One of the many attractions of gardening is that you can play with it. We are not limited to the furrowed rows of earlier generations. You can be as creative as growing conditions and your plants’ needs will allow. And deciding on a theme is one way to pull your garden together artistically or aesthetically.
Themes provide a unifying framework, a story, a uniqueness to your garden, and they can be a lot of fun. Themes are more artistic than simply how you grow your plants. Garden themes make it easy to decide on which plants work best in a landscape, a raised bed, or even a single container, by providing a long term, broader perspective on that space.
You can create a theme based on flower color, leaf shape, or even a particular shade of green. You can create a theme that takes advantage of a shady corner, transforming it from a seldom used, mostly wasted space into a storybook hideaway, complete with peek-a-boo elf statues and a reading chaise lounge. [More lemonade, please!] Or, you can create a theme around a favorite book or movie, a sensory garden, or a copycat garden. Garden themes can be whimsical or they can be utilitarian. Rain gardens are a type of utilitarian garden theme.
Before you start designing your garden, landscape, or foodscape, let's consider some garden planning basics. This is information you will want to have on hand as you select your plants:
Creating a garden plan
Planning a garden can feel overwhelming. Sometimes, the best way to start is to simply select one type of plant, often tomatoes, and grow from there. A single potted tomato, however, is not going to transform your landscape. You can also go to the other end of that spectrum and learn about landscape design, using boundaries, surfaces, forms, textures, color, art, and lighting to create your masterpiece. Somewhere between those two extremes is a balance of what you want, what you have the time to maintain, and what plants need to stay healthy. To help you pull your garden together and select plants, you may decide to use a garden theme.
Types of themed gardens
Traditionally, themed gardens have been classified by either a geographic location, a type of terrain, or a historical prototype. Using a theme narrows down your options and pushes you to be more creative. Some traditional garden themes include:
But, there is another way of looking at themed gardens. You can create your own themed garden to create a favorite dish or holiday meal, or it may be a children’s garden, an herb garden, or an edible storybook garden. Having a theme can help guide you with plant selection. Today, we will look at some common edible garden themes, the plants that might be used in those gardens, and maybe a little garden art, just for fun.
Butterfly gardens/pollinator gardens
The more pollinators that visit your garden, the more likely you are to have a good sized harvest. You can attract bees, butterflies, honey bees, and many other beneficial insects with brilliant blooms of borage, salvia, and butterfly bush, and by allowing many common food plants to go through their complete lifecycle. Carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, parsnips, dill, fennel, and parsley are all umbellifers. Umbellifers have umbrella-shaped flowers that beneficial insects love. Allowing lettuces, Swiss chard, and others to go to seed also provides nectar and pollen for these beneficials, as well as hummingbirds. The changing shape, colors, textures, and sizes of these plants keeps your landscape interesting. Just be sure to provide a water source for all these tiny helpers. A birdbath or small fountain is all that’s needed. Just be sure to clean them every once in a while.
Children’s gardens encourage kids to be active and eat healthier foods. They can also inspire a life long love of gardening. Children love plants they can touch, taste, and smell. Feathery yarrow, creeping chocolate mint, sweet cherry tomatoes, and towering fronds of fennel are all edible and easy to grow. A child’s garden nearly always features fast growing, dramatic plants, such as a fort made out of sunflowers or a pole bean teepee. Unique plants, such as golfball-sized Parisian carrots, and cucumbers that look like miniature watermelons (Mexican sour gherkins), can add whimsy and fun to your children’s garden. Favorites, such as strawberries, blueberries, and groundcherries can be used to create a magical play area, filled with delicious, healthy edibles, curving paths, secret hideaways, and storybook reminders.
[You may be surprised to discover that most children love the taste of spinach when they have it grown themselves.]
Fruit cocktail gardens
You may have seen grafted fruit cocktail trees available through garden catalogs. These dwarf trees usually feature nectarines, peaches, plums, and apricots, all on the same tree. You can flesh out your fruit cocktail garden with potted raspberries, blackberries, currants, and strawberries, and then surround the whole thing with a small blueberry hedge. Imagine all that sweet deliciousness in one place.
