Theme Gardens

Phil Peters
Adam's County Master Gardener Program

Is there something about the appearance of your garden that is not quite right? Do stately, formal evergreens grow uneasily next to wispy perennials and grasses that would look better growing in a wildflower meadow? Perhaps itís time to come up with a better garden focus, a theme, as it were, to tie all your plants together and create one overall impression. There are many ways to give your garden a unifying theme.

A theme can be as simple as using plants of a single color. A moon garden, for example, emphasizes plants that have white flowers or white or cream-colored variegated leaves that reflect the light of the moon. Ideally the flowers should stay open at night. Choose white petunias, babyís breath, chrysanthemums. Get some variety and texture with white leaved dusty miller and variegated varieties of hostas. Get structure and height with white flowered roses and shrubs and moonflowers, Ipomoea alba.

Your theme can be expressed in the gardenís purpose. Butterfly gardens are popular. Not only do they provide food for colorful visitors, but to be truly successful, they should provide suitable plants on which the butterflies can lay their eggs. You canít have butterflies without caterpillars. So while you are planting the butterfly bush, lilac, coneflower and coreopsis, provide borage, clover, milkweed, and spicebush to feed the young. Another variation on this idea is the Hummingbird Garden.

Do you have a hobby? Bring it outdoors for all to enjoy. Model railroaders donít need much encouragement to create a garden railroad. A wide variety of plants of a size that complements the scale of the trains can be selected. Dwarf conifers and rock garden choices come readily to mind. A water feature can give the joy of water plants and the sound of flowing water, a real reason for that trestle. The quality and reliability of garden scale trains make this a viable option that will involve the entire family. And--a train runs through it! Thatís what ties it all together. For another hobby-themed garden, how about golf? Organize your garden around a putting green.

Or how about music as a theme? I once saw an old tuba hanging from a tree in a garden. Its bell was planted with impatiens and hanging plants providing a colorful complement to the brass of the instrument. Talk about a strong focal point that sets the tone. Or try tying the trellis strings in a lyre shaped frame. Or grow gourds along a music staff of wires where the fruit will be the notes. Maybe a dark (black) and white theme along a border can imitate a piano keyboard.

Another option is the herb garden. Select a sunny location and lay out your plot. It doesnít have to be large. In fact, if you only have an apartment balcony available, you can have your herb garden in containers. Choose herbs that you will use in your cooking. Donít hesitate to include selections that may seem unusual. Bronze Fennel or Dill will spark interest by their color and unusual leaf structure. Donít leave out the occasional tomato or pepper plant. These can grow in containers as well as in the ground.

Speaking of containers, these are easy ways to indulge your fancy and pull together an already existing garden that lacks that certain something. Like bold colors? Go for it! Look in the stores & catalogs and pick containers that express your inner joy. Or make your own. You donít have to spend a lot of money. Get some old flower pots, cans, barrels, watering cans, etc. Clean them and apply a coat of paint or decorate with acrylics. Seal them with a clear coat or two. Then plant them up. Set at strategic places around the garden. They will brighten up dark corners or call attention to that special area. Set several at different heights in a grouping and create a striking focal point. Use containers with white-flowering plants to separate garden areas that are too full of non-complementary colors and create a pleasing rhythm at the same time.

Maybe you would like to get a feel for the plants mentioned in the Bible. While the species and cultivars available today are not those of 2000 years ago, you can still experiment with todayís varieties. Pick up any of several books on plants of the Bible or Bible gardens at your local library to get more details. The same can be done with an Arabic/Moorish garden theme.

Are you a rose aficionado? Perhaps cacti and succulents are your thing? Ornamental grasses? Native plants? Heirloom plants? Just as the choice of a single color or complementary colors can be the basis for a unified garden, a presentation of the many variations of one plant genus is a terrific way to learn about your favorite plant and share its diversity with others.

One of the best sources for ideas and detailed advice on creating theme gardens is Barbara Damroschís Theme Garden, Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2001. She shows how to create and plant sixteen theme gardens.

A little imagination and your whole garden comes together like magic.

Read other articles on garden and landscape design

Read other articles by Phillip Peters