How many of you have a theme garden on your property? I mean a real one, not just one that has a few scattered plants in it that are related in some way that you all a theme. Do any of you have a white garden? How about a pseudo-tropical garden? A garden filled with plants with cat-names, like pussy willows, catmint and cats-claw?
I think about theme gardens all the time. They are fun to design - mentally. They don't always work out so well in practice.
For instance, I tried a cat garden once. I had a pussy willow - or at least a rooted cutting of a pussy willow. That is, I had it until my husband mowed it. I had placed it in one of those spots that he claims was reserved for the lawn. I also had cats-paw - a silvery groundcover that had no botanical name (at least not at the nursery where I bought it) and some pussy-toes. Elsewhere in the yard I knew I could dig up lots of catmint and catnip. And maybe some cattails.
It was the cattails that showed me the error of my ways. Mine have grown up in a pond. I know that they will also grow on land, because there were some growing in an undeveloped area behind the house we lived in when we got married. But there was also an underground spring there. So I had to assume that they would not be particularly happy beside the silvery cats-paw and nepeta. If you see a silver plant that's a pretty good clue that it prefers dry conditions and well drained soil.
That's where so many theme gardens go wrong. In our we often neglect to see if the plants that fit our theme also fit into our cultural conditions.
So the first rule for creating a theme garden is to include only plants that enjoy similar cultural conditions.
This isn't as hard as it may seem. It simply means that some plants that fit the theme are going to be unhappy in the theme garden. Others will love it. So learn to say no to all of the misfits. The rest will do you proud by growing well, and you will not have to spend time figuring out how to disguise the puny ones.
It's possible to create a theme garden using only one or two types of plants - which makes it easy to satisfy their cultural requirements.
Let's go back to my cat garden. The pussy willow that met its untimely end at the blades of my husband's lawn tractor would not have been happy in its intended home. But it would have been happy in the same area that the cattails would thrive in. So what other cat plants can I find that like wet or boggy conditions?
OK - I can't find any. Not if I look at the actual plant names. But how about looking at the names if individual cultivars of moisture loving plants? There are several daylilies that have "cat" or "kitten" as part of their name. "Black Cat" and "Happy Kitten" are both offered by Gilbert S. Wild. And before you ask, yes - daylilies can and do live in damp areas - in fact the Denver Botanical Gardens has been known to use them as pond plants. There seem to be hundreds of thousands of different daylilies - so I am certain to be able to find enough to fill out the spaces left by the cattails and pussy willow.
So another lesson may be to give yourself a lot of latitude when deciding on the limitations of your theme. Learn to say yes to a thematic definition broad enough to allow you to choose plants that will be happy to proclaim your message.
As it happens, daylilies are often a good bet for "Family" theme gardens. A family theme is one that has plants in it that bear the names of each member of the family. With zillion daylily varieties to choose from, you have a fair chance of creating your theme garden with just the one type of plant. However, if you want some variety, you must make a choice. Do your filler plants have to fit the theme? Or are they merely there to keep family members from squabbling? What if "Sharon" is bright orange and the only "Louise" you can find is a red violet? They're bound to fight unless you use a mediator. So you could just decide arbitrarily that the artemisia that billows between the plants doesn't need to be named after anyone, but simply serves as a backdrop for the beauty of the various family members.
So "filler" is OK in a theme garden even if it doesn't strictly fit the theme.
Another problem we encounter when trying to create theme gardens is the "collectors complex" - the one which makes us aspire to have ALL of the plants that fit a certain theme. Once again - many of those plants may simply languish in your garden's growing conditions.
So we have to learn a difficult lesson - just say no.
Having established these few ground rules, we can now go on to talk about different possible theme gardens that we can plant. I can name a few.
- One possibility is a Shakespeare garden. Remember Ophelia's mad scene? She hands out flowers with messages - "There's rosemary for you - that's for remembrance. . . - and many gardeners seek out those plants, as well as others that may grace the lines of the Bard's other plays.
- Another possibility is the bible garden. Many, many plants are mentioned in the bible, so you actually have some fairly wide choices. Of course if you consider the area in which the authors of the different books of the bible came from, you might anticipate that most of these plants are somewhat Mediterranean in origin. But there are many Mediterranean plants that do well in temperate climates as well.
Geographic sorts of gardens such as Mediterranean or tropical can also be fun. If you don't live in the tropics, the latter can be pretty work-intensive as you dig up and haul in the tender plants every fall, struggle to keep them alive through winter and replant in spring. But there is also a "tropical look" garden, which has all the atmosphere of the real thing without the labor.
- Then there are romantic gardens. Roses are often associated with romance, and so a rose garden might do the trick - although you may want to be selective about which roses you choose. Somehow "Whiskey Mac" doesn't cut it. Or make your romantic message poignant with old fashioned flowers like Cupid's Dart and Love Lies Bleeding.
- Animal gardens are fun, especially for kids. You can use plants with animal names contained in them (tell your neighbors that all those dandeLIONs are a theme garden, if they don't mind!) Or plant cultivars of hardy plants that have animal names such as the "Happy Kitten" daylily I mentioned several paragraphs ago.
- Colors also create a theme, from the infamous all white garden to purple and black gardens. And I have seen other, somewhat ghoulish gardens, some morbid "poison" gardens, as well as the opposite kind - healing gardens.
- How about a Royalty garden - with roses like 'Queen Elizabeth' and 'Princess Diana'? And I suspect you can find enough plants named after fashion designers, such as the tea rose, 'Lagerfeld' to do a High Fashion garden - and enough C&W stars (I know Reba McIntyre has one named for her) for a country western garden. How about a film star garden - starting with the roses 'Helen Hayes' and 'Audrey Hepburn'?
The only limits are your imagination and the amount of work you are willing to do to create a healthy, flourishing theme garden.
Now - what themes can you come up with? Suggest a few and we'll see if, over the coming weeks we can't come up with some plants to fit the themes.
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.