Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print
Although a stroll on the beach is the cliche romantic endeavor of personal ads, a stroll through a garden is far more idyllic. For one thing, there's no messy sand to contend with, no seagulls to dodge and no guy hawking "Fudgie Wudgies!" at an earsplitting volume. Consider that gardens are serene, quiet, fragrant and beautiful, and it becomes clear that the real "it" place for romance could be right in your own backyard.
To create your own romantic refuge, think about elements that will engage all five senses - incorporating scents, textures, sounds, colors and even tastes - and entice your guests to linger. Plan to add a water element to create "white noise" to block the outside world. It can be as simple as a tabletop fountain or as elaborate as a waterfall that spills into an in-ground pond. You'll also need a place to sit, some steppingstones and mood lighting. Add these permanent features first and install plants around them.
First and foremost, you'll need privacy, so plant shrubbery to muffle traffic (and neighbors), reduce wind and define the area. Shrubs such as rose of Sharon, hydrangea or mock orange will provide colorful flowers as a bonus.
The new Double Take variety of flowering quince is among the first shrubs to bloom in early spring, even before it leafs out, and it's the only thornless quince, so no worries about pricked fingers. For a classy and elegant look, go with white-blooming shrubs like Hydrangea paniculata Limelight, Clethra alnifolia Vanilla Spice or Paeonia lactiflora Duchesse de Nemours, which will reflect the moonlight during those late-night rendezvous. Likewise, plants with silvery foliage will seem to glow in the dark. Good choices include artemisia, lamb's ears, dusty miller and Russian sage.
Next, consider fragrance. Scents have the power to evoke emotions and elicit memories, and just as the right perfume can awaken romance, so can flowers. Heliotrope (Heliotropim arborescens) is a long-blooming annual with old-fashioned appeal and a scent reminiscent of vanilla and cherries. I'm always reminded of the play "Our Town," by Thornton Wilder, during which the flower's fragrance is referenced several times. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a ground cover that emits a honeylike scent, and flowering tobacco (Nicotiana grandiflora) is powerful and sweet.
Line walkways with delicate egret flowers (Habenaria radiata), so named because they resemble birds in flight, and grow cascading fuchsias, nasturtiums and bacopas in containers.
A romantic garden just wouldn't be the same without roses. Red is the color of true love; white, purity; yellow, friendship; purple, passion. Plant in a monochromatic scheme or mix them up to ensure you'll be prepared for any visitor. Underplant with low-growing lavender for a one-two punch of sight and smell.
Install a trellis or arbor and let flowering vines climb. They bring height to a garden, providing a larger area for the eye to rest and, if chosen carefully, also will provide fragrance. Clematis Montana Rubens grows superfast, the sweetly scented Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) has creamy white blooms, and there's even an exotic passionflower that is hardy on Long Island: Passiflora incarnata Maypop will exude a sweet scent through the entire area and lend a feeling of the tropics.
Wisteria is another showy and fragrant climber, but it requires a sturdier support than the others. You also might set up a bench or tandem swing and let grapevines climb a trellis over it. Their pendulous clusters will provide a visual feast, and, as a bonus, you and your love can pluck them and feed each other a la Caesar and Cleopatra.
Trees play an important role, too, for their spring blossoms and scent, as well as the shade they provide. Then there's fruit. Wanna make like Adam and Eve? Plant a fig. Eat the fruit and do what you will with the leaves; I won't tell.