Transforming your winter garden


It’s been said that one person’s sweet perfume is another’s stink. Well, whether a smell is good or bad, it’s welcome in my garden. To a point.

A big advantage of gardening in the South is how our hot, humid climate causes fragrances wafting from freshly-mowed grass and hot-off-the-vine tomatoes to hang in mid-air, where we can savor them better and for longer than our cool-climate friends. 

 However, not all odors are always pleasant. Some dear neighbors don’t appreciate my backyard fire’s smoke, and there are some pretty but pongy flowers tucked among the roses. After all, there are reasons why some plants have fragrantissima in their Latin names, while others are foetidissima. 

The other evening I snipped a stem of paperwhite Narcissus and vased it up for my cabin; however, in the cooped-up warmth of indoors, its perfume quickly became almost overpowering. And some say the hardy winter flowers smell of cat urine. 

Luckily for me, its heady fragrance transports me to my childhood days in a big garden of midwinter daffodils, including extra-sweet jonquils with their thin, quill-like foliage and tiny fragrant yellow flowers. 

Most gardeners can wax poetic about delightful garden smells that conjure pleasant times outdoors. On the other hand, some are flat-out repelling. The intense paperwhites, for example, were certainly better than some of my cabin’s other smells, including onion peelings left overnight on the cutting board, and a peculiar dusty smell seeping from beneath my sunroom. 

That last one, though subtle, is familiar to even non-gardeners. You and I recognize it immediately when digging in dirt or turning compost, but nearly everyone picks it up right before an approaching summer rain as the low atmospheric pressure degasses the soil. This smell, called petrichor, is an aromatic byproduct of beneficial bacteria, and is also present in mushrooms, earthworms, catfish, and warm lake water. 

And it’s in the bare dirt beneath my cabin as well, as I discovered when, what with my garden being a most-everyone-is-welcome wildlife refuge, a raccoon recently decided to take residence under my cabin. Her digging around while enlarging the den stirred up long-buried petrichor which rose through the floor and made my place start smelling like an Old West livery stable. 

I safely trapped the animal and rehomed her to a protected cavity beneath my tool shed (move over, ‘possums), but it took several days of  frying bacon and burning incense, and finally a bouquet of paperwhites, to get rid of the earthy smell.  

Anyway, as I get older and naturally afflicted with a creeping hyposmia that’s causing me to gradually lose some sense of smell, I more appreciate strong garden fragrances, especially those that conjure my horticulturist great-grandmother’s banana shrub, ginger lilies, four o’clocks, and over-ripe figs. 

My now-garden fragrances are more than the expected magnolia, gardenia, star jasmine, and antique roses; just brushing through sprawling lantana, oregano, mint, and rosemary, all planted beside walks, releases eau de jardin. 

But while to most folks crushed marigold and lantana leaves are merely sharp to the nose, to me Spirea and Pyracantha flowers reek of dirty socks. Bradford pears smell fishy, and ginkgo fruits make you look at the bottoms of your shoes for dog leavings. I grow a carrion cactus and hardy voodoo lily, and have occasional stinkhorn mushrooms pop up in my mulch, all reeking of rotting meat. 

Other less-savory olfactory garden aromatia include lily pond gunk, overwatered potting soil, sulfury garden hose water, and string trimmer exhaust. But like ‘em or not, in their ways of being authentic parts of the process of gardening, they all bring familiar comfort.


Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the Gestalt Gardener on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to

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