the reasons I did this is because my mother has complained for years that the scent is being bred out of plants and she is always looking for heritage versions of plants with the smells she remembers.

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Interesting question! In my own garden I think about it quite often. I completely agree with your mother, scent is being bred out of plants. I collect certain heirloom plants because of their scent. heirloom sweet peas are one of my favorites to grow. Nicotiana Only the lonely is another one i really love. Lilacs and peonies are a given.

While i might mention the scent of a certain plant or tree as a reason to use it in given landscape (japanese tree lilac and clethera comes to mind) I don't consider it on the same level as other factors such as bloom time, color, form, size. I would call scent a secondary factor. If all the other considerations work, I might use scent to choose one plant over another or one variety over another.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 8:48AM
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Ideally all the senses should be considered so that the possibility of all gardens being fairy gardens emerges.If the client is missing one of the five senses through being blind say, then scent would carry much more weight. Also, smell is the most nostalgia inducing sense as the previous two posts demonstrate, in my own garden I find it irresistible to line walkways with overflowing lavender so that when you walk through you brush against it an instant reminder of my grandmothers garden. When designing professionally it is possible to uncover secret memories of scent, it's all in the asking.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 9:05AM
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Absolutely, I look at it much like drtygrl. It's probably not the first consideration in selecting plants, but it definitely weighs in and boosts a plants reason for being chosen, if at all possible. Favorite scents: lilac, peony, korean spicebush, tea olive, freesia, moonflower and, of course, some of the roses. Like ink said, it can evoke powerful memories and feelings. It's a delicious component of any garden. Scent is, for the most part, a temporal component so it's easy why it takes a back seat to "looks." You can't sell scent in a picture.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 9:44AM
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Scratch and sniff?

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 10:17AM
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Yeah ... scent often dominates in the dark. You could say that the visual is "temporal" since it's limited for most folks once night descends ...

Daisychain, great question.

Here's the deal, at least for me. Sound, smell, touch, and taste, more or less in that order, tend to move a person closer and closer to things until, well, with taste you actually take it inside yourself. When cars and suburban life were less the norm, say, a hundred zillion years ago or so, the seer was "closer" to what was being seen. Sight was dominant, yes, but not so dominant. It worked more closely in concert with the other senses.

For a child, smaller in stature, not yet equipped with car keys, a design geared toward exploration, adventure, and wildness is wonderful. We've all become so used to driving by in a car or viewing the world through a screen -- an aesthetic that requires engagement is now often simply dismissed as irrelevant.

What if it does turn out that we've gotten the relationship between ourselves and nature entirely wrong.

Answers to a question like that could shift the aesthetic norm. Such norms play out, in part, through what we -- meaning the general public -- hold as values.

And, so what if a scent is ephemeral? A well-designed landscape is always telling us something new. The scents in my garden (and not just the floral ones) are telling me about a deeper beauty. Even the ones I don't like ... It's funny how certain fragrances (and ... um ... odors) tell the seasons. Ever notice how you can tell winter is over by the increase in squashed skunk aroma?

Thanks for getting me thinking this morning. There's more I could add ... maybe later!

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 11:51AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

OK, so for a pragmatist like me, the concept of a fairy garden holds little allure and so my input may not enhance the project, but I did once start a thread here about the placement of scent. That is, where you might actually smell it sometime without having to go tripping romantically through the garden. This is particularly an issue for winter scent, but the general idea can't hurt with summer scent as well.

Kevin alluded to this recently on a more current thread when he called his Hamamelises a name for not delaying their performance into months that spends time outside. Quite a valid complaint, but can be overcome by putting them beside the driveway or front door where he catches them coming and going.

I have an Edgeworthia planted along the main axis in the back yard so that even in winter (which is when it blooms), I catch the scent en route to the compost or garbage bin. Chimonthus praecox, beside the front door. My neighbour has considerately planted a Viburnum 'Dawn' beside my back steps as well. Even with all that, the scents catch you seldom; only under just the right conditions, but if you want to sniff (or cut and bring indoors) there is easy access.

Do fairies have pragmatic needs? Daily chores? If not, maybe they should...

Karin L

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 12:11PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

Scent is something that my clients often request and even if they do not specifically request it I feel it is an important value added element.

