Organize Plant Selection with Themes

Today’s column is about thematic gardening.

Let’s start by breaking down “landscaping” into its components.

Landscaping includes hardscapes (i.e., pathways, steps, walls, ponds, structures), but plants are enough to think about today. For our purposes, landscaping emphasizes plant selection and plant placement.

These two activities overlap in the development of landscape styles, which can be complicated and subjective. One approach defines styles in terms of décor, materials, plant palette, and fabrics.

Styles can be interesting and important, but for today let’s stay with the basics: plant selection and placement.

Plant placement involves the relationships among plants, e.g., combinations of color, height (tall plants in back) or form, swaths of plants vs. specimens.

We might explore plant placement issues on another occasion, but thematic gardening is about plant selection, so let’s stick with that.

When selecting new plants for the garden, consider the conditions for the plant’s health and growth: Specify the location for a new plant (available space, plant size) and satisfy cultivation issues (soil, exposure, moisture and drainage needs, climate, wind exposure, etc.), then…

…consider the universe of plants you can choose from. The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew concluded that there 391,000 vascular plants known to science. Add the large and growing number of recognized cultivars (hybrids and selected varieties). These creations of plant breeders are featured each year in plant catalogs and garden centers.

Given this enormous range of possible choices, how should the gardener proceed?

For many gardeners, the approach is to leaf through a mail-order catalog or stroll through the local garden center and choose plants that are striking or attractive or familiar.

This approach is not wrong, because there is no right or wrong, just personal preference. Still, a thematic approach is a more organized and ultimately more successful.

Thematic plant selection basically involves selecting plants to have a common characteristic, as a way to focus the selection process and adopt an organized approach to developing your garden.

This approach to plant selection could be used for an entire garden or sections of the garden, i.e., particular beds.

Some of the most popular themes are based on a single plant genus, e.g., Iris, Rose, Dahlia, Orchid, Hosta, Hellebore, Orchid, Fuchsia, Heuchera, Daffodil, Tulip, or another.

A variation of genus-oriented themes focuses on categories of plants within a genus. For example, there are several kinds of irises (tall bearded, intermediate, border, miniature), and the rose genus includes modern roses, old garden roses, and species roses. (My current projects include developing a bed of old garden roses.)

Other themes emphasize the botanical categories of plants, e.g., bulbous plants, succulents, edibles, conifers, variegated, blossom color, and others. There are many other possible categories.

Then, we have themes based on the native region of the plants. A California native plant theme is a popular choice, in the Monterey Bay area because these plants thrive in our climate and are hospitable to the regional fauna.

Thematic gardening can present challenges to identify plants within the theme, and then to hunt for sources of desired plants. Fortunately, the Internet is a powerful tool for success with these tasks. The thematic gardener needs to be an effective user of Google and other search engines. Once you have selected a theme to pursue, search the Internet for websites that offer useful information and ideas.

Thematic gardening offers several benefits.

  • Creates a purposeful approach to plant selection
  • Simplifies plant selection by focusing on a sub-section of available plants
  • Defines the related part of the garden, e.g., “the rose bed”
  • Adds to understanding and appreciation of the chosen part of the plant kingdom

At another level, thematic gardening brings harmony and calm to the garden landscape. By comparison, the all-too-common tendency to add plants with a random selection strategy can result in a botanical hodge-podge. The individual plants in such a garden might have gorgeous blossoms and foliage, but lack any relationship to adjacent plants. The effect could lack coherence, and could even be jarring.

If parts of your garden already follow a thematic approach, consider whether those parts please your eye more than other parts. If they do, develop a thematic approach for other parts of the garden.

Thematic gardening can be challenging and enjoyable.

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