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Small city garden ideas: the best scented flowers, climbers and plants

Here’s what to make room for in even the smallest of urban gardens. 

Subtle scents: Lavender Hidcote on garden designer Jonathan Snow's roof terrace
Subtle scents: Lavender Hidcote on garden designer Jonathan Snow's roof terrace / Jonathan Snow
By
01 February 2021
C

ity gardeners might have few advantages over their rural counterparts but when it comes to fragrance we have something to crow about.

“The smaller your space, the closer to your scented plants you will be, and the more enclosed it is, the more intense their fragrance,” waxes John Brookes in his classic book Small Garden: Brilliant Ideas for Small Spaces. “There is nothing quite as alluring and luxurious as scent.”

In the city’s sheltered basements and courtyards, fragrances will linger longer. There are few breezes to waft them away and wherever you stand in the garden, chances are you will be close to them. Pots and climbers are a great place to start.

Whatever your outside space is like, you’ll have room for a scented climber.

Evergreen star jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides) is a London favourite yet in her book Scented Magic: Notes from a Garden (Pimpernel Press), Isabel Bannerman says she would choose Chinese jasmine (jasminum polyanthum) over it every time.

It has an even more delicious scent, she says, and London’s microclimate should nudge it through winter outside with no trouble. Order it from crocus.co.uk for £17.99.

Tip: for a heady fragrance and “ugly-wall covering ability” nothing beats honeysuckle (Pixabay ) / Pixabay

If you have a shady wall nothing else grows on, try honeysuckle Serotina. No other honeysuckle beats it for scent.

Clematis montana and jasminum officinale will romp over an unsightly garden fence and both smell divine. Bedroom windows can open on to roses such as Paul’s Himalayan Musk and Étoile de Hollande (classicroses.co.uk, £16.45).

If you have room for just one shrub, make it mock orange (philadelphus). It will fill your garden with the exquisite whiff of orange blossom. Go for the compact variety Manteau d’Hermine (sarahraven.com, £18.50) if space is tight.

Fill your pots with scent, too. Place them on the top of low walls, at the side of doorways or paths and around terraces, for maximum benefit.

Both Isabel Bannerman and plantswoman Sarah Raven rave about the scent of matthiola incana Pillow Talk, so I’ll be ordering a plug plant online to grow in a pot by the front door (9cm plant, £4.95, sarahraven.com).

There’s still time this year to plant a few lily bulbs (lilium regale) in large terracotta pots.

Place them around your seating area and, by summer they’ll waft spicy, exotic scents as you eat your supper outside.

Magical: matthiola incana Pillow Talk / Isabel Bannerman

Bannerman’s favourite is fiery orange African Queen — get a pack of nine for £13.98 from jparkers.co.uk and plant them three to a pot.

Most of us can fit a tepee of potted sweetpeas either side of the back door and now’s a good time to sow them.

If anyone has invented a nicer way to cope with winter’s gloom than sowing sweetpea seeds in a warm kitchen when it’s raining outside, we need to know it.

Sarah Raven’s Ultimate Sweetpea Collection is a winner, combining six highly scented varieties (six packets of seed, £11.95 or, if you wait till March, 24 seedlings ready to pop straight out at £29.95; sarahraven.com).

While some plants release their fragrance all by themselves, those that hold their scent in the leaves benefit from a helpful squeeze.

Sometimes these are the most incredible fragrances of all and, unlike flowers, they last year round.

The fragrant leaf sages are simply brilliant for sunny pots. Blackcurrant sage (salvia microphylla) has little dark pink flowers which can last right through winter, but the real draw is its leaves which smell like warm Ribena.

Every sheltered courtyard should have at least one at arm’s reach from a comfortable chair (£5.99 at hooksgreenherbs.com).

Plant rosemary, sage, marjoram and thyme at easy reach so you can grab a handful as you walk round the garden. Lavender is best near a path where you can brush against the aromatic foliage.

Lemon verbena will march through London’s winters and the squeezed leaves smell like lemon sherbet — steep a few in boiling water for the best-ever herbal tea.

Rub the leaves of pelargonium Attar of Roses and the scent of Turkish Delight fills the air. Do the same with pelargonium tomentosum and it’s fresh peppermint.

Grow scented leaf pelargoniums in terracotta pots outside in summer and bring them into the house over winter; they’ll remind you that winter won’t last forever.