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Green Acre #51: Scents of a Garden

wisteria in full bloom

Wisteria galloping across a roofline. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THE HOUSE SMELLS  delirious. Flowers blend into a Jo Malone concoction: rosemary, lavender, wisteria, geranium, with a faint underwhiff of dirt filtering through the open windows, filling the house with fragrance. A hint of dirt is a thing, you know, in your costlier, more complex, fragrances.

I’m a little surprised at this pungent kaleidoscope, as the day is chill and damp, not the humid warmth I expect we need to cajole such a lavish bouquet.

The rosemary is doing well in the upper window boxes; there are three across the front of the house. I planted it with some hesitation, late last summer, when my latest notion for a permanent centerpiece had flopped, as usual. While rosemary survives in our gardens, remaining green through the winter, always a plus, the shallower depth of window boxes presents a challenge when the temperature dips below freezing for a stretch. And rosemary can be overpowering, perhaps too much so for a bedroom window.

Don Juan climbing rose and mock orange blossoms

Don Juan climbing rose and mock orange blossoms create a natural bouquet. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Now pushing two feet tall—really making a statement up there—they turned out to be surprisingly mild, and handy for a stew or two. So I was planning to add a few more to the lower boxes this spring but, as these things happen, while poking about a garden center on Sunday, the Prince and I were gob smacked by a French lavender of particular allure. Rather costly, I thought, at $9 for the pot. But it was large enough to split, which I did, whacking the hard root in two. It’s doing quite nicely.

I’ve gotten surprisingly good at dividing and propagating, but that’s a story for another week.

We also bought sweet potato vines for the box fronts, lovely acid green ruffles that cascade over the boxes and drop, reaching the tops of the lower windows by August. These obscure the fact that some of the geraniums, so cheerfully pink, are fake. This is, as I’ve said at least once before, a neat trick, a floral trompe l’oeil that delights the eye—but only if done subtly, just a few frilly pops of artifice mixed into an honest display of flowers and greens.

So the fragrant lavender floats up to billow around the rosemary, a delightful pairing, and mingles with our neighbor’s wisteria, a massive thing that drifts along her roofline in a flotilla of purple blossoms so voluminous it could threaten North Korea. Hers is the right sort of wisteria (Japanese), as opposed to our wrong sort (Chinese), which howls at us from the depths of the garden, throwing off a meager scentless bloom or two each year—hidden within mountainous foliage. If you’re going to put up with this malicious, highly invasive monster that strangles anything in its path, it should at least bring a sweet-smelling spring flower show. You’ve been warned.

Threading it all together is the absolutely intoxicating scent of the mock orange that blooms beside the pond. I’ve snipped sprigs and branches for vases, scattered about the house, so I can stop here and there and close my eyes and drift.

It all clips by so fast, these April scents. But soon the Don Juan rose that clambers up the back porch railings will be in blood-red bloom, and the honeysuckle that smothers the back fence will add its syrupy note. I don’t like to go anywhere for long this time of year; sitting still and sniffing is such pleasure.

If you’d like to explore scented gardens, the Prince bought me a delicious little book several years ago: Fragrant Designs, from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. There are plants perfect for evening, for the yard and for containers; the needs of each, and growing tips. The reading is almost as tasty as the sniffing.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh
 To read previous columns of our unstoppable urban gardener, search for Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the screen.

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