Growing Themes

Gardeners can express themselves with plants that revolve around an idea or personal interest, such as an evening garden, literary concepts, or flowers in many glorious shades of one color.

Focus On Gardens

April 02, 2000|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

In a way, every garden is a theme garden -- even if the theme is: "Plants that survive under my care." But a true theme garden has a specialized focus.

"A theme garden reflects a specific interest," says Bridget MacGinn, vice president of Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore. Cylburn boasts several theme gardens, including a heritage rose garden whose varieties predate the first hybrid tea rose in 1867.

The focus of a theme garden can range from the sublime to the practical, like a Medieval physick garden filled with medicinal herbs. It can highlight a single color or plant species, a particular nationality, (Japanese gardens are very popular right now), or even a literary construct -- for example, a Shakespearean garden filled with the Bard's botanical references. Because they require research, theme gardens expand the gardener's horticultural knowledge as well as visual horizons. And they're fun.

To plant a theme garden, start first with something that has personal meaning -- a memory of Switzerland, France or even Graceland -- then match it with a garden -- alpine, Monet's waterlilies, or Elvis' horticultural favorites. Or plant for a particular interest or need -- low-allergen (many of the culinary herbs) for the nasally challenged, or a hunting scene sculpted in shrubbery like the one at Ladew Topiary Gardens, the largest theme garden in the mid-Atlantic region.

"Mr. Ladew had a real sense of whimsy," says Karen Babcock of Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton. "The gardens are bursting with his personality and it makes them much more special."

Knot for the timid

A favorite of the Tudors, who led wondrously tangled lives, knot gardens rely on clean, symmetrical design rather than plant choice for their distinctiveness. The shape -- geometric, woven or intertwined letters -- is delineated in clipped rows of shrubby plants like lavender, thyme, rosemary or box. The spaces amid the design are then planted with flowering herbs for color and scent. "Herb Garden Design" by Ethne Clarke (MacMillan, 1995, $25) has some excellent examples of knot gardens as well as physick, low-allergen and potpourri gardens.

One hue, lovely view

Single color gardens may sound restricting, but there is surprising variety in texture, size, shape and hue. Ladew has several single-color gardens. "The yellow garden is lined with gorgeous little ribbons of dwarf golden privet hedge, gold arborvitae, beautiful yellow peony, and lots of yellow Exbury azaleas," says Babcock. "It's amazing how many plants are white, for instance," she says. "And some have other colors in them. For example, the white Rhododendron Catawbiense 'Sappho' has a dark burgundy eye, which is stunning."

Flowers for the soul

Biblical garden contains plants mentioned in the Bible, which adds both historical and spiritual dimensions to the project. For example, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) -- mentioned in Deuteronomy (29:18), among others -- symbolizes injustice, while the "lily of the field," signifies a life of beautiful deeds. Some experts believe that the Hebrew word for lily also includes iris, since both blue and white varieties grow wild in the hills of Nazareth. Shrubby, blue-flowered hyssop was used to lift a sponge filled with vinegar to Jesus on the cross. The fragrant roots of spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) infused the oil that was poured over Jesus' head (Mark 14:3,5). Saffron and aloe, anise, cumin, mint and lavender can all be found in the Old Testament. A Bible concordance or dictionary is helpful in choosing plants. There is a Biblical garden outside Bruton Parish Church parish house in Williamsburg, Va.

Late bloomers

Evening gardens are perfect for nine-to-fivers who rarely see their homes in daylight. The evening garden relies on sev-eral compositional elements: light colors, predominantly white, yellow, silver, pale pink; night-blooming flowers for drama; and fragrance. "A tremendous diversity of plant material can be used for the evening garden," Cathy Wilkinson Barash says in "Evening Gardens" (Chapters Publishing, 1993, $19.95). Barash suggests Artemisia, lamb's ears (Stachys), snowdrops (Anemone 'Sylvestris'), plumes of grasses and variegated leaves whose yellows and whites shimmer as their darker green background fades with the waning light. At the top of her list is the vining moonflower, which unfurls silky white blooms every evening from mid-summer to the first killing frost. For fragrance, choose Nicotiana, tuberose, night phlox and tropical waterlilies.


* Cylburn Arboretum 4915 Greenspring Ave. Baltimore, Md. 21209 410-367-2217

* Ladew Topiary Gardens 3535 Jarrettsville Pike Monkton, Md. 21111 410-557-9466

* Williamsburg Institute P.O. Box 1776 Williamsburg, Va. 23187-1776 757-220-7174

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