Stripping colour from your borders to focus on white can create a romantic and elegant mood — but working with a limited palette requires care according to Rachel de Thame of The Times.
There’s undoubtedly an air of mystique surrounding a white garden. The words alone invite notions of romantic heroines wafting from bed to bed, gathering armfuls of fragrant roses. In reality, however, white gardens are notoriously difficult to get right.
The range of hues is just as broad and variable in flowers as it is on posh paint charts, and this is part of the problem. Get the mix a little off and the purity of the whole scheme is compromised.
For me, there’s another difficulty. In order to achieve a white garden, you have to forgo all other colours. This is easily done for a year or two, but maintaining it for longer requires enormous self-control and restraint: something that, in my experience, gardeners (and I include myself here) rarely have.
That’s not to say one shouldn’t try: the discipline needed when creating a single-colour garden, and making that colour one associated with purity, could ultimately be liberating. By dismissing anything that doesn’t fit the brief, one is freed from the confusion of an overwhelming range of plants and a baffling number of choices.
The focus that follows as one hones the planting to the best of what remains can become quite hypnotic. Vita Sackville-West, creator of the “daddy” of white gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, wrote: “It is great fun and endlessly amusing as an experiment, capable of perennial improvement, as you take away the things that don’t fit in, or that don’t satisfy you, and replace them by something you like better.”
Fortunately, this restriction of the planting palette can work as well in the confines of the city as in a large country garden, and can be incredibly chic. White flowers are also a great option for the shady sites most often encountered in towns. The luminosity of pale colours allows them to glow in low light levels, so they stand out from the surrounding foliage and hard landscaping.
Whether urban or rural, a few simple rules apply. Where you can’t achieve contrast and interest in flower colour, it’s important to aim for variety in texture, shape and form. White induces an atmosphere of cool, calm elegance, but don’t allow it to lull you to sleep. Make sure you add a few visual surprises: some bold vertical spikes or height where it is least expected will help to shake up an overall cotton-wool softness.
If you do give it a go, there are decisions to be made. Do you want to restrict the colour scheme in every season or just one? It’s perfectly possible to go with entirely white snowdrops, crocuses, narcissi and tulips for a spring whiteout, then allow other colours to join and even dominate from summer onwards. Another option for a first-time whitewash is to use annuals such as Nigella damascena ‘Double White’, Antirrhinum ‘White Giant’ and Nicotiana alata ‘Grandiflora’, along with those mentioned in my list of recommended plants, below. You’ll achieve masses of flowers for a modest outlay, which will help you to decide if a white garden is the way forward.
There is a middle ground. Many “white” flowers are in fact white with a dash of something else: perhaps a streak of contrasting purple, a splash of yellow in the centre or milky-white petals with the undersides tinted pink. It all depends how much white feels right to you. Gaura lindheimeri ‘The Bride’ is a perfect, less than pure white candidate, as are the ever-flowering Mexican daisy, Erigeron karvenskianus, and Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’. Any of these could find a place in a “white with benefits” colour scheme. Alternatively, you could mix things up a bit with another single colour, as in Prince Charles’s black-and-white garden at Highgrove.
When it comes to foliage, the perfect foil for pristine whites is equally classic green. Sackville-West’s husband, Harold Nicolson, gave her a framework of evergreen yew and box hedging. You can also incorporate white in the leaves themselves, using a range of variegated foliage.
Silver leaves are another extension of the white theme. Plants such as Artemisia ludoviciana, Stachys byzantina and santolina tolerate drought and are perfectly suited to dry, sunny sections of a garden, though you’ll have to remove the flowers from the last two if you want to keep your whites as unsullied as freshly laundered sheets.