Mother Earth Living

Down to Earth: On Themes,Schemes, and Garden Design Dreams

I recall a story about a family in Holland who specialized in growing only yellow tulips. The son, after returning home from college, could not bear the acres and acres of nothing but yellow tulips and secretly planted a few red ones to foil the sameness.

That’s how I sometimes feel about themed herb gardens. I’m sure that a vast garden of all silver herbs can be spectacular, but I would have the urge to sneak in just one red-leaved basil, or possibly a golden-yellow yarrow, for a bit of contrast.

Simple theme gardens can help some beginners discover that they can grow herbs. The ladder garden, years back, made it less intimidating to plan an herb bed. All a person had to do was lay down an old ladder on prepared soil and plant each area marked off by the rungs with a different herb. An old wooden wheel could be used in the same way. Useful as this strategy is, I must admit that whenever I see one of these beds, I feel like removing the ladder or the wheel to free the plants from their enclosures.

Sometimes theme gardens intrigue me, though. A Farmer’s Garden, planned and planted by the fourteen-year-old son of friends in Iowa, tickled me. In a 10-foot-square plot were his “farm herbs”: catnip, cowslip, henbit, dogbane, hens-and-chicks, cockscomb, foxglove, and other plants named after farm animals, along with sunflowers and trumpet vine “to help the animals wake up every day.”

His ten-year-old sister had planned and planted her own theme garden around the names of girls. She called it her Friendship Garden and included rose, holly, melissa (lemon balm), bouncing Bet, busy Lizzies (impatients), black-eyed Susans, hyacinths, lilies, poppies, heather, bells of Ireland, rosemary, violets, and more that I can’t remember. In the center of her 10-foot-square space, she had placed a child-size table and two chairs for entertaining her friends in the garden. The garden was a delight, even for adults, especially with a tour by the designer herself.

Recently, I visited friends in Missouri, whose theme garden caught me by surprise. Their 1860s farmstead lies deep in the wooded hills at the end of a 2-mile-long driveway that crosses creeks over low-water bridges and passes through spring-fed rivulets and old-growth timberland. The house stands on a hilltop of limestone ledges. Taking advantage of the rocky ground, the owners had created sedum gardens with winding pathways edged with lavenders, monardas, sages, and many more. The effect was serene, and the gardens led the eye toward the pastures below and to the wooded hills beyond.

We headed around an old wooden barn, past a few more outbuildings, to an area that curved along a ridge terraced by 20-foot-wide, stair-step rock ledges. It was a perfect gardening space, with pockets of soil here and there and plants tucked in everywhere. This garden was filled with plants that were poisonous or dangerous in some way: yucca, with its needle-pointed leaves, mean-looking cacti, toxic plants such as castor beans and dogbane, along with ice plant, vinca, and many others not thought of as herbs but with medicinal uses at one time or another. Originally a holding area for plants to be placed elsewhere, this, too, was now a theme garden of a sort, one for plants best kept out of the way, where children would not be inclined to ­wander.

I’ve come to realize that most theme gardens generate a lot of fun ideas. Rather than being a restriction or a means of keeping plants within a tight boundary of color or shape, themes create possibilities and provide focus. They reflect the personalities, vision, and even dreams of their owners. And as I always tell visitors to my gardens, if it’s not fun, why do it?

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

  • Published on Jun 1, 1997
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