Specialty or theme gardens focus on a purpose, an activity or an appearance to create a specific garden type. They can range in scale and scope from being a small part of a larger garden to being the theme for an entire garden. Humans have been creating specialty gardens since the beginning of civilization. The design of Sennefer’s Garden in Thebes, Egypt is one of the first documented landscape plans. It shows a garden with a series of theme gardens including exotic vegetation, food production, and water gardens all arranged in a well ordered fashion. During the Renaissance, expanded knowledge in math, science and art lead to specialty gardens of formal plant topiary, fountains, sculpture, grottos and follies (see Villa Lante). In the 20th century, gardeners found a renewed interest in organic or naturalistic forms, themes and methods in the garden. Whether you fashion the formality of topiary and hedges, the organic nature of a woodland garden, the productivity of a kitchen garden, or the playfulness of a children’s garden, using themes to organize your design is time honored tradition.
In most ways it is hard to imagine a garden that isn’t for children. The youthful curiosity to explore natural spaces doesn’t segregate by garden types. However, there are ways to design gardens focused specifically on a child’s experience and viewpoint. Pay special attention to the concepts of free play and exploration. Take a cue from the adventure playground and loose parts playground movements where random collections of free play items replace the static playground equipment. You may not want a junkyard appearance, but movable items and adaptable spaces make the best play areas. Appeal to the child’s sense of curiosity and scale by choosing uncommon and oversized plants with exaggerated features (see Plants). Create hidden areas that can only be discovered through exploration. Add colorful sculptural items like red Adirondack chairs and yellow birdfeeders. Make sure there are flowers to pick, soil to dig in and that nothing is so precious that it cannot be completely turned inside out. Just think like a kid and have fun designing (see Hershey Childrens Garden)
The number of people interested in perennial flowers and the range of plant varieties available have both grown exponentially over recent years. Perennials have become a passion for many gardeners, which is important since they do require at least a moderate amount of time and attention. Some gardener’s may want to intersperse perennial color into existing plant beds while others may want to create a true perennial border. Unless you are a plantaholic who truly studies the requirements of each species on a daily basis, stick to the tried and true plants such as Salvia, Achillea, Sedums and Hemerocallis for sunny areas and Astilbe, Hosta and Huechera for shadier spots. When designing perennial layouts, consider each plants period of bloom to maximize continual color throughout the entire season. And consider your colors and color combinations carefully. For example, many professionals will say that pink and yellow don’t go well side by side because they clash. However, perennials are best as a personal passion so do what makes you happy, experiment, change the layouts each year, and you will have a successful and dynamic perennial garden.
Traditional Japanese gardens can be generally categorized as tea gardens, hill gardens or dry gardens. Chaniwa, or tea gardens will have a tea house and be designed with aesthetic simplicity based on the principles of the tea ceremony. It is common for a Chaniwa garden to have a stone water basin for cleansing before the ceremony, and often there will be stepping stones to the tea house. Tsukiyama, or hill gardens are intended to create reproductions of natural scenery using streams, stones, ponds, hills, bridges, trees and flowers. Karesansui, or dry gardens are intended for Zen Buddhist meditations. These gardens use stones, gravel, sand and moss to abstractly reproduce natural landscapes. For those of us in the western world, creating a Japanese garden generally means adopting some of the architectural forms and materials from traditional Japanese gardens with a broad understanding of the overarching design principles, then combining that all in a way that fits the family’s home and lifestyle.
Prairie & Meadow Gardens
Prairie and meadow style gardens have grown in popularity with the rising interest in sustainable gardening. Both garden styles rely on grasses and wildflowers to recreate the appearance of a western prairie or an eastern meadow. In the purest sense, only native plants should be used in these gardens, which is much easier to do in recent years with the increase in native plant availability. However, if you are creating a small prairie or meadow garden at your home, you probably want to use ornamental grasses and flowers that will have tidier and more colorful appearances. For example, Achillea and Echinacea varieties have been hybridized from their native origins to provide more dynamic foliage and longer, more colorful bloom cycles. Both prairie and meadow gardens should be sited in sunny locations with well drained soil. Choose at least some plants that will self seed and encourage naturalization by regularly weeding out the invasive plants. A healthy prairie or meadow garden will require an annual cut back in the spring prior to the new growth developing.(See Planting a Prarie Garden)