Does your backyard lawn make you yawn? Is your patio slab way too drab? If you long for the romance of the French countryside or the serenity of a Zen garden, it only takes a little imagination and planning to transform your own backyard into the theme of your dreams.
Creating a theme can be a modest or expansive project, depending on your desires and what you have to work with. A trip to a foreign land, a favorite painting or the imagery of a vivid novel can all be inspirations.
Susie Coelho, host of Home and Garden Television's outdoor makeover show, "Outer Spaces," says the process usually works one of two ways.
"You can either work with existing plants and form a theme, or start with a theme and pick the plants."
She suggests choosing a theme first, because that will define what you wish to accomplish. Bear in mind, however, the realities of your climate. You cannot, for example, plant an English country garden in Arizona.
Within reason, however, your fantasy can become reality.
"Just think about how you want to live in this space," Coelho says. Do you want a seating area where you can sip your morning coffee? A more spacious area for entertaining? A shady alcove for reading?
Popular backyard themes include French and English gardens, with their abundances of color; Mediterranean gardens that evoke the warmth of Italy and Spain; Southwestern gardens with their vivid desert hues; and tranquil Japanese or Zen gardens, with their emphasis on form and simplicity.
Other types of themes focus on particular colors, such as a patriotic red, white and blue garden. Some can be planted specifically to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, or include ponds and fountains as the focal point.
With books and magazines as a guide, Coelho suggests choosing your theme or color scheme and consulting local nurseries for advice on which plant materials will both accent your theme and grow well in your yard's specifications (sun or shade, dry or wet).
If the theme includes building a deck or pergola, or installing ponds or retaining walls, do the major infrastructure work first. Then add plantings and accent pieces that bring the theme to its full fruition, taking care to blend the elements together.
When planning a themed garden's features, Coelho recommends using a style board -- a piece of foam core board with pictures clipped from books or magazines, along with fabric samples and paint chips, so that all of the elements you have in mind can be visually laid out before you invest time and money in an elaborate project.
"Always start with the things you have," Coelho advises. If objects or furniture elsewhere in your house would lend themselves to your theme, move them to the garden.
She also recommends starting closest to the house and working outward, making sure that there is at least one main focal area. "Create something so that when you walk outside, there's someplace to go," she says. Paving stones or gravel walkways can give the garden a sense of flow.
Consider how much maintenance different types of gardens will have. An English-style garden will be much looser and free-flowing than a more stylized garden with topiaries that require constant pruning. Japanese gardens can incorporate large rocks or raked sand beds, which are decorative but require little maintenance. Containers, such as colored or patterned pots, can add flair and versatility.
Coelho recommends staying focused but flexible. "I don't think people have to be rigid," she says. "People need to feel the freedom to create what they think is right."
Barbara Damrosch, author of "Theme Gardens" (Workman Publishing Co., New York), says themed gardens don't differ that much from other types of gardens -- all require attention to soil and climate, and with a few basic tools and some good compost, can thrive quite well.
Some of Damrosch's favorite themes include an all-white "moon garden" and a children's garden with flowers and vegetables that kids can both plant and pick.
"Keep your sense of fun," Damrosch says. "It shouldn't be a chore. Take time to smell the flowers" -- literally.
With a clear vision and good coordination, your dream theme will soon spring to life.