From the Garden Gate: The White Garden

Jun 13, 2013

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent. One of the most famous "White Gardens" in the world.

Murray resident Roy Helton divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening.  In this week's "From the Garden Gate" commentary, the topic is white gardens. Similar in design to the English cottage garden, white gardens feature flowers that are white or silvery, with the intent to overwhelm the viewer with a single color. 

The White Garden

I wish I had an Italian garden with tall spires of Italian cypress surrounding it. I wish I had a French Renaissance garden with parterres of formal flower beds stretching into the distance. I wish I had a Knot garden of intricate interlaced patterns of herbs and flowers like the one I once saw in Stratford Upon Avon. But more than anything, I wish I had a white garden.

Now, the thing is, I’m not going to have any of these gardens for the simple reason that I do my gardening on a city lot that doesn’t have the space for my unlimited wishes. And I don’t have a ruined castle like Sissinghurst to enclose the famous white garden developed by Vita Sackville-West. But I want to extol the virtues of the white garden and suggest that even with space limitations, it’s still possible to enjoy some of the pleasures of such a garden.

And even if you have no interest in a white garden as such, consider the values of including white in any landscape. White flowers or silvery white foliage are perfect for setting off any colors, whether muted or bold.  As the interior designers like to say, white can make other colors “pop.” White makes a great backdrop for almost anything you would want to plant. Try some tall varieties  such as delphinium, foxglove, hollyhocks, tall cosmos or Shasta daisies, or Queen Anne’s Lace (and for a change, its larger look-alike flower, Ammi major.)

You can also punctuate any landscape with a white flowering shrub like Mockorange.This year mine was blanketed in white for several weeks and gave up its mildly citrusy smell as a bonus. Equally long-lasting was a Virginia Sweetspire with its drooping 3-6 inch spires of creamy white. With the Sweetspire you do have to contend with its desire to send out runners that pop up as new baby Sweetspires. Other fairly obvious choices for summer white would include hydrangeas, viburnum, Buddleia, roses, or Crepe Myrtle.

If you want a truly all white garden, planning what and where to plant presents some interesting challenges. After all, you are not doing what you are most used to in planning your garden—mixing and matching colors to suit your own personal color palate. Now, all of your flowers are going to be—well—white. So your decisions will not be affected by whether the orange of the calendulas will look right next to the red zinnias. 

Instead, choices about the size and shape of the flowers and the shape of the plant and its foliage become considerations. Oddly enough, the color of the foliage actually  becomes the main color element. Do you really want all the pale green foliage clumped together over there and all the dark green over here? How about some silvery foliage plants to offer the perfect muted contrast in the white garden? Good choices are the various forms of Artemisia—ranging from our old friend Dusty Miller to the lacy variety Silver Mound to the much taller Artemisia vulgaris. In full sun, a miscanthus grass variety like Morning Light, with its thin white stripe down the middle of each blade, fits right in to the color scheme.

If you have a trellis or an arbor or even a fence, consider a white climbing rose for a bold effect. Both Iceberg and New Dawn are highly reliable repeat bloomers in white. And if you want something less ambitious, try filling up some large pots with white varieties of euphorbia or salvia or angelonia and maybe some trailing white Wave petunias or calibrachoa. Give it a shot and  see just how soothing white can be in your own garden.

Well, here’s to you—from the garden gate.