Theme gardens. Take an idea and design a garden around it, from Zen to colonial to fragrant

AN herbal knot garden . . . a complicated maze . . . a colonial garden lush with ancient roses, larkspur, hollyhocks, and lemon lilies. These are theme gardens, designed around one central idea, adapted and embellished to fit their particular locales. They are the kind of garden that can start out as a casual experiment and become a lifetime obsession, as they did for Barbara Damrosch, author of ``Theme Gardens.'' And as they have for hundreds of gardeners who pattern their gardens after some of the great theme gardens.

Probably the most emulated theme garden in the world is the ``white'' garden at Sissinghurst, in England. Hundreds of American gardeners have been inspired by that small corner of the magnificent Sissinghurst gardens, created earlier in this century by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson.

I succumbed to its charm, so in one corner of our garden each spring a white clematis climbs the lamppost, a curved planting of white H. H. Hume azaleas shapes the path -- edged with iris Cristata alba -- and a drift of Thalia (a small white narcissus) decorates the driveway fringe, while phlox Divaricata alba covers the ground underneath a dogwood.

The clematis continues to produce an occasional flower during the rest of the garden season, and spikes of white astilbe pop up behind the azaleas in midsummer, followed by the lovely white shooting stars of cyclamen Hederifolium album, blooming where the daffodils had appeared in early spring -- my salute to Vita Sackville-West.

She in turn was probably inspired by similar ``moon'' gardens, planted centuries earlier in India.

In ``Theme Gardens,'' Ms. Damrosch explores the elements of a moon garden, one of 16 different theme gardens the book explains how to plan, plant, and grow.

Damrosch didn't start out as a landscape designer. An expert in medieval English literature, she taught at the college level and then became a full-time free-lance writer. Nine years ago she moved from New York City to Connecticut, where she began working part time for the Bristol Nursery. Soon that work turned into a full-time job. ``Lee Bristol taught me the business -- drawing plans, costing installations, working with trees, shrubs, and day lilies,'' she says. Her experience was pragmatic; she worked daily on a landscape crew and developed a large garden of her own.

Damrosch then worked for six months at another nursery, White Flower Farms, where she learned a great deal about perennial borders. During this time, she began to do some independent design work, with an increasing emphasis on perennials. Depending on the needs or interests of her clients, Damrosch found herself designing all sorts of gardens, including Victorian, colonial, fragrance, butterfly, and even secret gardens.

Then, at a friend's urging, she decided to combine her skills as a writer and gardener to produce ``Theme Gardens.'' On its pages she offers descriptions, garden designs, and lists of plants for each of the themes she develops, from the simplicity of a Zen garden to the frivolity of a children's garden. (I couldn't resist asking about her own garden and learned that it is a traditional New England colonial garden, with raised beds, a picket fence, and gravel paths.)

While ``Theme Gardens'' is a book one may use as a basic reference, with its pages of ``how-to'' information, I see it more as an inspirational guide -- thought-provoking, creative, and imaginative. If you want to do something new and interesting in your garden and are searching for ideas, this book may provide the impetus to get you started.

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