(Updated March 2019)
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 STEPS TO DESIGNING A WHITE GARDEN
Since by definition a white garden is color-less, it must rely on shape, size and texture to make up its structure. Think of a black and white photograph: what makes it interesting? The appeal of black and white photography lies in its ability to capture the details.
But how do photographers do this? Firstly, by playing up contrasts between dark and light. Secondly, by creating pattern and repetition. Lastly, by establishing an interplay between foreground and background that creates a sense of rhythm and movement. These are the same details that make a white garden interesting.
The interplay between dark and light make a white garden interesting
1. CHOOSE A DARK BACKDROP
White-flowering plants really ‘pop’ against a dark background. And positioning your white garden in front of a hedge only heightens the effect. Dense green shrubs like boxwood, holly or yew all provide great backdrops. Similarly, dark-toned doors, black gates, and houses painted in dark brown, green or gray can serve as strong frameworks.
White ‘pops’ against a dark backdrop
2. VARY THE FOLIAGE
Leaves come in countless colors, sizes, shapes and forms. Moreover, foliage can vary in texture while exhibiting a range of finishes from glossy to matte. Some greens are gray while others tend more towards blues or yellows. 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, variegated foliage does double duty. Leaves with cream or white markings can mirror the look of white flowers. Most importantly, they keep ‘blooming’ long after other plants have died.
Variegated foliage plays up dark and light
3. CHANGE UP SHAPES AND SIZES
Varying shapes and sizes of plants creates a sense of rhythm and movement in the one-color garden. Tall flowers establish vertical lines that lead the eye upwards while rounded plants create a linear flow. Low-growing, rambling species play with perspective while visually enlarging a space.
Mixing repeating groups of tall, rounded, upright and rambling species creates rhythmic patterns that the eye will follow naturally. This makes for a pleasing composition.
Tall spires of white delphiniums
4. REPEAT FORMS
Within the plant world, there are many species that resemble each other. I often repeat forms by selecting plants that have flowers that are similar.
For instance, peonies mirror roses while also exhibiting a similar shape to the blooms of Annabelle hydrangea. Tiny Boltonia asteroides, resemble miniature Shasta daisies. And within the iris family, the elegant flowers of ‘Immortality’ echo those of the smallish Japanese iris ‘White Swirl’ to dramatic effect.
5. ADD SOME BLING
Silver plants reflect light and help ease the transition from one plant to another. For instance, I like to place velvety ‘Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’ at the front of the border to create a firm edging. For added drama, I’ll add the beautiful foliage plant Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ to the mid section of the bed. Its silvery, fern-like leaves provides a soft contrast to other broad-leaved perennials.
Silvery stachys provides soft contrast in a white garden in Maryland
6. DEADHEAD OFTEN AND FILL IN WITH ANNUALS
White flowers, when they fade, turn brown rapidly. I deadhead all my flowers regularly to maximize blooms. Once a species stops flowering, however, I cut it to the ground and fill in with white-flowering annuals. These include snapdragons, sweet alyssum, nicotiana, angelonia and white 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’