Theme Gardens: Now there’s an idea!

Butterfly GardenYou may not know the term “theme gardens,” but you’d recognize one if you saw one. A Japanese garden is a theme garden. So is an herb garden, and a rose garden, and a rock garden. A garden with only shades of blue has a theme, as does a maze, or a garden with a dozen fountains, or one with a little gnome behind every second bush. Any garden organized around some unifying idea is a theme garden.

Clearly, there’s an infinite range of choices, for theme gardens can be arranged around types of plant (such as gardens growing roses, growing herbs, and even growing vegetables) or around colors, shapes, or the type of visitors you wish to attract, such as butterflies, honeybees or birds. Other options include a country, a historical period, or an ethnic group. Examples of ethnic gardens include the Japanese garden mentioned above, or the African American Garden described by the DuSable Museum of African American History, an Italian garden, or the Native American garden grown by an elementary school in Illinois (see link below).

A theme, then, can be a color, a plant, a type of plant, a country, a period, or a use. Often gardeners have themes that they may be aware of only subliminally. If when you’re in a gardening store you think, “oh, that’s pretty, I think I’ll buy one,” then that’s not much of a theme. If, however, you think, “That’s pretty, but it’s not native — think I’ll pass,” then you’ve got a theme going: native plants.

The theme, then, functions like a set of rules. That doesn’t sound very attractive, but despite the rules, theme gardens actually deliver what so many things promise these days: a chance to be creative. Even ads for lipstick or yogurt invite us to let ourselves go, to be “ourselves.” In many cases these are hollow promises. But the theme garden really does allow you to be creative, because you decide the theme and you decide how to follow it.

Themes also present a challenge, for those so inclined, and a structure (or at least a structuring principle) for gardens that might otherwise suffer from — dare we say it? — rural sprawl. Structure might seem to imply rigidity, as if one went into a garden and squared all the corners or lined up all the flowers in rows, and who would want that garden? But there’s another way to think of structure. A theme can bring structure to a garden in the same sense that your bones give structure to your body: without them you’d be more or less of a lump, while with them, your body takes on shape and meaning. The resulting sense of unity, or unified purpose, in a theme garden can rescue gardens that somehow don’t quite work, gardens where the parts don’t quite come together.

If you’re interested in starting a theme garden but you don’t actually have a theme in mind, take a tour of your garden and see if it already contains any incipient themes, ideas lurking there but not yet clarified. Why do or don’t you buy a particular plant when you are at a nursery? (Aside from money, of course!) Think back on gardens you’ve enjoyed, and revisit them if you can. Or, are there any hobbies you’d like to bring into your garden? A reader’s garden might feature plants mentioned by various writers, along with artfully placed seats, comfortable enough for a long sit, each with a low table for a coffee cup and a book. If you’re deeply concerned about the environment, you might want to plant native plants that would attract butterflies and bees, and need little water.

Sometimes themes are almost thrust upon us, often by the exigencies of our environments: the gardener in northern Alberta may well become an expert in plants able to tolerate extreme temperature variations; one in Nevada may cultivate drought-tolerant species; one in a yard that sports a dozen well-grown trees may come to know all about shade-tolerant plants.

Creating a theme garden often requires that one move or even ditch plants, and this can be painful. Many of us gardeners would rather tear out our own hair than tear up plants. If it helps, start by creating a theme in a particular, confined space. Doing so makes sense anyway if your chosen theme isn’t one that meshes easily with the environment you’re trying to place it in. Waterplants in Arizona? Better keep it small. The theme garden, then, needn’t encompass your entire yard, nor need it all be established in a single season.

Placement and Planning

Clearly, certain choices in certain settings just invite frustration. But careful garden planning can overcome many obstacles. If your heart is set on an English cottage garden in New Mexico, put it on the east side of the house, where it will get morning sun but be protected from the blistering heat of the afternoon. As for the water garden in Utah or Arizona, if the legislature hasn’t yet ruled this out entirely, it’s wise to set it on the north side of your house or under trees, to minimize evaporation.

If you want to do your bit to provide habitat for migrating monarch butterflies but you’re not fond of the look of milkweed, plant it in an odd corner behind a pine tree. Doing so also ensures that it won’t be trampled during touch football games or other backyard activities. If your neighbors do not share your enthusiasm for monarchs and hope you won’t share your milkweed with them, netting stretched over a short length of fence just downwind of the milkweed patch will catch much of the airborne seeds. Again, on all but the smallest plots of land, it’s possible to create a garden that’s attractive to insects without drawing them to your front door.

The larger lesson here is this: most plant lists for theme gardens are designed with temperate zones in mind, and not all the plants on them will work in all environments. It’s important, therefore, to learn about local conditions and consult local experts about particular plants, planting dates, and so on, before launching on a buying spree. An excellent source, always, is the county Extension office, which you can locate on-line by consulting the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

Butterfly Gardens: An Extended Example

A butterfly garden adds the winged beauty of butterflies to the loveliness of the flowers themselves, and it can provide important habitat for butterflies, whose natural habitat is increasingly lost to development. Beyond this, since butterflies need nectar all season long, the well-planned butterfly garden is guaranteed to be in bloom from spring through fall. Visit our Butterfly Gardening Guide here.

