Growing Wild: Gardening as a sensory experience

  • Jen Smith at Amherst College, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 1/16/2020 1:53:39 PM

Gardening is in part so deeply satisfying because it has the ability to stoke all of the senses, but none more profoundly than our sense of smell. Fragrance in the garden has the power to unearth old memories and to etch new ones, to connect us deeply to our own cycles of life on earth. For me, the smell of wisteria instantly brings me back to the library parking lot of my childhood, and while I am happily rooted in the present, there is a thrill in being whisked instantly and briefly into the feeling of being a child. Right now the smell of paperwhites fills my home; forcing these bulbs indoors every winter is a ritual that I have been doing now since I was young. The gardens that I build now incorporate elements of all of the places I have passed through, and scent is one of the most elemental ways in which this connection is made.

The place that probably has had the most influence on my own gardening style is a small five-acre, hand-tilled organic garden in California called Camp Joy Gardens. For one dreamy year in my early 20s, I lived and worked at Camp Joy, growing vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers, and tending bees and milking a small herd of goats.

Camp Joy is nestled in a redwood grove in the Santa Cruz mountains, about 20 minutes up a windy, redwood-lined road from town. The garden was and is still run by Jim Nelson, who studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz under the British master gardener Alan Chadwick in the 1960s. One of the things that has made Camp Joy stick in my imagination so firmly is the deeply cultivated wildness of the place, which is framed and preserved for me in my memory of the fragrance of different plants and different seasons there.

The four main sections of the garden were separated by walkways lined with fruit trees and intersecting at wooden arbors absolutely overgrown with climbing roses. In the summer, when the roses were in bloom, standing under the arbor was a full sensory experience; the overgrown shrubs created a small room, and the heady fragrance floated down while the hum of the bees flying flower to flower filled the air. In the early spring, the apple, pear and peach trees filled the air with their perfume, followed closely by sweet peas, which we grew up string trellises and harvested early in the morning. Phlox and alyssum studded the garden beds, and we all bounded out of the kitchen to smell the chocolate cosmos when it bloomed. I lived in a tiny one-room apartment with a woodstove in the back of the honey barn, and during honey processing season, I could smell the warm beeswax and honey from my room.

Now in my garden in New England, I strive for some of this wild abundance of sensory stimulation that I first found in California. In the garden in the spring, lilacs are one of the most heavenly signs that the new season has arrived. Many fruit trees — apples, crabapples, peaches, cherries — also provide a few short-lived days of immersive, perfumey joy. For spring-flowering bulbs, hyacinths, muscari and some daffodil varieties (particularly the jonquils) all have a magical scent, especially when planted in abundance. The previous owner of my house planted clusters of fragrant daffodils throughout the wooded and shrubby border of the yard, and they are a delight to seek out and discover growing in such an unlikely place, their fragrance a surprise that brightens up the whole room when the flowers are cut and brought inside.

Another late spring blooming vine that I love is wisteria frutescens, or the American wisteria. Native to eastern North America, this climbing vine is slightly less fragrant than the sometimes more commonly grown Chinese wisteria, but it is also less aggressive in growth habit and less likely to become invasive. The vine is slow-growing but hearty with its purple clusters of wisteria flowers.

In the cultivated garden, I still love to grow sweet peas, especially the old-fashioned varieties which are the most fragrant. I plant their seeds early in the spring, directly into the soil; they can also be started four to five weeks before the last frost, and then transplanted. Sweet peas grow best on a trellis as they like to climb and generally bloom in the late spring and early summer.

Other fragrant garden favorites are phlox, peonies, lavender and the inelegantly named but incredibly perfumed stock, also known as Matthiola incana. Stock grows best in cooler weather so is best planted in early spring or mid-summer for spring or fall blooms. It is a classic cottage garden flower, and its blooms have a sweet and spicy clove-like fragrance unlike anything else.

These are just a few of my personal favorite fragrant garden plants; there are of course many, many more including an abundance of native plants that grow well in our region and often have the added benefit of offering food for native pollinators and habitat for birds, insects and other animals. I would love to hear what your own favorite fragrant garden plants are, whether in the perennial border, in the cultivated garden or otherwise interspersed in the landscape that you tend. As we find ourselves in garden-planning season, thinking of the growing season to come, I encourage you to consider the dimension of fragrance in your garden, whether to provoke your own memory or to help create a new one.


Gardening For Climate Change

Thursday, Jan. 23, 6-8 p.m.

Nasami Farm, Whately

Pre-registration required, $30 for members; $36 for non-members.

As part of the Native Plant Trust’s ongoing series of excellent classes and workshops, this Thursday evening class led by propagator and facilities coordinator Alexis Doshas will address the ways that climate change might affect our gardens and local ecology and ways that we as stewards of our yards, gardens, forests and farms can begin to shift our practices in response.

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