Round Robin: Mismatched Fragrance Garden

Notes from regional herb gardeners.

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LANSING, New York— Last summer’s new fragrance garden was an olfactory success but a visual failure—no coherence, no harmony. Big, gangly plants leaned over squat little hummocks; extravagantly tall, irrelevant-looking specimens of Nicotiana sylvestris (which really should be grouped against a dark background) hung their long white tubular blossoms disconsolately over nepetas, petunias and lavenders, with which they seemed to have nothing in common ­except their sweet scent. Obviously, this fragrance garden project isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

I am fast approaching my perennial state of gardener’s limbo, a state of boredom heightened by the incessant rainy, cold weather and my eagerness to get out into garden to start the whole cycle over again.

I’ve been giving it serious thought. I’ve asked myself, How about more lavender and dianthus massed against more roses? Certainly there must be more roses: two ‘Stanwell Perpetuals’, another delicious ‘Reine des Violettes’, and two ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ in the far corners, even though they will have to be cut back regularly. Their scent is light and lovely, they bloom all summer and into November, and they never have to be sprayed.

The problem is finding fragrant, preferably old-fashioned, roses that bloom all summer. I’m on the track of one that I saw in a friend’s garden—semidouble, dark pink and heavenly sweet. She thinks it is called ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.

Another problem I’ve had is that I didn’t have the heart to dig out all the brilliant orange and flame-colored Asiatic and tiger lilies and the trumpet vines that are left over from the hot-color garden. I’d had the trumpet vines for four or five years before they decided to bloom; then they made up for lost time and were the delight of both the hummingbirds and me. How could I deprive the birds of such a treat?

For twenty years or so, I’d been trying to grow lilies in the long border and had never succeeded. In the hot-color garden, however, they throve and multiplied. The thought of evicting them was too painful—after all, they are fragrant. But when they exploded into bursts of flamboyant color behind the cool grays, mauves, and pinks of their new neighbors, they looked as if they’d come to the wrong party. As for the trumpet vines, perhaps I’ll plant honeysuckle beside them and let those two determined survivors make the decision for me.

Elisabeth Sheldon is a garden writer and l­ecturer in Lansing, New York. She is the author of The Flamboyant Garden (Henry Holt and Company 1993).