Anyone wanting to attract butterflies would think to plant flowers they like, but creating a complete butterfly garden turns out to include far more than that. A good butterfly garden has both host plants, which provide nourishment for butterfly caterpillars, and nectar plants, which provide nourishment for the butterflies themselves. It should also have plenty of sun, shelter from wind, a damp area, shrubs and trees for overnight roosting, and rocks for basking.

Butterflies, like all cold-blooded creatures, need sunlight in order to warm up enough to move. Rocks and gravel that get early morning sun provide ideal spots for a morning bask, a butterfly’s first activity before it starts seeking nectar. Rocks that get afternoon sun will hold heat longer than soil or plants, and give butterflies a place to warm up later in the day.

If you’re a hiker, you may have seen butterflies congregating at the edge of a puddle. This behavior, known as puddling, is engaged in primarily by males, which are attracted by the salts that get concentrated at the rim of the puddle as it dries. As a gardener, you can encourage these gatherings by keeping a low spot damp, or by setting out a bowl of wet sand or mud. A puddling source can also be created by sinking a bucket, tray, or bowl to its rim in the ground, filling it with soil, sand, or pebbles, and then pouring in water.

The garden itself should be sheltered from wind and should provide a range of blooms throughout the growing season. Since the host plants exist to get munched, you may want to put them in an out-of-the-way corner, if you don’t enjoy the sight of leaves full of holes. Nectar sources need to be planted in profusion, so that the butterflies have plenty of choices. Lists of plants are available in books or at several on-line sites, which appear below.

One last note: it’s essential that insecticides not be used in a butterfly garden, because they will injure or kill the very visitors you wish to encourage. Learn more about organic flower gardening here.

Butterfly Garden Websites

The University of Kentucky’s page on “Butterfly Garden Design” not only lists specific plants in specific numbers (a total of twenty-seven plants), but includes an easy, attractive layout for them on a ten by twelve plot. Though this exact plan probably wouldn’t work in every part of the country, it’s a great starting point, especially if planting a whole garden seems overwhelming.

Butterflies and Moths of North America is the official site for the United States Geographical Survey, and it contains a wealth of information in a marvelously accessible format. The home page lets you search by several different criteria, including maps and thumbnail images. The maps give a list of butterflies by state; each name on a state page links to a page on that butterfly, where you’ll find a picture, details about identification, life cycle, range, habitat, food, conservation status, and more. This page also includes a state map showing which counties have had a documented sighting of this species, so you can plan your garden to attract particular species.

There are a number of good online introductory articles about butterfly gardens. One place to start is Alice Yarborough’s “Designing Gardens for Butterflies,” hosted by the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens site. TheUniversity of Kentucky College of Agriculture has another, “How to Make Butterfly Gardens” by Stephanie Bailey, Extension Specialist, which features pictures of host and nectar flowers. If you prefer information in bullet form, a thorough overview can be found at “Butterfly Gardening,” on a site called Noah’s Notes. This includes all sorts of fascinating and unlikely facts such as the color of butterfly blood (green), the length of a butterfly’s tongue or proboscis (three times the length of its body) and many more. Montana State University hosts a page called the Children’s Butterfly Site, with a list of frequently asked questions and answers, including the all-important “How do butterflies go to the bathroom?” The answer proves that the question is indeed worth asking: they don’t.

The North American Butterfly Association sponsors a “Butterfly Gardening and Habitat Program” with a wide range of information. As of August, 2008 its “Basics of Butterfly Gardening” and “Regional Gardening Guides” were still under construction, so it is not a stand-alone site for a beginner. However, for any butterfly aficionado, this is an invaluable resource.

See The Butterfly Site for everything you need to know in order to design a garden that will attract, nourish, and even protect butterflies. The home page gives information on the basics, while links take you to lists of host and nectar plants, as well as to the state maps of the USGS, hosted by MSU. This easy-to-negotiate site also includes a list of other articles and useful sites available on-line.

Other Useful Sites

Carol Wallace’s article “Theme Gardens: Planning without the Pitfalls” points out a number of obstacles theme gardeners often face, and how to overcome them. She reminds theme gardeners that they are still gardeners — water plants will not grow next to desert plants, even in a theme garden — and she recommends that one remain flexible and adaptable.

Theme gardens can be a hit when gardening with kids, and there are several sites that discuss good choices and how to introduce them. The Coyne Center Elementary School, a public school in Illinois, has not just one but twelve theme gardens, including a butterfly garden, a Thomas Jefferson garden, a pizza garden, sunflowers, a bean tee-pee, a Native American garden, and more.

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