Creating a White Garden
Straight out of the block, I’m talking about green. And grey, silver, and variegation. We’ll get to white but a few thoughts first.
‘Green is the backdrop to the garden but in its range of shades and textures, green has much more to offer as any foreground interest. Grey dims, white brightens and greens, greys and white together will outlast the flash from coloured petals.’ Mary Keen
When we talk about creating a White Garden, strictly speaking, we mean a green, white, and grey garden and not just white. Green foliage, and variegated, silver and pewter, with white flowers and pale colours that blend but are not strictly pure white, a balance of structure and ephemeral planting, using trees, shrubs, perennials, biennials and annuals, spring and autumn bulbs, a whole smorgasbord of horticulture treats
Our love affair starts with Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Large scale gardening, with the Victorians, allowed for restricted palette and colour-themed-borders, in distinct and separate areas.
But the romance associated with the White Garden began in the 1930s when Harold and Vita bought the run-down estate and bore fruit when the White Garden was laid out in 1950.
Of Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens
While this is naturally a garden to be enjoyed during the daytime, I think the real joy would be to see it, as visitors never get the opportunity, at dusk and later even.
These cool and pale shades will be the last to diminish in the gloaming, with ghostly heads and a tumble of shapes reluctant to let go of the failing light. Vita Sackville West worked, slept and cooked in three separate buildings, so would have had the pleasure of walking these paths in the late evening, enjoying the silhouettes and highlights, and fragrance too. Who do I have to talk to, for that privilege?
Of course, in sunshine, strong sunshine, much of the effect could be bleached out, which is why the bones of this garden, and a substantial punch of green in our gardens, if we are using such a restrictive colour palette, will provide the cool and the calm under a white sun. The balance of green to colour should however never be dull.
One trick is to photograph your garden, or a stretch of border, in black and white. A preponderance of small oval leaves will look featureless, and with no focus or contrast. Green-on-green compositions rely on leaf shape, texture, varying sizes, spikes and spires to relieve the sheep-like qualities of some shrubs, some architecture and bold planting, even in a small space. Small gardens do not have to have just small plants.
Large-leaved Fatsia japonica, deeply glossy, or Melianthus major (honey spurge), suggest something more tropical. Fennel, threaded through a border is airy but architectural, while Cynara and Onopordium, Angelica are truly architectural.
Contrast with clipped Ilex crenata (a welcome relief from the tribulations of box-hedge owners and the irresistible rise of the box leaf caterpillar), or neat conifers, broad-leaved hostas, green is a broad church. A well-constructed border wouldn’t look dull, even in B&W.
Grey foliage needs careful handling, as it is paradoxically, a strong and bright feature in any planting, despite being well, grey. Or silver. Where the planting is in shade, the effect is less strong, and the detail of the texture and pattern of foliage, and any variegation, is toned down but much more evident than in full sun. Artemesia, Brunnera, Lamium, Astelia, these solid pewters and metallic sheens, are welcome in a cooler position. Varigated plants work well in shadier spots, and while we are talking about white flowers, note that blue is often cleaner and clearer in shade, taking on a purplish tone in strong sunshine.
Green foliage and white flowers are particularly welcome in shadier spaces, though from my notes, you will see that there are far more white flowers to choose that prefer a well-lit and sunny position to the shadier corners of our gardens.
White flowers become luminous near nightfall, so foxgloves and Japanese Anemones, roses, Clematis, white-flowering shrubs such as Choisya, Olearia, Acanthus, Jasmines and Nicotianas will be the last to go to bed. And let’s not ignore evening scent. Another chapter altogether.
Returning to Sissinghurst Castle –
“I am trying to make a grey, green and white garden’ wrote Vita in one of her gardening articles for the Observer in January 1950. The idea transported her readers, and the garden itself prompted countless imitations. Lilium regale, white delphiniums, irises, eremurus, galtonias, and Onorpordium thistles rising above cushions of artemesias and hosta; a weeping silver pear (the original fell over in the storm of October 1987; this is a replacement), Pyrus salificolia pendula sheltering the lead statue of a virgin; an ironwork bower covered in the white rambler rose, R mulliganii, and the Priest’s House in Rosa Mme Alfred Carriere and R cooperii. The colours span every tint and tone, with each plant sited for maximum impact of shape, height and leaf size.
