It's about time to make that first exciting spring trip to the garden center. As you gaze at the dazzling displays, you may be thinking primarily about how things will look. But one of the great joys of gardening is that it fills all the senses, not just sight. A garden is one of the most alive places we can be, and every garden should partake at least a little of the sensual banquet.
Fragrance is probably the second aspect you might think to add to a garden. What could be more wonderful than the scent of hyacinths in spring, the heady odor of lilacs, the perfume of a rose or the pungent pleasures of marigolds?
There are many ways to bring fragrance to the garden. On a hot summer day, an edging of herbaceous lavender, rosemary or thyme will fill the air with a glorious bouquet. A hanging basket of sweet alyssum can greet you at your front door. Virginia sweetspire, summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), phlox "David," a planting of lilies such as Stargazer and Korean spice viburnum draw oohs and aahs when people first catch their scent.
Aromatic plants and the oils extracted from them have been used for ornament, medicine, food and religious rites throughout history. The Chinese as far back as 3000 B.C., and the Egyptians in 2700 B.C., expressed their appreciation of fragrant plants. In the Dark Ages, other than castles and walls, the landscape was almost devoid of garden design, yet monks continued to cultivate fragrant herb gardens for medicinal use. The English carried this passion for fragrant gardens into the 20th century, and much can be learned from them about designing the garden with a full complement of fragrances.
Several plants with fragrant foliage are heavenly to work with, easy to grow, and are ornamental in the garden, such as mints, thyme, basil and rosemary.
Golden mint works wonderfully as a perennial container planting, and Corsican mint is only half an inch high, with a strong peppermint fragrance. It will thrive in any cranny you might find in the garden - a rock wall, between patio steps or in a knothole.
Thyme comes in a wide array of "seasonings," including lemon, caraway, pine and nutmeg. There are more than 400 recognized species of thyme, and plants can be installed in spaces between walls, walks and patios.
Basil is highly valued as a culinary herb, and purple basil adds rich purple foliage to a perennial garden. The scent is strong and peppery. If you plant it where it can spill over onto a path, it will send a heady aroma up from your feet.
Rosemary is ideal to soften the sharp line of a wall, steps or patio. Lilac and rose perfume can fill the air and so work well planted by walkways and patios.
Don't forget the sense of touch. It's a pleasure to feel ferns brushing against your ankle as they spill over onto the path of a shady garden. Some plants just beg to be touched. The silvery, furry foliage of lambs-ear tempts me to reach down and pet the soft, downy leaves every time I see this plant. The ferny foliage of the Cutleaf Japanese maple, with its frilly leaves, can be feathery to the touch.
Sound is usually noticed when it's an unpleasant noise you want to screen, such as a busy road, a playground or the neighbor's yappy dogs. But adding sound and training your ears to hear nature will bring a new dimension to a garden. For example, engineering a small bubble fountain or other water feature can mentally take you to an Italian piazza, or it can create a quiet meditation zone where the sound of water becomes your mantra.
Sound adds a sophisticated touch to landscaping. Water is possibly the most popular method, but there are others. For example, with the slightest breeze, the thick evergreen leaves of long stalk holly make a rustling sound year round. Another "instrument" you may use is wind chimes; they're available in a wide range of materials and prices, including wood, ceramic, glass and metal. Among my favorites are stainless steel, which make pipe organ sounds when the wind blows, and hollow wooden blocks, which rattle like branches.
Birds, insects and frogs will create their own symphony in the garden. Take care to provide a habitat they like, with their favorite foods. Offer water and shelter.
Taste is another magical element in a garden. Some gardeners are interested in planting only materials they can eat, or use to season food, and they are generally eager to share the results with anyone kind enough to admire their handiwork.
Originally, the term "gardening" referred chiefly to cultivating edible plants. Were it not for herbal remedies and potions, those medieval monks would probably never have carried the practice of cultivating plants into modern western culture.
"Taste" plants need not be confined to an area behind the garage - most are beautiful in their own right. You can use tomato vines to grace a walk. You can train pole beans or peas onto a trellis to create privacy around a porch in summer. Strawberries make a great edible ground cover. Grow dill to soften a bare wall and cucumbers to cover the fence. Blueberry and currant bushes blend well with ornamental shrubs. In the natural landscape, raspberries and blackberries fit beautifully.
And you should never lose sight of sight. Colors and textures can sculpt your garden to direct and even beguile the eye. For example, red, yellow and orange flowers appear to advance toward the viewer and are quite noticeable. Subtler shades, blues and lavenders, seem to recede, and can add coolness and a sense of distance.
You can also use plants with colorful or variegated (striped, margined or mottled) foliage for extra visual impact. The low-growing (18 to 24 inches) emerald and gold euonymus, with its gold and green leaves, is an example. The silver and gold red osier dogwood shrub grows to about five feet and offers white variegated foliage and yellow stems in winter. Japanese maples have been bred for foliage or stem color, which vary from pale green to coral and deep red. The leaves can be red, maroon, pink or green with many shades and styles of variegations in texture.
Engaging all the senses is what gives a garden its own personality. Design your space to look, sound, feel, smell and taste wonderful to the people who are experiencing it, and you will truly find a feast of nature.