Blame it on my Mediterranean origins, but to me a garden, to be a garden, has to smell good, and it has to smell strong. Wild marjoram, lavender, rosemary--the hardy, humble-looking plants that cling to the rocky hillsides above the sea and give off their pungent resins in the heat of the sun are the very essence of "garden" to me.
There is nothing like an arid climate to concentrate smell and flavor. In the relatively water-logged eastern U.S., plant life is more visually flamboyant, but pales in the smell department. And that's o.k. with me. I don't envy Mediterranean gardeners their need to water constantly. And at this time of year, a walk through my own slapdash garden makes me feel olfactorily satisfied.
Take the peonies, for example, which are at their peak right now. The previous owners of our house had planted them in a shady spot. Although they bloomed well, they had no smell, and I assumed they belonged to an unscented variety, possibly developed to avoid attracting ants. But I like the look of peony plants, even after the blooms have gone, and when I had to fill some space in a sunny flower bed, I transplanted those bushes. In this, their first spring in the new spot, not only are they loaded with blooms, but they have developed that divine peony scent. All they needed was a little sun.
In the back garden, the mints--apple, spear, orange, and melissa--are knee- and chest-high. I have to step on them to get to the water spigot, and the dogs are forever crushing them in their pursuit of the chipmunk who lives under the stone steps. But the mints forgive these maulings, caress us with their lovely cool smell, and keep on going. Thanks to them, there are no weeds (or much of anything else) in the back garden.
The chamomile has colonized the spaces between the slate slabs of the patio. At noon, when the sun heats up the stone, the chamomile oils from the hundreds of little daisy-like blooms float up to your nose. On either side of the back door, a bush of ornamental sage gives off its curious musky smell. I can't decide whether it's a good smell or not, but I pay attention to it every time I go by. Next to the sage is the huge semi-wild rose bush that I rescued from the edge of the woods and that rewards me with sweetly-scented pink blooms all summer long.
I planted two climbing roses and one rugosa rose against the wall of the chicken shed a month ago, and the rugosa--barely eighteen inches tall--is already covered in blooms. It's a Blanc Double de Coubert, and its flowers--the same morbid white of Southern magnolias--smell spicy. The two New Dawn climbers are also in their infancy, and also covered in buds. I like plants that try to earn their keep.
Finally, sheltered by the stone wall at the side of the driveway, my dozen lavender bushes have survived the winter and are coming into bloom. I'm not sure there's anything better than lavender for generosity and persistence. Pick it and not only do you have a basket full of scent, but the oils will linger on your hands for the rest of the day. Hang it in bunches to dry and it will perfume a room. Put it in your dresser drawers or in what the English so quaintly call the "airing cupboard," or stuff your eye pillow with it, and it will comfort and refresh you every day of the year.