‘”It may be a terrible failure,“ added Vita with her customary modesty. “All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across the pale garden next summer in the twilight, that I am now planting under the first flakes of snow.”
‘Whether or not it is twilight,’ writes Stephen Lacey in his book Gardens of the National Trust, ‘I recommend this enclosure as your departing image : a sorbet after the feast of colour.’
The mid-summer impact of the white garden, tightly enclosed by tall yew hedging and brickwork of the Priest’s House, with narrow gaps to allow the visitor in from either the meadow or adjoining garden, the billows of flower and foliage, corseted in a frame of knee-high, clipped and deeply green box hedging, is so utterly romantic. Roses, Jasmine, Hydrangea (Annabelle), Cosmos and I think Antirrhinums, ghostly Eryngium, daisy heads of Echinacea, the goose-necked Lysimachia, Nigella, more spires and pillows of Campanula, spires of Veronicastrum, late-summer Anemones, Physostegia, grasses, Nicotiana, Peonies … there is a surge of growth, which would be unruly save for the strong bones of the garden, and the boundaries are fully clothed with pergolas and pillars adding height within the parterre of formal hedging.
I did draft three planting plans – green/green, green/white and silver/white with something for pretty much all of the year and if I can locate them despite all my lockdown-led clearing out and tidying up, I’ll come back and add them here. Scented winter shrubs, evergreens with glossy leaves – and on the subject of structure, aim for at least 30% of the planting to be evergreen, keeping its foliage all through the year. This will give you something to look at in mid-winter while the perennials shut down, and before the Spring bulbs get going.
Structure, deciduous shrubs (Lilac, Philadelphus), regular returnees being the perennials, bulbs, and then annual and biennial fillers such as Foxgloves, Love in a Mist, Cosmos, more-tender Fuchsias, annual Phlox, Antirrhinum (snapdragons) will keep the show going. There are lists at the end of this piece.
Clothing the boundaries in light-reflecting Ivy (Gloire de Marengo is one of my favourites), Honeysuckle, Jasmine (J officinale and Trachelopspermum jasminoides), and Roses in sun, in shadier spots the climbing Hydrangea anomala petiolaris and the similar but-not-the same Schizophragma integrifolia, and Clematis can do well in a cooler spot too.
Adding height within the border with obelisks and pillars helps break up the view, interrupting the eye, obscuring and revealing, providing focal points and being just plain useful for growing more climbers and clamberers in your garden. Shrubs too, are a useful frame for a not-too rampant Clematis and there is a Clematis willing to flower pretty much every month of the year. Let’s not forget Wisteria …
Roses, as anyone who has ever met me before, or read my blog, are a crucial element of my idea of a good garden. My garden is north facing, so my choices are limited – I have the rambler Goldfinch, Mme Alfred Carriere, and Aimee Vibert or Bouquet de La Marriage, and grow a standard Desdemona in a pot at the front. For anywhere less shaded with at least the possibility of six hours of sunshine, and a rich soil, or large enough container and some careful management, white roses come in all shapes, hues and sizes.
Rambler roses, like R mulliganii at Sissinghurst Castle, Paul’s Himalayan Musk or vigorous beauties like Kiftsgate, The Garland, Bobbie James, Rambling Rector and Wedding Day, are one-month wonders. Absolutely spectacular if given full reign, and something you would not want to be on holiday for, to miss it in full spate. Some are earlier than others, some later, like Aimee Vibert (Bouquet de la Marriage), so if you have room for more than one, you could have a near two month show, and many have a fine show of rose hips.
But they are big, 6-10m, they need a lot of room.
Happily David Austin set his mind to it and bred the more petite rambler, Snowgoose, which has long trails of neat white pompom flowers on a plant not much more than 3-4m. Lady of the Lake is pale, but not white, but might be fitted into a scheme if there are pinkish nuances.
Climbing roses offer more scope, being variations on shrub roses, sports, bred with floribundas and hybrid teas and come in a bewildering number of forms and colours.
