Planning your garden around a certain theme, like medicinal herbs, will help you to better focus your garden selection.
The garden center, with its myriad choices, can be an intimidating place for a gardener, especially in spring when flowers are in full bloom. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and buy the same annuals you’ve always had or simply choose plants, seed packets or bulbs that catch your eye. These approaches aren’t exactly the most inspiring way to plan a garden.
To make the best use of your space, consider planting a themed garden. A themed garden draws on a selection of plants that go together for reasons beyond environmental preferences. They can be based on a season (a winter garden), a color scheme (all-white), a cultural reference (a Shakespeare garden) or a use (apothecary or perfume garden).
Barbara Damrosch, one of America’s most respected horticultural experts and the author of Theme Gardens (Workman Publishing Group, 2000) and The Garden Primer (Workman Publishing Group, 2nd edition, 2008), co-owns Four Season Farm, an experimental market garden in Harborside, Maine, with her husband, Eliot Coleman. According to Damrosch, themed gardens impose a limit that makes the gardener more creative.
“It’s similar to eating seasonally. You are more inspired because you only have a limited choice in each season,” she says. “Themes also give you a way to organize plants around an idea. That challenges you to make it more interesting, and you’re going to come up with an original idea. A theme may also reflect your passion. If scent is important to you, you’ll be attracted to a perfume garden. If you’re interested in watching flora and fauna interact, you’re going to lean toward a garden that attracts butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.”
Goodwin Creek Gardens in Williams, Ore., specializes in herbs, fragrant flowers and everlasting plants, and it markets unique plant collections, such as Shakespeare, medicinal, culinary and wedding, that they’ve hand-selected to go with each theme. Co-owner Jim Becker, who co-authored An Everlasting Garden: A Guide to Growing, Harvesting and Enjoying Everlastings (Interweave Press, 1994) with his wife, Dottie, says themed gardens can help continue a horticultural history.
“What fascinates us about herbs is their unique history, such as [those] used by ancient Egyptians for dyeing,” he says. “You can become part of that plant’s story by collecting it. You can stroll in your apothecary garden and know what was used medicinally 400 years ago. Themes add an entirely new dimension to gardening.”
Plan Your Garden Theme
Howard Pierce, a state-licensed landscape architect based in Atascadero, Calif., who designs outdoor spaces in areas ranging from Napa to San Diego, recommends considering the space you have and the garden’s purpose during the planning stage.
“Is the workspace large or small, and does it get full sun or are there areas of part- or full-shade?” he asks. “Next ask how it is to be used: Is it a utilitarian garden just meant for plants to grow and cut or harvest? Is it a strolling garden with places to sit and enjoy?”
From there, think about how you can express your theme.
“If the garden [contains] medicinal plants used by Native Americans, maybe implement some tribal patterns in the hardscape, such as with concrete pavers. You could also use stones or Native American artwork,” Pierce says.
If you’re leaning toward a theme that is historical or oriented toward a particular climate or region, Damrosch recommends considering how it will look on your property. “There are no hard and fast rules, but if you have a modern house or a very old-fashioned house, what theme will complement it?” Damrosch says. “It might be interesting to have a garden that was growing when the house was built, such as a Victorian or colonial garden.”
If you have multiple themes, such as herbs and historic plants, and want to link them into a cohesive garden, Pierce suggests incorporating one or two common elements that continue throughout your garden.
“It can be a pathway made of the same material or the same garden ornament or furniture or pot repeating along the garden path—something continuous to visually link it all together,” he says.
To label the plants, Becker says to choose something easy-to-read and waterproof.
“You can make signs on the computer and laminate them or purchase waterproof labels and place them on wooden or metal markers.”
As in any garden, it’s important to choose plants appropriate to your climate and the area’s sun exposure. Plants with similar water and sun-exposure needs should be planted together.
“Plants like rosemary don’t need a lot of water, but thyme and basil need regular watering,” Pierce says. “So that kind of thing can affect your plant groupings.”
Keep in mind that some plants, such as mint, Artemisia or certain varieties of grasses, can be invasive and should be kept in pots set to one side of the garden.
“For things like culinary or medicinal [plants], be careful about choosing plants that are irritating or poisonous, especially if you have kids who want to smell or taste things,” Becker says.
And finally, if flowers are important to your theme, choose a succession of blooms that will last the season.
Ready to get started? Click below to get ideas for starting a garden with one of the seven following themes.
About the Author: Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer and hobby farmer based in northwestern Indiana. She has several themed gardens of her own, including a scented garden and an apothecary garden. She’s the author of The Original Horse Bible (BowTie Press, 2011) and blogs at www.sharonbiggswaller.com.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Hobby Farm Home.