Late winter has arrived in my area of the country, a Mediterranean climate. The air is heavy with scents from plum blossoms, daphne, rosemary and especially acacia. Soon after the smells of wisteria , citrus and roses will perfume the air followed by lavender, wild fennel and sage.
Fall is a very aromic time of year for us who live in or near the wine region. It is a very specific mix of smells that range from old oak barrels to ripe musty fruit. It is an intoxicating smell that drives you to the nearest market for a bottle of wine, thick crusty bread and cellophane wrapped cheese.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 12:57PM
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I might be the only one who puts scent #1 on the list. If your travel around the outside of my house, beneath every window, you will find fragrance. Calycanthus 'Athens' and 'Michael Lindsey', all sorts of fragrant peonies, every cultivar of fragrant Viburnum farreri, Vxburkwoodii, V. carlesii, Magnolia x wieseneri(THEE #1 best smelling flower to me), Magnolia 'Daybreak', assorted fragrant azaleas, assorted fragrant iris, thyme, Magnolia grandiflora in containers, Clethra of all sorts, Leptodermis oblonga, and even the lemony seed pods of Dictamnus. Morning, noon, or night, you can breathe deeply and smell something wonderful the entire growing season. One of my favorite things is to wake up with birds singing and the scent of the Magnolia x weiseneri wafting into my second story window. I don't have a lick of design ability, but I want to breathe wonderful scents in my house and garden, and I plant accordingly.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 1:44PM
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I would like to pick up on the temporal or ephemeral qualities in design and although the hard or landscaping part may change ever so slowly we must assume to be talking about the garden or plant areas. It struck me that this may be part of the distinction yardvaark sees but that is another story. I have been unsuccessfully searching for a quote that suggests that it is precisely the ephemeral quality that gives love and flowers their frisson. Do we enjoy cherry blossom time all the more in the knowledge that it will soon be gone? Do we look forward to picking scented roses to bring indoors because amongst other things this marks time? Do we see the dried poppy seed pods as fecundity, death or part of a cycle?

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 2:30PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I like to include good scents in my designs as much as possible, and find that plants with fragrant foliage year round are an important component. Location is key; you get more impact if you have to brush against them or step upon them daily. I also have some favorite plants that aren't so pleasant, such as the highly useful drought tolerant South African ground cover which is virtually everblooming and highly deer and rabbit resistant, but when jostled or watered it smells like either skunk or sinsemilla, depending on your frame of reference. This tender perennial, Plectranthus neochilus, my clients either tend to have a love it or hate it relationship.

I think it is important to know how scent works in your climatic zone as well. I have quite a few intensely fragrant large flowering subtropical trees planted around my house just outside windows, yet seldom get to really experience the full depth of the scent. Things such as Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi', Pittosporum undulatum, Hymenosporum flavum, Clerodendrum philippinum, etc will often be only faintly fragrant if it's not warm enough for the scent to carry. An unfortunate fact to bear in my mind when designing along the west coast with summer cooling fogs and no need for air conditioning. Those fragrant trees only live up to their potential abundant scent potential on the warmest days/nights.

Other fragrant plants become the backbone of regional identity such as a California chaparral hillside hike, groves of citrus in bloom, a desert fullof of creosote bushes after the monsoon rains, walking through a blooming grove of almond trees in Greece or Spain, etc. Although I've also lived and worked for periods of time in tropical countries, large areas with a predominant fragrance don't seem nearly as common.

Fragrance and memory are definitely strongly linked and invaluable for helping to make any garden individually memorable for the clients. Its important to also remember that fragrance and perception vary tremendously for different individuals, they aren't consistent for everyone. Even though my own scent detection isn't as well developed as I'd like it to be, I find I prefer a fragrant plant or cultivar over a nonfragrant one when pushed to choose. It is also useful to remember that many pungent foliaged plants that may be pleasant to humans, use the scent as protection against predation by native herbivores. A very useful protection when selecting deer and rabbit resistant plants.

So far no one has mentioned any problems with clashing scents, or whether too many scents become a jumble in the garden. Or how scent in progression from faint to mild or some other progression between different types of fragrance might be intentionally sited within a garden to program the experience. Anyone design with scent in this fashion?

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 2:34PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

I'm in the scent as a secondary criteria group for the most part i.e. when choosing between cultivars or between two planting options, all else being equal, I choose the scented one. And scent definitely strongly evokes memories! There are several scented plants in the garden that are there because they remind me of a certain person, place or time in my life.

I haven't noted problems with clashing scents. It may be my garden's particular conditions, but I find most scents stay in a pretty limited area so don't often overlap much. Also, I find each part of the season has its dominant scent and the timing of their blooms don't overlap too much. I didn't deliberately plan for that, it just happened that way...

Ink - I agree re the ephemeral aspect being a large part of the charm and attraction of flowers - and foliage too. It's a good part of the reason why I only have enough evergreens to provide a steady background for the plants with the more fleeting show. Too many evergreens, to me, makes the garden feel static and dull. I like change so, while I enjoy each plant when it's doing its star turn, I'm already looking forward to whatever comes next. That's why winter is so boring - there's not enough change going on....

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 4:37PM
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natal(Louisiana 8b)

Scent doesn't play a critical role, but I do embrace it. Last fall I planted alyssum in the courtyard. Since we use that entrance the most it's easy to catch a whiff of the honey scent. Have star jasmine growing on the fence in the courtyard and further down just off the screened porch. In another month or so it'll start perfuming the air.

