To theme, or not to theme?

Published: 5/10/2008 12:15 AM

Does your garden reflect your fantasies? Do your plants make visitors think of Dr. Seuss or Harry Potter?

Does your garden path take you back to Shakespearean times, or to the plants of the Bible?

If not, this may be the year to create a theme garden.

Landscaping can be creative and fun.

Theme gardens

The concept of theme gardens has grown as people have become more interested in creating garden rooms to extend their living space and break up the landscape into different types of gardens.

Some parts of your yard may be set aside for strictly visual appeal, while others may be more practical -- outdoor eating and entertaining areas, herb and vegetable gardens, areas for sports, for children's play or for meditation.

While creating gardens or landscape spaces around a specific theme is nothing new, the concept is growing in popularity, and even those with a limited interest in gardening may be tempted to try an interesting theme.

Theme gardens also provide a new focus to the mundane task of reviving an old, boring or overgrown landscape.

Endless themes

The boundless number of themes available make it possible to tailor a garden to your tastes and interests while following a fairly straightforward design template.

Working within your budgetary needs and the framework of your home and landscape, there is still a lot of freedom for a landscape architect or designer to come up with a unique and artistic plan.

It is not necessary to have acres of land to create a theme garden -- a small yard, a rooftop garden or a container garden on a deck can still reflect a particular theme.

Some theme gardens may stress the use of plants, such as a garden of alpine plants, ornamental grasses, topiary evergreens, roses, aquatic plants, herbs or heirloom plants.

Others featuring sculpture, stonework or even garden-scale railways may use plants mainly as a backdrop.

If you want your theme garden to focus largely on plants, make sure the designer considers the personal habits or you and your family -- the people who will actually be using the garden.

If the garden has a theme attractive to children, the designer should avoid plants that have thorns, lots of pollen or that can cause toxic reactions if ingested or touched.

Garden themes include classic and contemporary ideas that can be adapted on a large or small scale and with plenty of scope for originality in the process and product.

Some of these themes can work together, such as an heirloom garden and a butterfly garden.

A Shakespearean garden featuring the flowers in the bard's plays could also be the setting for an old-fashioned cottage garden with heirloom plants.

A garden in the Japanese style might be paired with a water garden or a rock garden, creating a serene space for relaxation or meditation.

A classic potager or kitchen garden might include a traditional knot garden focusing on herbs.

A topiary garden might also feature dramatic garden art, or if the topiary is of a more frivolous nature, it could segue into a child's curiosity garden.

A garden featuring hot colors might also showcase tropical plants and plants with large, eye-catching foliage.

A Mediterranean-style garden might incorporate a theme focusing on silver, blue and white plants.

The garden may have a dominant theme, such as a salsa garden with ornamental and edible plants in hot colors, with a secondary theme, such as a section with plants that will attract hummingbirds.

A formal rose garden might transition into a section with different types of fragrant plants, which might also transition into an evening garden featuring flowers that open at night or whose colors almost glow in the twilight.

A rock garden with alpine plants might include a section focusing on dwarf conifers, with simple stone paths leading to a Zen garden or a classic Japanese garden.

By unifying the hardscape materials and architectural features, related themes can work together instead of looking choppy and awkward.


The design should focus on elements of order and unity, using symmetry and repetition in plant groupings, color and materials to create a sense of balance.

The design should have a rhythm that will draw the eye from one point of interest to the next, whether it is through and across the landscape or upward to a vertical plane.

By repeating patterns, such as those in a brick path and textures or those of large, architectural hostas, the design can be strengthened, giving it more eye appeal.

Get more ideas

The number and scope of garden themes is as varied and changeable as the imagination of the garden designer. The complete sampler of theme possibilities is found in the consumer section at ILCA's website,

ILCA offers the free brochure "Your Landscape Begins With a Dream" and the updated list of member landscape contractors and garden centers.

Call Monday through Friday 630-472-2851, write ILCA, 2625 Butterfield Road, Suite 204W, Oak Brook, IL 60523 or e-mail


Garden Blueprints by Becke Davis, Harriet Cramer and Darla Price Bowman, 1998, 2000, Michael Friedman Publishing Group, New York, NY

Theme Gardens by Hazel White, Janet H. Sanchez and the editors of Sunset magazine, 2004, Sunset Publishing, Menlo Park, CA

Theme Gardens by Barbara Damrosch, 1982, Workman Publishing, New York, NY