Casual Gardener: Wake up and smell the flowers

An acclaimed designer switches her focus to the garden's scents...

The slow-growing star of the winter garden Hamamelis mollis

"WHAT we smell are light, organic molecules, tiny clusters of atoms bonded together. They are all organic compounds, compounds usually built around carbon, the ‘Lego' of life: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and to a lesser extent phosphorous and bromide."

Ironically, for somebody who's often been accused of possessing what is colloquially known as a ‘big neb', I don't have a great sense of smell. I struggle to detect nuance in scents, meaning smells are basically categorised as good, bad, sweet, foul, pungent, etc.

I therefore envy Isabel Bannerman and her ability to sniff and subsequently describe a scent in eloquent and often unconventional terms. For instance, Himalayan cowslip is "scented profoundly and deliciously like the dark vault of a Damascus spice merchant", while Rosa ‘Rosarie de l'Haÿ' smells of "cucumber, tea and laundered tablecloths laid at a table on the lawn".

Along with husband Julian, the Bannermans are gardening aristocracy, both figuratively and literally speaking. The pair have been designing and building gardens together since 1983. They were behind Prince Charles's stumpery at Highgrove, the Collector Earl's garden at Arundel in West Sussex, and the walled gardens at Houghton, home of the grandly named Marquess of Cholmondeley.

The awards are as numerous as their clients' titles and include several Gold Medals from Chelsea.

Based since 2012 in miniature motte-and-bailey Norman castle at Trematon in Cornwall, their home and gardens epitomise the couple's approach to design and planting. They celebrate past glories and faded grandeur through mock ruins and oaken temples, adapting their designs to suit the context and not seeking to impose artificial order on semi-feral habitats.

In her latest book, Scent Magic, Isabel Bannerman explores the smells of the plant kingdom in her own inimitable style, combining poetic descriptions with hands-on, practical knowledge. The book, illustrated throughout with the author's own photographs – or what's known as 'botanical scans' – also contains encyclopaedic references highlighting the best aromatic plants to grow throughout the year. Again, departing from convention, these entries are interspersed throughout the text, rather than forming a separate chapter.

The book's foreword is written by actor Richard E Grant, who as well as recalling his own efforts to make perfume when aged 12, writes of being "overwhelmed" by the scent of the Bannerman's garden.

""Whilst obeying the classical rules of structure and symmetry, her designs are infused with a unique individuality and romantic sensibility which are her signature style," he writes of the author.

"It's no surprise that her writing is so sensual and irresistible."

Unlike most garden books, whose chronology usually begins in spring, Isabel Bannerman chooses to start in winter, the darkest months when only the keenest gardeners venture out among the vegetation. Yet here she finds beguiling aromas, whose effect is only accentuated by the chilled starkness all around.

Surely this selection of subtle scents can only inspire the reader to take a closer look, or sniff, at the contents of their garden. There's the paperwhite narcissus like ‘February Gold' and ‘Grand Soleil d'or', and snowdrops: "The first gift of the year, like incense brought to the manger", which lose their scent once pollinated.

Then the slow-growing star of the winter garden, the mystical witch hazel Hamamelis mollis, which makes the author's nose twitch "like Samantha from Bewitched, prickling with anticipation".

The Bannerman's Trematon garden and their various projects are on a scale and budget that would make most readers of this column's eyes water but this book's principles and practice are applicable in even the smallest space.

:: Scent Magic: Notes from a Gardener by Isabel Bannerman is published by Pimpernel Press price £30

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