California Gardens - The Year Round Gardening Site

Theme Gardens

I love to have a client give me a garden theme to work with. A theme for a garden can be defined as simply collecting plants of a similar color or hue. Or by selecting a historical, geographical or physiological group of plants. I am often asked to limit the color palate to pastels or even to a particular color or pair of colors. I do have a few clients that love the hot colors, magenta, orange, yellow and purple. One describes her taste as that of a Puerto Rican Wedding, and the result has certainly become a very flamboyant garden.

Gardens can be separated into sections by plants of similar type, such as a rose garden, or an herb garden. By collecting all of the plants in a particular genus or tightly defined group such as cycads, ferns, lavenders or succulents, the similarities in the plant material make the theme work while the differences make the palette interesting. I like to use rare and exotic plants, not so much because of their rarity but because they catch people's eye due to the unfamiliar aspects of each plant. By delving deeply into a collection of similar odd plants a strong theme can develop.

Butterfly gardens and wildlife gardens are popular. I put birdhouses, bat houses, mason bee houses, and ponds into these landscapes to encourage the wildlife. I am yet to be convinced that butterfly houses attract anything other than spiders but they are fun so I put them up regardless. I provide a diverse array of plant heights for cover and separate housing from places where cats or other predators might hide out. I chose plants that will provide food throughout the year.

Attracting hummingbirds to your garden is often a gardener's goal. There is plenty of garden art the add to your hummingbird garden. Hummingbirds love long tubular red or orange-red flowers. If I want hummingbirds (I love them and almost everybody else does too) I put out the plants that will make them happy. My most successful hummingbird attractor is Cuphea micropetala. It is related to the cigar plants and the hummer's stake it out and guard it closely. Many members of the Salvia genus have long tubular flowers and a number are red, most attract the hummingbirds. But even those that are not red attract the hummingbirds.

Using lavender or medicinal herbs is a great way to make your theme garden entertaining and fantastically fragrant too. There are a host of lavenders that grow in our area. With regular pruning they can provide more lavender than you could ever use in your drawers, to protect your woolens, in pot pourri, or soap. I use a number of herbs as ingredients for tea and in the kitchen garden. I plant a large numbers of sages and species geraniums. Many of these Salvia's have been used medicinally and are highly fragrant.

One of the most unusual garden themes that I was asked to create was an Alzheimer's Garden. The main requirement was that the plants not hurt the patients. The plants for this garden had to be non-toxic and not thorny. A strong theme for the alzheimer's Garden was defined by a walking circuit around a central lawn. Moving water is very therapeutic but also can be dangerous. I made a basin that was filled with large cobbles so the water would be not be deep enough to be a threat and the rocks too heavy to play with. The plants also had to be resilient to trampling during the patients occasional off path adventure. The donor's relative had a tendency to eat plants and charge off through the beds and this garden accommodates this very well. Alzheimer's patients can gain great stimulus from working with and observing the plants in the garden.

There are plenty of other themes to wrap your garden design around, from kids, to statues (something my kids have never been). Gardens with religious iconography can make for a very reflective space. While gardens with wild color and textural variations can liven the spirit. Plant what you like and plant enough to make a strong statement. Plenty of folks will compliment your efforts.