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Fragrant foliage useful in many ways

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Jessica Walliser
Culinary sage and chives, two plants with fragrant foliage often found in the garden.

When talking about having fragrance in the garden, many folks only think about the heady scent of flowers. The blooms of lilies, angel’s trumpets, flowering tobacco and heliotrope emit scents targeted at luring in the right pollinators.

But fragrance in the garden also can come from foliage.

Plants with scented foliage are wonderful additions to the landscape for many different reasons.

First, we humans can enjoy their perfumed leaves in the kitchen. We can use them to make homemade herbal teas and potpourris. And we can cook with them in a million ways. Thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, mint and other herbs have highly scented — and flavored — foliage.

Though our noses often can’t smell their fragrance without crushing the leaves between our fingers, our palates can easily discern one flavor from another the moment a leaf enters our mouth. Fresh herbs from the garden are among the most useful plants with fragrant foliage.

But plants with scented leaves are useful for other reasons as well. Many scented plants have a high essential oil content in their leaves and stems, making them less palatable to certain animal pests. Many of the perennials with a natural resistance to browsing deer are those with heavily scented foliage, such as nepeta, lavender, flowering sage, bee balm, Russian sage, calamint and hyssop.

Many of the same plants also are resistant to rabbits. The animals don’t like the fragrance or the taste of the foliage, and they often avoid them altogether. This is not to say these plants are deer- and rabbit-proof, but they are certainly more resistant than unscented plants.

Plants with aromatic foliage also make wonderful alternatives to turf. There are a number of low-growing, scented plants that are perfect lawn substitutes or ground covers. Most are drought resistant and quite tolerant of foot traffic. And as a bonus, when you walk over them, their fragrance is released. Great scented plants to use as lawn alternatives include chamomile, woolly thyme, pennyroyal, sweet woodruff and creeping thyme.

Lastly, some plants with fragrant foliage may be good at repelling certain pest insects in the garden. Though there’s plenty of folklore about using aromatic plants to repel pests — and many of the suggested combinations have yet to be scientifically proven — I have found that some plant partnerships do work, even if they’ve only been “proven” in my own garden and not in a study.

I always plant dill in my zucchini patch, as I find it helps to deter squash bugs. I also find that planting onions between my rows of carrots reduces the occurrence of carrot maggot flies in the roots. Growing a few parsley plants in the asparagus patch seems to keep asparagus beetles from laying eggs on the emerging spears. Whether or not these pest-deterring tactics work for you, they are partnerships that certainly won’t hurt the garden. They’re just one example of why having fragrant foliages in the garden is always a great idea.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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