We’ve mentioned Mme Alfred Carriere, a Noisette climber with great scent and a second, strong flush of flowers later in the summer. Creamy white, with flashes of pink shell and peach, it is a delight.
Iceberg is a star performer and David Austin have used it extensively in their rose breeding process for its health, vitality and near-constant flowering. It has little or no scent, but can be a beautiful specimen. The only rose I believe in the garden of the American Ambassador in Regents Park, since it is so floriferous.
Of the David Austin roses, Claire Austin is the best white climber, or large shrub, with primrose yellow buds opening to pure white. Wollerton Old Hall pales from a rich cream, even apricot, to ivory with a strong fragrance of myrrh, like Sweet Cecily, aniseed. The Generous Gardener starts a soft pink before paling to a softer blush, with good perfume and reliable habit.
Shrub roses, again from David Austin, include the fragrant sport of The Mayflower, Susan Williams-Ellis, with glaucous leaves and icy white small pompom flowers. Tranquility, which is neater, more classically shaped. Winchester Cathedral, another sport, of Mary Rose, though you do occasionally get a flash of its parent, with pink blotches and splashes against the white.
Kew Gardens is a single-flower with masses of blooms on great hydrangea-like heads. Immensely healthy, repeat-flowering, and perfect for pollinators. An under used and under rated rose, this one.
For a blush of primrose, Tottering-by-Gently, is pretty much identical to Kew Gardens, but with lemon, later paling to cream. Imogen has a blush of primrose too and Vanessa Bell. Gentle Hermione pales to a blush of pink, Desdemona has a touch of apricot, pearl and cream.
Old Shrub roses offer up a cornucopia of white flowering plants, mostly flowering just once in mid-summer, but graceful shrubs the rest of the season, and an opportunity to climb something through them when they are not in flower. Mme Hardy is a large shrub best described as white lace and emeralds, for the green eye at the centre of the flower; The rugosa rose, Blanc Double de Coubert is robust, good in shade, perfumed and strong; Little White Pet is a diminutive, fragrant ground cover roses; Boule de Neige is a tall white bundle of snowballs.
A visit to Mottisfont Abbey near Romsey in Hampshire, a National Trust property with a sizeable collection of Old Roses that is sure to inspire. As too, maybe a little later, would be a visit to Albrighton, near Telford, to see David Austin’s two-acre garden. There are plenty of stories in my blog cataloguing their gardens and rose collections, so please do have a virtual wander.
I’ve spent a lot of time on roses, but cover many of the more useful and interesting shrubs, perennials, climbers and annuals detailed in the plant lists I’ve written out. These are not writ in stone, but suggest longevity, interest at different times of year, with a focus on structure, varying the shape, size and texture of the plants, as well as the leaf colour and flower, fragrance and impact at different times of day.
With the hedgerows and river banks overflowing with cow parsley, elderflower and hawthorn, we might include some of their better behaved garden plants in to the mix – Ammi major and Orlaya, Sambucus and Crataegus. Foxgloves are about to do their thing, Japanese Anemones will be with us from high summer, Hydrangeas in all their myriad forms are a true delight from summer onwards.
Narcissus and Tulips started the white season off in March, Camassias and Alliums will take up the baton, Agapanthus sees us through the summer and Dahlias create a blinding finish to the year (and who can resists Café au Lait?)..
A restricted palette, as you can see, still leaves a wide, wide selection of plants to choose from, to use in your garden compositions. As with any garden project, the right plant in the right place is our every day mantra. True, you can amend local conditions a little – extra watering, mulching, improving drainage, elevating tree-crowns and shrub-skirts to give plants more room, but plants that like sun, like sun. Plants can tolerate some shade, and some absolutely must have it.
And have a longer look, please, through my blog, for another gallery on the White Garden plant choices, a huge gallery in fact, plus my visits to Kew, RHS Wisley, a glorious white garden at Loseley House near Guildford (above) spring immediately to mind last May and all my other garden visits. We might not be able to get there in person, but we can enjoy them virtually and make plans.
Some planting lists, pardon the handwriting …