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Design Your Garden Around a Theme
May 24, 2002 by Evelyn J. Hadden

LessLawn's survey of May 2002 showed that the biggest gardening challenge for most readers is coming up with a design. If you've hit a roadblock in designing your garden—you can't quite settle on a design, you're pulled in different directions, or you can only think of what you DON'T want—clarifying your garden's theme might help you to focus your thoughts and create a satisfying layout.

"Theme" can have many different meanings when applied to a garden. A theme can showcase a favorite element: orange flowers or lava rocks. It can illustrate a concept: the evanescence of spring. Then again, it might evoke a mood: serene. Or it could refer to some place or artistic work: echoing Giverny, paying tribute to a certain Mozart sonata.

People make gardens for different reasons, and one of the keys to creating a garden that pleases you is to figure out why you're creating that garden in the first place. The reason(s) will lead you to your own theme.

Here's a rundown of different types of garden themes to get your ideas flowing:

Season or Time

Gardens are often designed to peak at a certain time of year. A spring garden concentrates on early flowers—fruit trees, spring bulbs, and early-flowering perennials like woodland ephemerals. Such a garden erupts with bloom early in the year. This is ideal for people who come out of winter craving a riot of color. It also works well for gardens shaded by deciduous trees, since the flowering plants take advantage of the sun that reaches the ground before the trees leaf out, while later in the season, the trees may cast too much shade to allow many flowering plants. A spring garden also attracts resident and migrating birds, luring them with insects that flock to the early flowers.

A summer garden also likely focuses on blooming plants, and in this case creates the most colorful show in mid-summer. Vacation homes often have this type of landscape. For those who have summers off or tend to spend more time outdoors in the summer, it makes sense to plan for most of the bloom at the time when they'll be there to enjoy it.

An autumn garden may include flowers but will almost certainly contain foliage that takes on striking colors in the autumn. This type of garden produces a great last hurrah before winter and can extend the interest of the local landscape, especially when surrounding gardens show best during other parts of the year.

A winter garden will usually be interesting year-round, because in temperate climates, the main elements it uses to create interest are structures (both natural and built) that retain their shape and other physical characteristics all year. The garden may even be most beautiful in winter, because during that season the framework will be most clear, having no foliage or flowers to compete with or obscure it. A winter garden will appeal to the rock lover, the vine grower, the person who appreciates the stark elegance of black-and-white photographs, and the person who likes to spend time outdoors in all seasons.

Gardens can also come alive during certain times of day. Most notably, moonlight or evening gardens make use of light colors, intense fragrance, strategic lighting, lacy foliage against the sky, and other elements that provide interest during dusk and darkness. Nine-to-fivers who like to come home and enjoy the last hour of daylight out in the garden will likely enjoy a moonlight garden.


Fashions come and go in the gardening world, and at any given time, a certain color scheme is in vogue. A few years back, white gardens were the thing. Then blue gardens became popular, while trend-setters rushed to buy flowers in hues of black and apricot. A single color or a combination of certain colors can be used as a garden theme. I designed my first garden as a series of limited-color areas—yellow and purple and cream in front, pink and white along the side, and red and blue in back. It's helpful for a beginner to use limited-color palettes because they considerably narrow the otherwise overwhelming list of possible plants, and they lend a sense of consistency to a garden that is otherwise bound to be full of "one of each".


In the garden, "mood" can mean different things. It can refer to the viewer's mood. A garden can be designed to provoke specific emotions such as awe (a grotto), nostalgia (half-obscured ruins), cheer (flowering meadow), amusement (rubber lizards hidden among the plants), or serenity (sculpted hedges and tidy mounds). Mood can have a larger meaning, though, referring to the consistent, clear "feel" of a place. A garden with its own mood—secret, dramatic, or romantic, for instance—may provoke different emotions in different people.

All sorts of elements influence mood, and the field of human psychology offers many pointers for the garden designer who chooses a mood-oriented theme. People tend to experience similar reactions to certain colors; soft pastels soothe, while bold colors excite or energize. Most people tend to be nervous when their line of sight is too short, so an enclosed space, to be comfortable, should have a view into the distance in at least one direction.


A garden can be designed to foster a certain activity. Those who enjoy outdoor meals and entertaining might make greater use of a patio with plenty of seating than a knot garden with a central bench. Lawn bowlers and croquet addicts will want stretches of sward. Bird watchers will find more to watch if they plant trees and shrubs to mimic the productive "woodland edge" habitat. Cooks will want a kitchen garden located as near the kitchen as possible, and a cutting garden will delight the person who likes to fill the house with fresh flowers.

When designing a garden, it's always helpful to start by thinking about what you want to do in it—not just how you spend your outdoor time now, but how you wish to spend it. A garden, after all, should fulfill a dream or two if possible.


Some gardeners fall in love with a certain species of plant, and they're always wanting more varieties. Several of my friends adore peonies, and a number of those in warmer climates feel that a rose is the only plant worth growing. These collectors often set up gardens to display their many varieties in well-spaced rows without the distraction of other plants. Alternately, they might compose a series of combinations featuring their favorite set among different companions.

Collectors may focus on a group of plants that shares certain characteristics. Succulents fascinate many people, and they generally grow well together and make a dramatic show. One friend has established a bed to display the delicately beautiful miniature plants that she favors.

Natural Community

Often gardeners grow to love and appreciate the native flora of their region. Nowadays, nearly every region is disappearing rapidly in the face of "development", and concerned gardeners are devoting part or all of their land to native plants and the natural communities that support local wildlife.

The United States can be divided into five main types of bioregions, and specialized communities exist within these regions. Tundra and alpine systems feature thin soil over rock covered with low plants that tolerate cold and exposure. Forest ecosystems generally contain sun-loving canopy trees above understory trees and shrubs, and under those, a layer of shade-tolerant forbs, ferns, and grasses. Grasslands -- dense mixtures of grasses and flowering plants (forbs) -- occur in areas that are too dry to support forests. Dry shrublands consist of shrubs scattered among clumps of grasses and forbs, while in wet shrublands, shrubs weave together into thickets.

Read more about regional ecosystems of North America.

As the descriptions above show, you can use many different approaches to find a theme for your garden. Though it goes without saying, I'll add that your theme should delight you. Choosing a theme will not only make it easier to choose the plants, but it can also suggest a structure for your garden, and therefore it can be a great starting point for designing a garden that you'll enjoy.

Ideas for activity gardens: Ideas for gardens patterned after natural landscapes:
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