Gift gardens are spaces dedicated to growing gift plants. Flowers, herbs, and succulents all make lovely presents. One type of planting forward, gift gardens provide the space (and reminders) needed to have that perfect gift ready, right on time. Maintaining a gift garden ensures you will always be prepared for those special occasions.
Herb gardens are attractive, tenacious, and rewarding. Except for basil, most herbs will continue to grow for many years. Rosemary, lavender, and thyme add fragrance, flavor, and beauty wherever they grow. Members of the mint family, oregano, lemon balm, summer savory, marjoram, and sage are best grown in containers, due to their tendency to spread. You can also add chives, cilantro, and tarragon to an herb garden. You may want to add a nice place to sit and enjoy a good book. It’s going to smell so lovely, you’ll want to stick around.
Holiday dinner gardens
Nothing says gardener like fresh Brussels sprouts and baby beets at Thanksgiving, fresh greens at Easter, and a juicy watermelon on July 4th. If you plan ahead, you can harvest an abundance of many popular holiday meal ingredients right when you need them. Beans, beets, carrots, fennel, onions, pearl onions, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, and tomatoes are just a few of the possibilities. Sage, basil, oregano, parsley, and mint can also be grown for your holiday meals. Whatever traditions your family celebrates, you holiday dinners garden can save you a trip to the grocery store and give you full bragging rights.
Pizza gardens are fun. A round garden space, cut into wedge-shaped sections and planted with popular pizza ingredients. Aside from the meat and cheese, you can grow pretty much every other ingredient used to make a pizza. Tomatoes, onions, and garlic, make the sauce, along with herbs, such as basil, oregano, and thyme. You can also grow sweet red, green, orange, and yellow peppers, hot peppers, zucchini and other summer squash, and artichokes for your pizza. If you like, you can even grow your own olive tree in a container, and a patch of wheat or cauliflower for the crust. If pizza isn’t your thing, you can pick a different dish, and create your own garden theme using those ingredients. Stir fry garden, anyone?
Salad gardens are very rewarding, because lettuce and other greens and radishes tend to grow quickly. There are a rich variety of salad greens available, red loose leaf, pale green curly endive, buttery Bibb lettuce, upright cos or Romaine lettuce, dark green spinach, and many more. You can also add color to your salads with 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, with their brilliant red, pink, white, and yellow stems which can be sliced up just like celery. Oh, yes, and you can grow celery. Cucumbers, bell peppers, carrots, artichokes, corn, dandelion greens, mustard greens, fennel, jicama, and kale can also be used in a salad-themed garden. You can even add a dwarf almond tree for some slivered almonds on top of that salad. If you prefer your vegetables stir-fried, a stir-fry garden makes it simple to throw together a flavorful, healthy, fresh-from-the-garden meal. Carrots, onions, garlic, cilantro, bell peppers, hot peppers, even your own saffron can all be grown at home.
Storybook gardens are a delightful way to add art and whimsy to a landscape. Designing, installing, and caring for a storybook garden is an excellent children’s activity, as well. Nearly all traditional children’s stories can be used to create a storybook garden: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden are popular favorites, but you can use any book you like that has edible plant references.
Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your own tea. Tea plants (Camellia sinensis) can be grown outdoors in Zones 8 - 12, or indoors year round. But, this traditional black tea is not the only plant grown for its use as a tea. If you love tea, you know that you can also enjoy chamomile, mint, and lavender tea. Other options for a tea garden include lemon balm, jasmine, coriander, bergamot, hibiscus, elderberries, ginger, rose hips, raspberry and blackberry leaves, licorice, lemon grass, blackcurrants, dill, and dandelions can also be used to make tea.
Pick a patch of ground today and cover it with aged compost or arborist wood chips. As you select your theme and start choosing plants, worms and microorganisms will be busy working to improve your soil. Before you know it, you will be enjoying the fruits (or vegetables and herbs) of your labor!
What’s your favorite garden theme?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!