The Theme of a Great Garden


Today we toured one of the finest gardens in California, the new garden at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. The occasion was the opening of the new pollinator habitat. Head gardener Richard Hayden showed us around, taking us to the edible area as well as the new pollinator and Nature Gardens. This garden gave us so many ideas that we’re going to do several posts about it. One important design lesson I learned today is that great gardens have a theme.


Designed by the landscape architecture firm of Mia Lehrer and Associates, the Natural History Museum’s garden subtly suggests the contents inside the museum: dinosaurs, prehistory and the passage of time. There are no animatronic dinosaurs to be found in the garden. Instead, the theme is suggested through dramatic, rough stonework and the use of California native plants. The garden feels as if exists in a time before humans.

It got me wondering how thematics would play out in a more modest home landscape. Perhaps, when it comes time to design a garden it would be useful to toss around a few abstract words and ideas to help unify the design vocabulary of the garden. Picking a theme or several related themes could make it easier when it comes to making plant and hardscpaping choices.

Of course, the current theme of our garden is “Skunk Encounters.” We’re going to have a bunch of stinky school groups this spring . . .

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  1. Longtime reader, first comment. 🙂 Just these two photos are gorgeous! I live in Cincinnati, and have long wished that some kind of garden existed near our beautiful Union Terminal Museum. There are LOTS of other parks fairly nearby, so I guess it doesn’t seem necessary, but I don’t know of any public gardens nearby- especially pollinator gardens.

    I’m fascinated by these first two photos and theme description, can’t wait for the follow-up posts. Thanks!! 🙂

  2. My theme is “what I like, what I can afford, what lives.” It works for me. However, the themed larger areas you show are fascinating.

    I appreciate grand public gardens, but trying to live the life is like living in the magazine showrooms of homes.

    Sorry about the skunk theme.

  3. The theme for my LA garden is “weeds,” with a subtext of “disrepair” and I must say I’ve been wildly successful with that.

    The theme for our desert garden is proving more challenging.

  4. In my front yard, the sunnier part of our property, we’ve got “edibles (fruit, veg, mushrooms, edible flowers) and flowers for pollinators, plus bird feeders & bird baths”. The backyard, which is really shady, is “native (like, growing native within our county 150 years ago) plants that thrive in the shade, along with a few non-plant surprises, all of which make for a relaxing visit”.

  5. natural history museum edible garden is there a site I can find out what plants they’ve planted in it? thank you

    • I’d contact the Los Angeles Natural History museum directly, and ask to speak to someone about the gardens.

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