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GARDENING : For a Scentsible Addition, Let Your Nose Be Your Guide

March 27, 1993|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hand a person a flower and usually the first response is to sniff it appreciatively for fragrance. But surprisingly, the quest for fragrance in a garden is not top of the list of priorities of many garden hobbyists.

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"Most of my clients request color in their gardens before they ask for fragrant plants," says landscape architect Shirley Kerins of Huntington Beach. "But when I point out it's possible to include both fragrance and color in the design, they usually say to go ahead."

When Kerins designs gardens, she is careful to plan for year-round fragrance by selecting plants according to their bloom season as well as considering their forms and functions in the garden.

In planning a fragrant garden, she suggests to first think about the garden's structure. Tall shrubs or trees belong in the back of the border. Vines like honeysuckle or jasmine can be planted along fences or trellises and flowering plants can be tucked into borders and planter areas.

Time of day can dictate fragrance. Some flowers only emit their scent in the evenings, while others are fragrant during their entire bloom cycle.

Fragrance is delightful to humans, but that's not why plants produce it. Plants emit fragrance in their quest for reproduction: it attracts insects so they'll pollinate the flowers. That's why so often white flowers produce the strongest fragrances since they lack insect-attracting pigments.

Like any sensual experience, fragrance is very subjective. One person can bury a nose in a rose or other flower, inhale deeply and sigh in great appreciation at the flower's perfume, while an onlooker may sniff in bewilderment and wonder what the fuss is about. What smells delightful to one person can even be offensive to another.

Janette Mestre, landscape architect and owner of Mestre Design Group in Newport Beach, says most of her clients specifically ask that their gardens not be heavily perfumed.

"People ask me to include aromatic plants with herb-like scents instead of the heavily perfumed plants like jasmine or hyacinths," she said. "I think too many people have experienced the almost nauseating effect of mass plantings of jasmine and don't want to repeat that in their own gardens."

Mestre designs many gardens with low water usage plants, and points out you can save water and still enjoy aromatic plants. She accomplishes this by using such plants as rockrose, thyme, lavender, salvia, sagebrush and citrus.

People with hard clay soil where citrus trees won't flourish can still enjoy their scent and fruits by including dwarf citrus in containers in their landscapes. In gardens with the fast draining soil that citrus prefer, Kerins suggests enhancing their fragrant offering by under-planting them with freesia, which will naturalize if left undisturbed. These South African flowers are highly aromatic, especially the white varieties, and bloom in spring and summer.

Mestre recommends using heavily fragrant plants like narcissus, hyacinths and stock in containers.

"A few containers of these heavily perfumed flowers strategically placed in the garden can produce enough perfume to delight the nose without overwhelming the sinuses," she said.

Mestre points out that people can make the mistake of including several varieties of powerfully fragrant plants blooming at the same time. The result is the war of the noses instead of the sweet scent of a successful garden design.

You can avoid this by selecting fragrant plants with different bloom times, different potencies, and careful placement in the landscape.

In addition to the popularly fragrant plants like sweet peas, pinks (dianthus), roses and the like, consider adding some lesser-known plants.

Sweet acacia (Acacia farnesiana) is a yellow, winter-blooming tree that does very well in this area. It grows to 20 feet, so is in scale to the typical residential garden.

The adventurous gardener who likes to find unusual plants may want to plant Aloysia virgata, a rare, highly fragrant shrub that can grow into a small tree. It blooms May through November, and Kerins describes the fragrance as similar to grape Kool-Aid. Although it produces panicles of small white flowers that aren't very showy, the fragrance earns its place in a garden.

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Heliotrope is an almost forgotten once-favorite that blooms almost year-round. White heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens 'album') was very popular in Southern California gardens in the early 1900s.

Buddleia emits a delightful fragrance and also attracts butterflies. This tall shrub can reach 12 to 15 feet.

Gardenias have been a source of both fragrance and frustration since they can be very temperamental plants with fussy water and soil requirements. But last year a new variety, First Love, was introduced by Monrovia Nurseries.

"This is a nice plant," reports Phil Miller of Rogers Gardens. "It's an upright grower and is more tolerant than other gardenia varieties of less than perfect growing conditions."

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