How to add your individual touch to the landscape

Pot couple on bench
A "pot couple" sitting on a garden bench adds personality to this landscape.
© George Weigel

Inside the house, the decorator-in-residence usually picks a style, whether it’s a country flair with rustic furniture and hardwood floors or something more modern with stainless steel appliances and avant-garde art. Outside the house? Not so much.

Many outdoor landscapes look the same throughout whole neighborhoods and even whole regions, almost as if personal touches are for interior designs only. One reason for the uniformity could be that most people are less confident and less familiar working with plants than they are in picking furniture or matching carpets to drapery. Another could be that people tend to go with what they know, and what they know is what they see around everybody else’s house.

Just as with inside style, a home’s landscape can and should reflect the tastes and lifestyles of the inhabitants. Or to put it another way, the outside can have personality, too.The principle is much like decorating the inside. The two main driving forces are 1.) what fits with the style of the surroundings and the house itself, and 2.) your own personal tastes.

Geometric beds, boxwood hedging and brick paths, for example, might naturally fit the style of a brick Colonial 2-story. A country house in the woods, on the other hand, might look more at home with native shrubs, beds of shade wildflowers and swoops of groundcover plantings. Odds are you’ll prefer those kinds of inside-outside style matches since you chose that Colonial or country-woodland house in the first place. But even within that broad style framework, you’ll have a lot of freedom to put your own personal stamp on the outside.

Outdoor sitting room
Few people carry decorating style outside the house, as this family did in creating an outdoor sitting room.
© George Weigel

Start with a style you like, then work your design, color scheme, plant choices and accessories around it. A good way to rethink your landscaping is by starting with a theme. Just as different inside rooms have different uses and looks, so, too, can different sections of the yard. You like birds and butterflies? How about building a garden of bird- and butterfly-attracting plants, placed out a prime-viewing window out back and furnished with a bird bath, bird feeders and a gazing globe on a pedestal? Or maybe you like to make your own fresh cut-flower arrangements for the table or to give to friends? A distinct cut-flower garden tucked away in a sunny back corner could supply you with a harvest throughout the season and make more productive, colorful and interesting use out of all of that grass. Or if you need serenity after daily copings with the work-a-day world, an Asian-inspired shade garden might be just the tonic for underneath a big tree with a relaxing bamboo fountain and wooden bench.

Think of the plants as you would furniture, and the statuary, boulders, landscape lights and such as the accessories, similar to your pictures, wall-hangings and lights inside. Need some specifics for inspiration? Here are 10 theme-garden possibilities:

1. Colonial Garden

Use straight lines, brick paths and geometric beds, lined with clipped boxwoods. Go with old-favorite plants, such as iris, tulips, roses, hydrangeas and zinnias. An arbor, bee skep, pineapple-topped fountain and sundial make good accessories. Ideal for a Colonial-style house or an authentic period home.

2. Evening Garden

Carve out a small sitting area on flagstone. Surround the space with silver-leafed and white-variegated plants as well as white bloomers (white is the last color to fade out in darkness). Add a few landscape lights or torches. Ideal for a peaceful corner of the back yard and for people who don’t get home from work until dusk.

Mini garden setting
This little theme garden is a calling card for fairies.
© George Weigel

3. Fairy Garden

Very popular lately and something that parents and grandparents can build and enjoy with children. The idea is to create a diminutive setting, populated with fairy-favorite mini-plants (thyme, pansies, primrose, rosemary, etc.) and all sorts of homemade or store-bought accoutrements designed to invite fairies into the garden.

4. Get-Away Garden

Site this one in a far corner of the property or at least away from the main house and ideally under a shade tree or two. Give enclosure with fencing, hedging or vine-covered trellises, and place an arbor as a doorway. A water feature and a swing or rocking bench add a nice touch. Use plants with arching and relaxed habits – no sheared boxes or balls here.

5. Grandma’s Garden

Fill this bed with your mother’s and/or grandmother’s favorite plants – maybe even using cuttings or divisions from the originals. An antique from home (a well pump, family dinner bell or old metal trellis, for example) would make a good choice for a focal point. Or go the general, old-fashioned grandma-plant route and plant favorites of a few generations ago, such as lilac, mock orange, peonies, coneflowers, cosmos, zinnias and iris.

6. Tea Garden

Grow all sorts of mints (preferably in barrels or sunken pots to contain unwanted root spread) but also other plants used in making tea, such as chamomile, lemon thyme, monarda (Oswego tea), horehound and the mother of all tea plants, the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis. The bed could be in the shape of a tea cup with tea-cup statuary or tea-related accessories worked in.

7. Sports Garden

Sports fans are always looking to display their loyalty, and this is one more overlooked way. Plant the garden in the colors of your favorite team, and shape the bed like a football, a baseball diamond or similar sports tie-in. Decorating it with a team flag is a given.

8. Kids Garden

Use fun or unusual plants, such as topiaries, a twisted Harry Lauder walking stick, giant alliums, lycoris bulbs with their leafless flower stalks, turk’s cap lilies and more. The weirder, the better.

9. Fragrant Garden

Ideally located next to a patio, by a water garden or anywhere you sit outside, this theme features plants that smell pleasant. Pick plants that successively throw out fragrance throughout the season as opposed to all blooming at once. Among the plant choices: hyacinths, lilacs, Korean spice viburnum, Polianthes tuberosa, heliotrope, nicotiana, most roses and most lilies.

10. Patriotic Garden

Perfect for veterans or fans of all things Americana, this garden can be either a collection of red, white and blue plants or a garden filled with plants with America-inspired names, such as the ‘Fourth of July’ climbing rose, the ‘Liberty’ series of cannas or the ‘Patriot’ series of lantanas. Shape the bed like a map of the United States, and use a flagpole as a centerpiece.