Sweet peas are planted along with jasmine near the screened porch. More jasmine and honeysuckle on the kitchen garden arbor which is just steps away from the porch.

The gardenias are also near the screened porch and the casement windows. Unfortunately, by the time they bloom we're heading into summer heat & humidity, so no open windows to catch that wonderful fragrance.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 4:48PM
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Two thoughts. Until you asked about clashing scents, I hadn't thought about this. Not clashing so much, but more like progression. Scent is one of the main reasons I like to amble through my garden, and Grace and Emma (next door neighbors, now 10 and 8) also want to "visit" the plants in my yard with scents and/or textures.

So, for instance, you might see something across the way, and, well, you've seen it. But scent, along with all those other cool tricks you designers can employ to intrigue and draw people along a path, draws you closer. I'm also realizing that I often go to check out whether something with fragrant blooms is in bud yet ... and how far along these are. It's about anticipation.

But ... here's a thing I know doesn't work as well for me as it is intended. You know those fragrance gardens they put in at the big botanical gardens? They usually turn out to be too much of a good thing. Side by side by side, all the scented pelargoniums ever captured from S Africa, and jasmine doing its thing by a rushing water fountain, and one fragrant rose after another. It is a great way to get some ideas for a possible new plant to try, but the experience is overwhelming and disorienting. And rather the opposite of what fragrance helps to do in my landscape. At home, scent helps to orient me. My guess is that it does this for others as well. In a familiar environment, we catch a whiff of something we know is in our landscape and at some level, we're thinking to ourselves, "Oh! The [blank] over there must be blooming ..."

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 6:12PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Not a designer myself, but fond of scent in the garden. Scents I will miss in the garden I am leaving behind -- those stinky narcissus that bloom very early and the sweet feral freesia; the green scents of the rosemary and the lavender; the intoxicating scent of lemon and orange blossoms, and the piercing fresh scent of the fruit as it is picked; the sweet honey smell of the trachelospermum jasminoides near the front door.

Some scents that will be with me yet: the unmistakable scent of the ocean, especially very early morning on a day when the waves are extra big; jasminum polyanthum, just now blooming on a nearby fence out front; the dusty and waxy whiff of overgrown hedera helix; the scent of heavy fog wetting concrete sidewalks.

At my Hawaii home, It was disappointing to discover plumeria will not thrive in the rainforest. Too wet. I make up for that by growing a Michelia alba tree which blooms almost continuously. It will be planted where the prevailing breeze will carry the scent into the house.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 7:57PM
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natal(Louisiana 8b)

piercing fresh scent of the fruit as it is picked

Got to experience that first hand last fall when we harvested our first dozen satsumas.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2012 at 8:30PM
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Thank you all for adding new plants to my wish list!
Not exactly clashing, but there is one scent that just covers and hides all others - that of mockorange. I've seen books that suggest planting this somewhere in the back corner of the yard, in case someone gets a headache from the scent.
Some other heavy smellers I've got are the birdcherry (old folks say you should never put these blossoms in your bedroom vase) and silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata) which smells like lilies to some and like cat pee to others.
Valerian is another one with a scent bordering on nasty - not to mention it's cat buffet for all the neighborhood!
Lilacs, on the other hand, I can never get enough of. I love how their scent blends with lily-of-the-valle, which blooms at the same time.
Some of the best scents in nature are difficult to bring into the garden: we would have to plant in masses that we don't have the space for, or the plant size itself is forbidding: I'd love to have a Siberian cedar but I'd have to remove a few other trees first, and if I really wanted to re-create the scent of happy childhood, I'd need to plant an entire field of yarrow, thyme, and artemisia!

    Bookmark   February 29, 2012 at 4:41AM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

To me, a garden design that doesn't factor in scent's value is missing some very simple ways to expand its dimensions into mood,'s such an individual thing though. I'm sure part of my love for yellow freesia's scent is because my grandmother grew them.
The scent of narcissus 'earlycheer' growing in the garden is lovely, but as soon as the flowers are picked, they start smelling more and more like a dirty nappy.
Different coloured roses have special scents: I'm not that mad about yellow as a colour, but yellow roses smell fantastic. Actually, maybe yellow flowers generally? 'Prince Albert' daffs, freesias, bearded iris, wintersweet...they're all very old-fashioned and that probably has a bit to do with it.
I think my favourite smell of all is lemon blossom, but the whole tree smells great. Pretty much every old house in NZ has an enormous lemon tree out the back.

    Bookmark   February 29, 2012 at 5:55AM
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daisychain01(zone 3)

The unexpected, but most welcome outcome of this thread has been such a long list of scented plants for the garden. I'm sure some of them will survive in my northern garden.

For a couple of years I was convinced a neighbourhood cat was using one corner of my garden for his litterbox. Eventually, I realized it was a certain daisy that grew there, but I still haven't yanked it out.

    Bookmark   February 29, 2012 at 6:58AM
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