Theme Gardens of All Kinds

  • Post published:06/24/2017
  • Post comments:0 Comments
Dumbarton Oaks Pebble Garden
Dumbarton Oaks Pebble Garden

In 1982 I bought Theme Gardens by Barbara Damrosch, a book that promised how to plan, plant, and grow 16 gloriously different gardens. My eye was immediately caught by the idea of a garden for old roses.

In the spring of 1982 we were embarking on only our third year in Heath where we had a big lawn in front of the house and planted a big vegetable garden. I had never given much thought to flowers except that I had been consumed by a desire for a few old fashioned roses.

During our first Heath spring I planted Passionate Nymph’s Thigh in front of the house. I was entranced by its name, but the French called it Cuisse de Nymphe and the more staid British called it Maiden’s Blush. The Passionate Nymph is a perfect Alba rose, blushing pink with a delicious perfume and blue grey foliage. She also has amazing vigor and stamina which kept her blooming after 35 harsh Heath winters.

Theme Gardens inspired me to think about a whole rose garden – an ambitious thought since I was working and my time and my rose budget were limited. A rose garden holding dozens of roses was not in the cards, but I began planting. The Rose Walk  did eventually have more than 60 roses. I was always an organic gardener and my choices were mostly old roses because they tended to be hardy and disease resistant. Unfortunately not Japanese beetle resistant, but I soon came close to conquering that problem with applications of milky spore disease.

Passionate Nymph's Thigh
Passionate Nymph’s Thigh

Damrosch designed many other gardens with different themes: a colonial garden, a secret garden, a Zen garden, and a butterfly garden which is currently enjoying a new vogue. She was not the first to think of theme gardens. Gardeners often talk about their herb gardens, or their white gardens or some other featured design element.

Gardeners come at these theme gardens from different angles. C.L. Fornari thinks gardens are for socializing as well as for private enjoyment. She wrote The Cocktail Hour Garden: Creating Evening Landscapes for Relaxation and Entertaining.  The first necessity for such a garden is a place for a table and chairs. The evening entertainment may certainly include a stroll through the garden, drink in hand, but for myself, at the end of the day I am also looking forward to a comfortable chair and a view of the garden with no desire to jump up and pull a few more weeds.

Fornari talks about the elements of that enjoyment from fragrant plants like honeysuckle vines and daphne shrubs. She particularly likes Daphne x translantica ‘Summer Ice’ that has variegated foliage and blooms through the summer and into the fall.

As the shadows deepen the gardener will find delight with white plants that glow in the dark. We have a dappled willow in our new garden and it is always lovely, but especially in the evening when the light is low and the swath of pale foliage (this is a big shrub) lights up its corner. Smaller white flowers include white petunias, white David phlox, the stunning big hardy white hibiscus ‘Blue River II’ as well as the moonflower vine. Even the humble zinnia comes in shades of white.

Nowadays it is also easy to add real light to the evening garden through the magic of solar lamps and lanterns.

No one would talk about a cocktail garden without providing recipes for drinks, alcoholic or not, and Fornari does not fail us.

Mount Vernon Lower Garden
Mount Vernon Lower Garden

Another way of thinking of theme gardens is to think of “garden rooms.” Garden rooms usually have a theme but they are also usually separated from each other by real walls, hedges or shrubbery. Recently, during a trip to Washington, D.C., we visited George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, with its house and gardens overlooking the Potomac River. Martha Washington was in charge of the Lower Garden, a large garden that produced bountiful harvests for all who lived on the estate. The Upper Garden was a pleasure garden that included artistically trimmed boxwood hedges in a fleur de lis design, an homage to General Lafayette, who was such a help during the Revolution. Yet, even here there were fruit trees and vegetables planted behind the floriferous borders around each garden.

The Botanical Garden, a very small garden, is said to have been especially dear to Washington because here he could try out new seeds, bulbs and cuttings that governments and friends sent him and where he could perform  his own horticultural experiments.

We also visited a more modern garden made up of garden rooms. Robert Woods Bliss, a wealthy and important American diplomat, and his wife Mildred, bought Dumbarton  Oaks in 1920 and ultimately gave it to Harvard University. They created many rooms including a Rose Garden, a Kitchen Garden, a Forsythia Dell, the Lilac Circle and others. I was particularly taken by the Pebble Garden.

The term PebbleGarden describes very little about this garden which is more than a space holding plants. The so-called pebbles are the stones that turn the large courtyard into a mosaic, a work of art. The stone walls are covered with wisteria and provide shady spaces for sitting, admiring the garden and listening to the fountain at the northern end of the garden.

My theme is mostly water tolerant plants. Send me an email at and tell me about your theme garden.

Between the Rows   June 17, 2017


Leave a Reply