The same way that a change of jewelry can change the look of an outfit, the change of an existing garden type to a new garden type can change the look and feel of the landscape. About 15 years ago, I was preparing for the annual spring overhaul on the landscape, and I had gardening on my mind round the clock. One night I dreamed of putting in a tropical garden, something I had never considered and something that had not yet come into vogue. When I woke up, I figured, “Why not!” That tropical garden changed the entire character of our back yard. That was the first of many experiments in gardens with a theme, and it was one that endured the test of time.
If you find yourself in a rut, consider installing one of the garden types below. If you want to change an existing garden, you can easily move the plants in that garden to another location.
While not a strict garden type, every home needs foundation plantings. A house without foundation plantings looks out of place—almost surreal—like it’s not anchored to the property.
Most garden types have some combination of greenery and flora, but the foundation is usually short on blooms and long on shrubs, some of which may flower for a short period. You’ll usually find small trees at each end of the front foundation to give it a sense of balance; sometimes another small tree will accentuate a division in the home. These small trees might be dogwoods, hollies, miniature magnolia varieties—something that’s not going to grow much larger than the roof of the house and something with a root system that will not disturb the foundation of the home.
Low hedges are less common than they used to be, possibly because of the routine maintenance required to keep them neat and trim. In between the anchors, consider a variety of small bushes such as euonymus, barberry, miniature burning bush and azalea. All of these shrubs require minimal maintenance and trimming and add visual interest to the foundation. For year-round color, you can add fire nandinas, and many people use monkey grass to outline portions of the foundation.
Cottage gardens date back to England’s Tudor period of the late 15th century and peaked during the 18th century. These gardens are most at home surrounding a small cottage-type house. In fact, they are often used as foundation gardens for cottage-style homes, but they can look out of place as a foundation garden with other types of dwellings. They often have a more formal feel close to the house, and as they drift away from the house, so does their formal character.
A formal cottage garden or the formal component of one achieves a look of symmetry. The informal garden or component of the overall garden is asymmetrical. The cottage garden is not defined by any particular group of plants, but rather by the diversity of plants within the garden, ranging from ornamental grasses to delicate ground covers. Grouping similar plants adds cohesion to the overall look, and color and texture add depth to the garden. The object in designing the cottage garden is to create flow. Hardscapes include arbors and fences, and generally a walkway borders the garden so that you can stroll along the garden.
My favorite by a long shot, not only do tropical (and tropical-like) gardens require minimal maintenance during the growing season, but their pops of vivid color amidst the unusual greenery lend the feel of faraway places. These gardens consist of colorful greenery—leaves with pink and purple veins, and they often include crotons, lush plants with green, yellow and orange leaves. Crotons are available in a variety of leaf shapes, one of which resembles a corkscrew. You’ll want to add at least one palm, dracaena or hardy banana plant for height and to fill large spaces.
Passion flower vines creeping up a trellis showcase exquisite lacy flowers while bougainvillea plants add profuse blooms that can cover large expanses. The mainstay flowering plant is the hibiscus, which is available in annual (outside of zone 10) and perennial varieties. The annuals bear an astounding array of bloom colors and shapes, and the perennial versions are quickly catching up, with new varieties released every year. Most tropicals overwinter indoors successfully, so after a few seasons, you’ll have a lush tropical garden that will rival anything found in the South Seas.
If you’re a night owl or one who appreciates the calm of the outdoors before dusk and after dawn, you’re the perfect candidate to install a moonlight garden. Designing a garden of variegated greenery, greenery with a wispy, silvery look and white blooms is just the setting for your after-hours mood. Any colorful blooms that do exist in the garden will simply fade into the background amidst the wash of silver and white.
The combination of silver and white and the absence of bright color lend a haunting feel to the moonlight garden, and the moonlight coupled with the predominance of iridescent white casts a spell over the environment that is impossible to imitate indoors. Japanese ferns, snow-in-summer, fragrant vines white nocturnal daylilies (yes, a contradiction of terms) provide a canvas on which to splash your other frosted blooms.
If the thought of a rose garden evokes images of a Jessica Fletcher-type character doting on her long stem roses, it’s time to update your thinking. Once the province of the refined with plenty of time on their hands, newer rose varieties require far less attention. Knockout roses, for example, provide relative carefree profusions of blooms throughout the season.
You have an almost endless variety of roses from which to choose, but zeroing in on a few varieties is the challenge. In addition to varieties, you’ll want to consider the different styles or classes of roses. Tea roses are climbers and supply perfect adornment for a garden trellis. Floribundas are profuse bloomers and work well in the background. Miniature roses work well in front of the bed and can serve as groundcover. They grow from 1–2 feet and their tiny blooms are available in a stunning array of bright colors. The trick to a beautiful rose garden is to vary the styles, colors, and blooming times.
If you’re caught in a gardening rut, the easiest way to climb out of that rut is to plant one theme garden to shake things up a bit. Once you’re hooked on theme gardens, you’re only a few years away from your own private botanical showplace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MJ Plaster has been a professional writer for more than two decades, originally an instructional designer and trainer, more recently specializing in lifestyle topics. She also serves as managing editor of the Florida Turf Digest. A former master gardener, when she’s not writing, she’s practicing alchemy in her gardens or helping friends to design and plant their gardens.