If you’re new to gardening in the south I’ve got two bits of good news for you. One, we can play in the garden year-round here. And Two, we can have fragrant flowers year-round as well. That second item matters a lot to me because I am biased about a lot of things when it comes to gardening and fragrance is one of them. When I approach an unfamiliar flower and find it has no fragrance, I have about the same reaction as if I’d taken a bite of steak with no flavor. There’s sustenance, but no excitement.
The aromas we find appealing bring us one of the joyful mysteries of life. The autumn scent of a sasanqua camellia can bring some people back to their childhood in grandma’s garden. The bracing citrus smell of a first-breath-of-spring (Lonicera fragrantissima) or a Daphne odora in January or February as I come home from a hard day’s work can revive me and keep me outdoors enjoying the garden past sunset.
On early spring trips south, highway 95 runs through a pergola of Carolina jessamine vines climbing the pines. They flash their bright yellow flowers and invite you to roll your window down just a crack so you can soak up the southern version of jasmine (being southern explains that extra syllable in the name).
If your budget is tight and you must have the most cost-effective fragrant flower, I would recommend a fragrant tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) that blooms twice a year—a couple of months in fall and a couple of months in spring. In fact, I’ve known winters here that were so mild that my tea olive bloomed for more than 6 months straight. It doesn’t hurt that the tea olive is a drought-hardy evergreen that can take full sun and deep shade. As long as its feet aren’t wet you’ll enjoy the tea-scent twice a year for decades.
My wife and a number of friends are from New England. So I frequently hear their lament that most garden center workers insist you can’t grow old-fashioned lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) here. Instead they steer you to a Korean lilac, that yes, grows well here, but it has a fragrance that will disappoint anyone who’s passed a hedge of flowering lilacs in the northeast. So please inform the next person who insists old-time lilacs won’t grow and flower well here, that they are mistaken. You simply must treat them like the Mediterranean guest that they are and they will be happy as any azalea in a pine grove.
Plant your old-fashioned lilac in afternoon shade, on ground that is well-drained. That could mean either a slope or a raised bed or in soil beefed up with half a wheel barrow of gravel and/or sand. Toss a few handfuls of bonemeal or rock phosphate in the hole for phosphorus and swear off nitrogen fertilizer which invites disease. Throw about two handfuls of lime in or on the soil at planting and every year thereafter to reduce our soils’ acidity. Mulch yearly and deadhead the spent blooms (and bring some into the house to enjoy) so the shrub puts its energy into next year’s flowers instead of seed. And breathe deep every chance you get.