We all see color differently, but it’s rare to find someone who can’t see white. That’s because white, like sunlight, is composed of all the colors of the visible spectrum. In the garden, white plants reflect light, instantly brightening a shady spot. And an all-white garden is a symphony of light, where flowers and foliage join together in a succession of harmonious arrangements.
SIX KEYS TO DESIGNING A WHITE GARDEN
Unlike your typical garden, a white garden, by definition, is color-less. As a result, it must rely on shape, size and texture to make up its structure. Think of black and white photography: What makes it interesting? It’s all about capturing the details.
How do photographers do this? First, by playing up contrasts between dark and light. Second, by creating pattern and repetition. Last, by establishing a sense of rhythm and movement. As it turns out, these are the same details that make a white garden interesting.
The interplay between dark and light make a white garden interesting
In designing for my clients, I have returned again and again to these principles of black and white photography. Here are six keys to creating a successful white garden.
1. CHOOSE A DARK BACKDROP
A dark background makes white plants ‘pop.’ Accordingly, positioning a white garden in front of a hedge can only increase its impact. Dense green shrubs like boxwood, holly or yew all provide great backdrops. And dark-toned doors, black gates, and houses painted in brown, green or gray can serve as strong frameworks.
Below, a white metal bench makes a sharp statement against a dark green hedge, illustrating the effect.
White ‘pops’ against a dark backdrop
2. VARY THE FOLIAGE
Clearly, leaves come in countless colors, shapes and sizes. Moreover, foliage not only varies in texture, but it also has different surfaces. Glossy leaves reflect light at certain angles. On the other hand, matte leaves reflect light in different directions. I’ve found that focusing on leaves is a great way to add texture and contrast to a white garden.
A Mediterranean garden with different textured foliage
And if you really want to play up the contrast between dark and light, choose variegated foliage. From a distance, leaves with cream or white markings can mirror the look of white flowers. What’s more, they keep ‘blooming’ long after other plants have expired.
Variegated foliage plays up dark and light
3. CHANGE UP SHAPES AND SIZES
It’s great to have a sense of rhythm. And by varying shapes and sizes of plants, you can create movement in the one-color garden. I use tall flowers to establish vertical lines and rounded plants to create a horizontal flow. By repeating these groups, I can establish rhythmic patterns that the eye follows naturally, making for a pleasing composition.
Tall spires of white delphiniums
4. REPEAT FORMS
In the landscape, repeated forms serve to unify a composition. To achieve a similar effect, I’ll often create groups of a particular plant and then use similar-looking plants to repeat its form elsewhere in the garden.
For instance, many roses bear a resemblance to peonies while also echoing the flower heads of Annabelle hydrangeas. On the smaller side, Boltonia asteroides looks a lot like miniature Shasta daisies. And within the iris family, the elegant flowers of ‘Immortality’ echo those of the more diminutive Japanese iris ‘White Swirl’ to dramatic effect.
White garden roses
5. ADD SOME BLING TO YOUR WHITE GARDEN
Every garden can use a little silver. Silver-toned plants not only reflect light, but they also ease the transition from one plant to another. I’ll often plant velvety ‘Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’ at the front of a border for contrast. Or for added drama, I’ll site the beautiful foliage plant Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ in its mid section. There, its silvery, fern-like leaves provide a great complement to other dark green, broad-leaved perennials.
Silvery stachys provides soft contrast in a white garden in Maryland
6. DEADHEAD OFTEN AND FILL IN WITH ANNUALS
The one downside to white flowers is that when they fade, they rapidly turn brown. For this reason, I deadhead all my flowers regularly to maximize blooms. However, once a plant stops flowering, I’ll cut it to the ground and fill in with white-flowering annuals. These include snapdragons, sweet alyssum, nicotiana, angelonia and pompom dahlias.
GREAT PLANTS FOR WHITE GARDENS
Here are some of my favorite shrubs and perennials for creating a white garden.
- Hydrangea arborescens, ‘Annabelle’
- Mock Orange ‘Snow White Sensation’
- Potentilla ‘Abbotswood’
- Azalea ‘Delaware Valley White’
- Common Snowball Viburnum
- Gardenia ‘Crown Jewel’
- ‘Iceberg’ floribunda rose
- Delphinium ‘Centurion White’
- Phlox paniculata ‘David’
- Iris germanica ‘Immortality’
- Allium ‘Mount Everest’
- Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Summer Snowball’
- Iris reticulata (Siberian) ‘White Caucasaus’
- Paeonia ‘Duchesse de Nemours’
- Salvia ‘Summer Jewel White’
- Anenome ‘Honorine Jobert’
- Aquilegia ‘Tower White’
- Iberis sempervirens ‘Snowflake’
- White yarrow
- Hemerocallis ‘Gentle Shepherd’
- Hosta ‘Francee’