Choosing a Garden Theme - dummies

By Ann Whitman, Suzanne DeJohn, The National Gardening Association

Designing a garden often goes beyond deciding which plants you want to grow and the type of function you want your garden to have. Thematic elements can also influence the look of a garden. Do you have a soft spot for old-fashioned English rose gardens? Or Japanese Zen gardens? Or even sandy deserts filled with cacti and succulents?

Here are some popular style elements to help you continue clarifying what you want:

  • Formal gardens: Keep formal gardens simple. Aim for balance and symmetry so the garden has an air of calm elegance:

    Use strong lines and boundaries, such as groomed hedges, walkways, perhaps even a reflecting pool.

    Employ single-color plantings, aiming to match or complement your house color, fence, or another element.

    Add stylish pots, urns, gazing balls, or statuary. Keep everything in moderation so it doesn’t look cluttered.

    This plan for a formal garden features balance and symmetry for calm elegance.
    This plan for a formal garden features balance and symmetry for calm elegance.
  • Asian gardens: Asian gardens are usually based on a broad area of raked sand or stones. Choose fine-textured traditional plants, in pots or in the ground. Try bamboo, dwarf conifers, Japanese maples, iris, azalea, and flowering fruit trees.

    Include accessories such as stone lanterns, bamboo fencing, a water basin, or even a small “tea house” in your Asian garden.
  • Tropical gardens: Tropical gardens emphasize lots of big, bold, leafy foliage plants (such as cannas, coleus, hibiscus, and taro) in the ground or in large containers. Use bright flowers in hot colors: yellow, red, and orange, as well as bicolors. Then include a water feature, such as a pool, fountain, or stream. You can add drama with extras: birdhouses or cages, colorful pots, gazing balls, and playful or handcrafted décor and statuary.

  • Cottage gardens: Cottage gardens should be overflowing with colorful blooms, so plant these inviting, informal gardens with a generous hand. Include lots of roses and other fragrant plants (including herbs). Keep the plants well-tended (remove spent flowers and stems) but allow them to express their natural exuberance. Finally, add some charming touches — a picket fence, an arbor, whimsical birdhouses, or wind chimes.

    A cottage garden design showcases full plantings of old-fashioned favorites.
    A cottage garden design showcases full plantings of old-fashioned favorites.
  • Dry climate gardens: If your area is a little on the parched side, you may want to opt for a dry climate garden. Employ a naturalistic layout, perhaps with a dry streambed or stone pathways, and choose plants that thrive in hot sun, including but not limited to cacti and succulents. Then strategically place accents of colorful or more water-needy plants in pots or in groups.

  • Woodland gardens: Woodland gardens, which are often shady, include groundcovers that flower as well as bulbs (for lots of spring color). For fall color, you can plant some native asters.

As part of your narrowing-down process, have fun as you gather inspiration. Thumb through back issues of gardening magazines, flagging beautiful photographs and helpful articles. Take your camera as you visit your local botanical garden or arboretum or walk around surrounding neighborhoods and take pictures of inspiring gardens.