In the Garden: Theme Gardens

Great ideas for dirt

By Erin Burnham // Illustrations by Stacey Walker Oldham

A themed garden is a creative approach to out-of-the-box gardening that can also eliminate the dilemma of deciding where to start and what to plant. A theme garden doesn’t have to take over your entire property, nor does it all need to happen in one season. Phew! This type of garden is an excellent springtime project to tackle with children, or for anyone wanting to make a big statement in a little space.

The following ideas can be scaled down or expanded on, depending on space, time, and energy. Make it easy by creating a hummingbird garden out of just a few plants in a big deck planter. Or go big (while also filling your belly) by installing a whole raspberry patch as your snack garden. And it doesn’t have to end with my suggestions below. Theme gardens are limited only by your imagination.

Three Sisters Garden

Early Native Americans traditionally planted corn, squash, and beans together. These three crops grew so well planted next to each other that they became known as the “Three Sisters.” Today, this classic example of companion gardening, where each plant helps another, shows the benefits of mindful gardening. The corn stalks provide a trellis for the beans to climb; the beans fixate nitrogen in the soil for the corn and squash; and the squash provides shade protection for the soil of the beans and corn, while also discouraging pests with their spiny stems. Growing a Three Sisters garden is a great opportunity to teach kids about plant codependency and the importance of growing your own food.

The Plants

Corn: Choose any short-season variety or buy starts from a garden center, like MD Nursery in Driggs or Twigs in Jackson.

Beans: Pole beans are traditional, but bush beans work well, too. Try heirloom purple or yellow varieties for something different.

Squash: Zucchini and yellow summer squash are the best bets for our region. (But you may have to cover them, come fall.)

The Set-Up

This garden is a great one for kids because the plants grow fast and grow big! Also, the seeds themselves are relatively large and easy for little hands to handle and plant.

This garden needs its own spot with good soil and full sun. These veggies also like their soil warm, so wait until the first or second week of June to start. To begin, build up a gently sloping mound of soil. Incorporate granular organic vegetable fertilizer into the soil. Plant the corn seeds or starts in the center. Wait a couple of weeks until the corn has grown about six inches, and then surround the corn with bean seeds, sowed directly into the prepared area. Next, plant the squash starts or seeds around the corn and beans, on the sloping edge of the mound.

Hummingbird Habitat Garden

After their long migration from Central America and Mexico, hummingbirds are ready to eat! So why not delight your summer senses with a backyard hummingbird haven? With their long beaks, hummingbirds sip nectar from flowers and the sugar content in the nectar keeps them coming back for more. The following plants provide a great alternative to the traditional feeder, while also enhancing the hummingbirds’ habitat.

The Plants

Most of these flowers can be found at your local garden center as starts or in seed form.

  • Bee balm
  • Salvia
  • Honeysuckle
  • Penstemon
  • Jupiter’s beard
  • Dianthus
  • Nicotiana
  • Callibrachoa
  • Nepeta
  • Verbena

The Set-Up

Hummingbirds need safe perches to rest upon, such as trees and shrubs. A nearby water source, like a birdbath or fountain, is also important. Hummingbirds are insectivores, feeding on tiny insects such as aphids, thrips, and spiders. So in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, creating a hummingbird habitat will also benefit your garden by keeping pests at bay.

The Snack Garden

Feeling hungry? Just walk out to your snack garden and forage for a few berries or veggies. The suggested plantings below require little or no chopping, washing, cooking, or fuss. Plus, snacks from the garden don’t come in plastic wrappers and are 100 percent healthy! But the best part is the flavor. Homegrown food just tastes better! From vine to mouth, with little or no prep, this garden fits the bill for a busy family.

The Plants

My must-haves include snap peas and cherry tomatoes, but any or all of these veggies would make fine garden picks.

  • Sugar snap or snow peas
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Apples
  • Berries: strawberries, raspberries, currants, gooseberries or serviceberries

The Set-Up

This idea is very flexible depending on your existing garden infrastructure and how deep you want to dive. Most veggies will perform best in a raised bed in full sun. Tomatoes grow well in big containers like an EarthBox™, in a greenhouse, or even in a used plastic nursery pot. Strawberries and raspberries need a patch of their own to sprawl. And berry bushes and apple trees can be planted within your existing landscaping or set apart by themselves.

This summer, use your theme garden as a grocery store, as a habitat source, or as a classroom. By experimenting and pushing the boundaries (of both your garden and yourself), you’ll experience the joy in growing something non status quo.


Quick and Dirty Gardening Basics

  • Location, location, location. Most veggie and fruiting plants will need at least six hours of full sun daily. Perennials and annuals are more adaptable.
  • Soil prep. Healthy soil yields healthy plants. Adding compost will feed your soil and, in turn, feed your plants. Do this yearly in veggie gardens and upon planting perennials, shrubs, and trees. Choose a quality potting mix for planters. And go organic for veggies!
  • Seed and Plant Selection. Pick seeds with shorter “days to harvest” on the label. Plant fresh seeds from the current year each season. Select perennials, shrubs, and trees known to grow well in our area and that are USDA zoned 2 to 4.
  • Watering. Watering needs will vary depending on your plant selection, growth stage, and location. Generally, the larger the roots (trees), the less frequent watering they will need. A tiny root system (a germinating seed) will need more frequent watering. Water early in the morning to allow the foliage to dry during the day and for less waste from evaporation.
  • Feeding. A yearly application of fertilizer in the spring will help keep plants vigorous and healthy. Some veggies like beans, squash, corn, and tomatoes are heavy feeders and may need additional organic fertilizer throughout the growing season.
  • Be watchful. A quick check every few days for bugs or other issues will help spot trouble before it gets out of control. Keep an eye on the weather and cover tender plants with frost cloth when a temperature dip is predicted.