Scents and Sensibility: The Aromatherapy Garden

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Stopping to smell the roses — or gardenias or basil or chamomile — seems like an almost impossible feat when phones are pinging, dogs are barking and there’s a hurricane of activity in the morning to get everyone out the door with matching shoes. However, unplugging from the hectic pace of daily life is essential for mental well-being.

How can you do this? One way is to create a fragrant, therapeutic space to calm down, get focused and boost your mood. Fragrances have the power to modify our brain and frame of mind. Inhaling their scents is a powerful form of natural therapy. Here are a few of the ways the fragrances in your garden can turn your home into a perfumed, restorative haven.

Contemporary Landscape by Chris Snook

Chris Snook

by Sunset Western Garden Collection

Sunset Western Garden Collection

Calm and Stress Relief

Taking a deep breath and spending time outdoors are inherently calming activities, linked to mindfulness and lowered blood pressure. Adding fragrance can further boost the health benefits and enjoyment of being outside.

Calming scents help our bodies deal with stress and depression. Inhaling the fragrance from gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), pictured, can soothe, relieve anxiety and promote sleep, according to research led by Dr. Hanns Hatt, who is on the biology and biotechnology faculty at Ruhr University in Germany. Hatt showed that the fragrances acted as strongly as sedatives, sleeping pills and relaxants, and concludes: “The results can also be seen as evidence of a scientific basis for aromatherapy.”

In addition to gardenia, other plants, such as German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.), rose (Rosa spp.) and sweet flag (Acorus spp.) can modulate a brain chemical called GABA, thus encouraging relaxation and sleep.

Include these plants in your garden or home to create a scented oasis of calm and well-being:

  • Chamomile
  • Clove
  • Fennel
  • Gardenia
  • Lavender
  • Lemon, orange blossom and other citrus scents
  • Lemongrass
  • Marjoram
  • Rose
  • Spikenard
  • Sweet flag
  • Valerian

Farmhouse Landscape by Philippe DUBREUIL Jardiniste

Philippe DUBREUIL Jardiniste

Placing fragrant roses near doorways and windows creates a relaxing ambience. This French farmhouse has a beautiful climbing rose with a fragrance visitors inhale as they enter the garden door.

See more of this dreamy French estate

Contemporary Landscape by WA Design Architects

WA Design Architects

Planting lavender and citrus near walkways allows you to enjoy their calming fragrance as you walk by. Both thrive in full sun, which makes them a great pair for the garden. Lavender releases its oils as you brush the leaves and flowers. Because it does well in containers, citrus is a great aromatic choice for apartment dwellers or homes with small outdoor spaces.

How to Grow Lavender

Traditional Landscape by Amy Renea

Amy Renea

Lemon balm is a favorite of my friend Janine Crum, an essential oils specialist. She says that essential oils are more potent medicinally, but fragrances still affect us emotionally. She especially enjoys the scent of lemon balm — which, she says, relaxes, soothes and calms her senses.

Here, lemon balm leaves are being dried. As with most fragrant plants, drying the flowers or leaves concentrates the oils so that they can be used later as sachets or perfume for your home.

Modern Landscape by CplusC Architectural Workshop

CplusC Architectural Workshop

Mental Clarity and Memory

Scents can also help boost concentration and memory. In a research article released in September in Flavour and Fragrance Journal, researchers at Toho University in Tokyo found that a compound in thyme had an anti-fatigue effect on the brains of mice. Although it’s not as potent as a cup of coffee, a few whiffs of the scent can be enjoyed without the jitters of caffeine.

Aromatherapy studies have also found that uplifting fragrances appear to stimulate the brain’s beta waves that focus mental activity, awareness and alertness. They reduce stress and slow breathing by blocking stress-related nerve responses.

Modern Landscape by Living Green Design

Living Green Design

For fragrances that help clear your mind and help you focus, consider planting:

  • Basil
  • Clove
  • Jasmine
  • Lemon balm
  • Lemongrass
  • Patchouli
  • Peppermint
  • Sage
  • Thyme

Modern Patio by Future Green Studio

Future Green Studio

Elevating fragrant plants on wall gardens, raised beds or shelves brings them closer to nose level, which allows their therapeutic scent to be fully enjoyed. It also makes it easier for gardeners who may have difficulty reaching plants if bending or mobility is an issue.

This vegetable garden by Future Green Studio is cleverly interspersed with invigorating culinary herbs such as basil, rosemary, sage and thyme, which create a delicious cloud of scent above guests in this seating area.

Contemporary Landscape by Randy Thueme Design Inc. - Landscape Architecture

Randy Thueme Design Inc. – Landscape Architecture

Fragrant plants can also be tucked into tiny spaces. If you have limited garden space, try growing fragrant plants in the small spaces of your garden, such as in the crevices of a path.

Randy Thueme’s walkway is elegantly designed with invigorating mint, thyme and soothing chamomile as ground cover between large flagstones. The herbs softly contrast the warm stone pavers while gently releasing their fragrance when they are walked upon.

What You Need to Know About Installing a Walkway of Pavers and Pebbles

Contemporary Landscape by Chris Snook

Chris Snook

Mood Boosting and Anti-Depressants

The right fragrance can also create an uplifting and energizing feeling as an antidote to sadness or lethargy. It’s why a fragrant bouquet of flowers is a comfort to a friend recovering in the hospital, as well as being a cheerful addition to a room. Dr. Jeannette Haviland-Jones, professor emeritus of social psychology at Rutgers University, has studied the effect of flowers, and says there is an immediate positive effect on our emotional well-being with the ability to trigger satisfaction, happiness and connectedness with others. It also helps reduce the effects of depression and anxiety.

Farmhouse Landscape by Floret


In her article “An Environmental Approach to Positive Emotion: Flowers,” Haviland-Jones writes: “Flowers have immediate and long-term effects on emotional reactions, mood, social behaviors and even memory for both males and females.”

She notes that fragrant flowers such as these can be powerful mood boosters:

  • Bitter orange
  • Freesia
  • Heliotrope
  • Peony
  • Rose
  • Sweet pea (choose heirloom varieties, which have a more potent fragrance)

For an easy climbing rose, try Sally Holmes

Farmhouse  by Floret


Fragrant sweet peas have an intoxicating perfume that can lift spirits. These sweet peas create a tunnel of perfume in this garden. Cutting sweet pea flowers allows you to enjoy their fragrance inside your home and encourages the plant to create more flowers throughout the season.

Modern Landscape by Living Green Design

Living Green Design

A vertical herb wall on the rooftop of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco is a sunny, fragrant getaway. The garden was designed by Living Green Design. Flowers like rose geranium and lavender were chosen specifically for their floral aromas that can be infused into cocktails for the bartenders of Anchor Distilling Co.

Traditional Landscape by Studio William Hefner

Studio William Hefner

We all need a sanctuary, a place to restore and rejuvenate, grow and be healed. By adding fragrance to our outdoor spaces, we create true aromatherapy right in our own backyards. The same potent scents are used in scented candles and expensive perfumes. Fragrance is a natural way of resetting our moods and mindsets, and helps us to turn our homes into a restorative haven.