When it comes to garden design, I'm not too proud to admit that I don't have too many original ideas. I like to steal. Yup, I steal ideas and make them a reality in my garden. Sometimes I steal a whole idea, sometimes just a piece of an idea. When summer rolls around, I'm in thievery delight as I pick up ideas from neighborhood walks or visits to design centers and public gardens. This method of inspiration is augmented by design books and Internet pictures, but there is really nothing like heading out to a local garden to see the beauty for yourself.

Last year I took a trip to Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois. Cantigny is a really unique park nestled in the western suburbs of Chicago. Within the park are many sights: the historic Robert R. McCormick Museum, the First Division Museum, Idea and Formal Gardens, including a rose garden, a golf course and more. I particularly enjoyed the Idea garden, but stole ideas from all locations.

Every year I also delight in new display beds at a local garden center (Hornbaker Gardens in Illinois). In display gardens like these, I discover how plants behave in different environments. I know that places like this have much more money to invest and more youthful staff to contribute to the display than I have, but the results are always inspirational.

Of course, nothing beats a neighborhood garden walk to see how real people with similar resources develop their gardens. Several years ago I got to steal ideas from participants of a Pond Tour. This was particularly helpful because I just could not imagine what I wanted my pond to look like! I certainly came away with a better vision for my garden.

Here are my hints for collecting ideas.

Specific Plants

Sometimes you see a plant that just speaks to you. When you find such a plant, gather what information you can. Start with a name. Most garden centers and public gardens will have items marked. If not, find a helpful staff member to assist in the identification. Note in what soil and light conditions this plant grows. Be sure to discover other growing factors such as irrigation and support. When you are home, research the plants bug and disease susceptibility as well as other plant needs. Does it need heavy fertilization? Does it survive the winters in your area? Is it a heavy reseeder, etc?

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Blood Banana Tree

I'd seen it on TV shows and wondered how it would look at my house.

California Poppies

These poppies were blooming at a hot and dry time of the year and still looked great. So this year I winter-sowed some seeds for my garden.


I think this color combination would be perfect for a friend's yard.

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This beautiful specimen showed the mature size. Looks like I'll be moving some baby plants away from the house!

Julia Child Floribunda Bush

After seeing and smelling this beauty, I think I have to find a place in the garden.

Plant Combinations

I'm amazed sometimes at plant combinations. When you see a combination first-hand, then you really can understand design terms such as color and texture. All of these combinations are found at Cantigny Park.

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"Team" planters all in a row offer a fun color-coded homage to your favorite school!

Seeing these colors, I immediately thought I should make one for my husband's favorite baseball team, the Red Sox. I loved the way these coleus looked not only with each other, but the elephant ear in the back. I thought this really gave a tropical feel while the solid green "grounded" the grouping.
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Another coleus combination with grass. Just gorgeous! Normally I would not think of putting this many color combinations together. But this works so well I'm now willing to try multiple colors. Texture and color on a large scale.


Often you might have fallen in love with a plant but really don't know the ideal place to put it. If you have the right sun and soil conditions in several places but you just need that "right" spot, gather ideas from others.

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Log plantings are a good way to raise a plant that might otherwise be lost in the plantings. Columbine along the water is a pretty sight. Previous to this I had really only thought of mixing columbine with rock.
image This group of Redbuds is located at the edge of the tree canopy. Ideal for forts or hammocks, the circle planting is a fun area for adults and kids alike.

Garden Art

This is a tough category because there are so many tastes out there. From the subtle to the whimsical, there is something for everyone. When you see a display garden using art, you can take note of the way it is paired with plantings or left on its own. Your mind begins to churn with ideas for your own yard.

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Here are two examples of art that works with water. On top is a stone lantern, perfect for a Japanese-inspired garden. Below the pond several whimsical metal fish add charm. Happy metal penguins make their way towards a pond at Hornbaker Gardens.
image Ribbet! I just might have to find a nice frog like this on a smaller scale for my garden!


Most of the time when I see structures in a display garden, I can only dream about how wonderful it would be to have these. Some day I'd like to report back that I've installed a version or two of what you've seen here.

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This large sitting area at Cantigny Park was a cool getaway from the hot summer sun. I loved the solid look and feel of this and will strive to make it a reality in my garden. Here is the top of the structure. A very solid construction to support shade-loving hanging planters. I thought this sail shade cloth and wall was a unique way to provide some cover. I've seen these before but liked how they paired with the lattice wall.


Ponds are springing up everywhere. From the small to large, the variety is astounding. I knew I wanted to add water to the garden, but how? I considered options, but was not really sure until I took a pond tour. There were many types of ponds. Some I Iiked, some I just did not care for.

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During the pond walk, this was the pond that I thought best fit my personality. I found I enjoyed the shady retreat more than those in the open sun. Although not the same feel as the pond to the left, this was a lovely pond with all the colorful plants. At Hornbaker Gardens, I also admired the long stream. The flat rock on the waterfall is something that I prefer. From this stream, I also determined that a wooden bridge is not my style. I prefer a stone walkway.

If these pictures haven't given you some ideas to steal, it's time to head out to a community garden, retail display gardens or local garden walks. Take a camera with lots of film or digital memory (and battery power) as well as a pad of paper and pencil for taking notes. With so many excellent samples of garden design, you do not need to suffer "garden design block."

Good luck in stealing the BEST ideas for YOUR garden.


Garden Design Forum on Dave's Garden

Cantigny Park

Hornbaker Gardens

Pond Tours in your area

Garden Walks in your area (check your local websites and papers for walks like these)

Sheffield Garden Walk (Chicago)

Prospect Park Garden Walk (Minneapolis)

Garden Walk (Buffalo)