Now is the perfect time to plant cool-season bedding plants that will brighten our landscapes over the next five or six months.
Gardeners often overlook the fact that some cool-season bedding plants are wonderfully fragrant. Color always seems to be the dominate factor when selecting these plants, and providing color to the landscape really is their primary function. But it is so enjoyable to walk out on a mild winter or spring day and catch the honey fragrance of sweet alyssum drifting in the air.
Fragrant, cool-season annuals should be planted where they can best be appreciated. Concentrate these plants at commonly used entrances to your house –whether it’s the front door, side door, back door or all three. In such a location, you, your family and your guests all will be able to appreciate the sweet scent of these plants whenever leaving or arriving at your home.
Another ideal location is around your patio, deck or outdoor living area. On many days, mild weather will allow you to spend time sitting on the patio, and the sweet smell of fragrant flowers can make it that much nicer. Adding fragrant bedding plants in the immediate area of entrances and outdoor living areas – either in beds, containers or even in hanging baskets (no bending over to smell the flowers) –immeasurably enhances our enjoyment of those spaces.
One of the most outstanding fragrant cool-season annuals is stock (Matthiola). These plants produce spikes of double (or occasionally single) flowers in shades of magenta, rose, purple, pink and white from a basal rosette of green or silvery leaves. The fragrance is very intense. Depending on the variety, stock can range in height from 10 to 30 inches. The shorter types, such as Cinderella or Midget, are excellent for bedding or containers, while the taller types are exceptional for cutting.
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is useful in the cool-season garden for its low-spreading growth habit. It is excellent when used in the front of flower beds as an edging. And planted on the edges of raised planters, containers and hanging baskets, it will cascade beautifully over the sides. Sweet alyssum literally covers itself with small flowers in shades of white, pink, rose, lavender or purple. The pleasant fragrance is reminiscent of honey and permeates the air, especially on warm days in enclosed spaces.
Dianthus, or pinks, produces a sweet, spicy fragrance often compared to cloves. Fragrance is highly variable among different types, so smell the flowers at the nursery and look for at least a light scent. The common bedding dianthus are generally varieties of Dianthus chinensis, and many are fragrant. Telstar produces a light scent and is the best performer. Varieties of Dianthus plumarius – such as Sonata with its double carnation-like flowers or Loveliness, which produces single flowers with lacy fringed petals – are especially fragrant. Both produce longer stems that make them useful as cut flowers.
Nicotiana is related to tobacco and is commonly called flowering tobacco. It produces a rosette of hairy, medium green leaves with taller stems loosely adorned with flaring five-petaled bells. As in the dianthus, fragrance varies from one type to another. Some types of hybrid nicotiana, such as the Sensation strain, have a sweet fragrance.
Finally, you simply could not have a fragrant cool-season flower garden without sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus). This vining annual produces the most outstanding fragrance of all, and it just wouldn’t be spring without them.
The flowers are good for cutting, come in an astounding array of colors and are as beautiful as they are fragrant. Seeds should be planted now in well-prepared soil in a location that receives some shade in the afternoon. Of course, you will need to provide something for them to climb on. If temperatures in the low 20s or teens threaten, cover them if possible. Flowering generally begins in March, with the peak occurring in April and ending with the heat of May
Of course, many other cool-season annuals can be planted into the garden now. Check local nurseries and garden centers for transplants or seeds of the following: alyssum, annual baby’s breath, annual candytuft, annual phlox, bachelor’s button, calendula, Dahlberg daisy, delphinium, dusty miller, English daisy, forget-me-not, geranium, hollyhock, larkspur, nasturtium, nemophila, ornamental cabbage and kale, pansy, petunia, poppies, snapdragon, statice, stock, toadflax, viola.
Although many cool-season bedding plants prefer part sun to full sun (about six to eight hours of direct sun), the following will do well in or prefer shade to part shade (about two to four hours of direct sun): alyssum, cyclamen, forget-me-not, lobelia, nasturtium, pansy, primrose, viola.
Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter. He can be reached at DGill@agcenter.lsu.edu