Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
February, 2004
Regional Report

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In an all-white garden, the different shapes of the flowers create variety and contrast.

A Vision in White

A garden filled with white blossoms and silvery foliage creates an atmosphere of blissful contentment and romantic inspiration like no other. A white garden is definitely one that must have a bench or other seating included because you will want to absorb its subtlety and tranquility. Best of all, for those who work long hours, a white garden takes on a special luminescence at dusk, gleaming magically at twilight.

White Gardens of Note
The great Edwardian landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll was one of the first to popularize the concept of a garden based on a single color. A white garden she designed still exists at Barrington Court in Somerset, England. Among the plants it showcases, common petunias and flowering tobacco are extensively used. This illustrates that a white garden needn't be based on exotic plants.

The most famous white garden, that at Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, England, was created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson in the 1950s. Yew hedges and boxwood parterres create a stunning, dark green framework that sets off plants in the beds and borders. A large trellised area covered with a fragrant, white-blooming rose is the focal point.

Sackville-West used a wide variety of plants with either white flowers or silvery foliage, including: alliums, artemisias, baby's breath, balloon flowers, butterfly bush, calla lilies, campanulas, cleome, columbines, crambe, dahlias, delphiniums, dianthus, eryngium, filipendula, flowering tobacco, four o'clocks, hostas, hydrangeas, iris, Japanese anemones, lilies, lyme grass, macleaya, mallows, pansies, peonies, phlox, poppies, potentilla, roses, sea buckthorn, santolina, sweet peas, and thalictrum.

On a Smaller Scale
My own experience with a white garden was a happy confluence of inspiration and circumstance. The inspiration was provided by a visit to Sissinghurst. The circumstance came by my mother planting three white-flowering trees so that they formed a single curving line. The trees included the native sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), a Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata 'Ivory Silk'), and a seven-sons tree (Heptacodium miconioides).

A crescent-shaped bed about 12 feet at the widest point and 60 feet long was created around these. A 6-foot-diameter steel arbor with four trellis-like "legs" was placed between two of the trees. Two benches were placed on either side of the arbor, with a small fountain at the center. The bed is surrounded by an area of lawn filled with trees and other planting beds.

The arbor is planted with a white form of Clematis viticella at one corner, with annual flowering vines at the other corners. My favorite combination is to plant one corner with moonvine, another with the white form of the cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea), and the final one with a white morning glory.

To provide dark green contrast and to have year-round interest, I chose to plant some evergreen shrubs at various intervals throughout the bed. A contoured hazelnut and ornamental grasses were added for texture. Some white-flowering forms of shrubs were added, including bush serviceberry, butterfly bush, crape myrtle, hardy hibiscus, sweetspire, and weigela. Over the years, I have added and subtracted a number of white-flowering bulbs, annuals, and perennials. Part of the bed has full sun, while other parts have shade, so I'm able to grow a wide range of plants.

Would I suggest that you consider a white garden? Besides my advocacy, consider what Tony Lord writes in his book Gardening at Sissinghurst (Frances Lincoln, Ltd., 2000; $45): "... white gardens remove the distraction of colour and makes us see most clearly the other factors that are fundamental to our enjoyment of gardens."

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