It all started, for me, as a passion for growing plants successfully. Then came learning how to manage their height and bulk, so that they didn’t all fall over and swamp each other. Next came the need to learn to plant for every season and a love of evergreens.
Last but by no means least came an appreciation of flower and leaf colour and texture, along with other important fancy visual stuff, a process that is ongoing, of course.
A significant light-bulb moment on this gardening adventure came for me, not from studying the famous colour wheel, but after a visit years ago to the (then) well-known flower border of the colourists Nori and Sandra Pope in the walled vegetable garden at Hadspen House, Somerset.
Flowering plants were ranged along the base of an ancient, enormously long curved potager wall in colour order from white and cream through to darkest red (or horticultural “black”), with the stamens or petals of one flower, for example, picking up the colour of the buds or even the backs of the petals of its neighbour, or the foliage of another, and so on.
Nori loved to talk to his visitors about colour in musical terms of tones and semitones. His book, Colour by Design – Planting the Contemporary Garden (Conran Octopus), is still treasured, and certainly that visit – and hearing him talk – changed the way I have tried to use colour in my own gardens ever since.
The extraordinary colour wall is no more, and the Popes returned to their native Canada, where Nori died in 2019. The legacy of exquisitely detailed horticulture lives on at the Newt hotel (now called Hadspen House), and the same wall now forms part of a superb formal garden of intricately trained fruit trees.
This garden will be one of the highlights of a Boxwood tour I will be hosting in September (see arenatravel.com/garden-holidays).
Most of us have, I am convinced, more innate “colour sense” than we realise; it just needs to be teased out of us. Children adore rainbows and many, certainly of my generation, spent moments of school boredom sorting out coveted collections of Derwent crayons into satisfying colour order.
The timeless allure of an all-white garden
Flowers and foliage are seldom such simple colours – and somewhere along the line we tend to lose our confidence about colour, about what “goes” with what in gardens.
There are fashions and prejudices, too: on a garden visit with my students (a few years ago), one young thing sidled up to me quietly to ask if it was “all right to like yellow, now?” (I think her mother-in-law had told her that it absolutely wasn’t).
And context is all. To use that “controversial” yellow as an example: buttercups and daffodils en masse get an almost universal thumbs-up. Acid yellow forsythia, especially if planted cheek by jowl (as it often is or was, for some reason), with a “clashing” pink flowering currant: not so much.
Yet a similarly pink shrubby cistus, dotted with big prominently yellow centred flowers on a sunny bank juxtaposed with a randomly colourful Mediterranean jumble is generally deemed fabulous.
More and more of us, it seems, appreciate the tranquil simplicity of an all-white flower garden, not just a darkly hedged, tucked away, Sissinghurst-style oasis of calm.
For an idea of the variety of styles on offer, check out #whitegarden on Instagram. Cool, serene and romantic and, of course, fabulous at dusk and dawn, pure white gardens tend to be quite structured. They typically include shrubby greenery with (importantly) varying textures and sizes of foliage and some evergreens clipped into formal shapes.
It can be fun and rewarding, also, to play about with simple white flowers in a manageable-size bed or border on a distinctly smaller scale.
Making an all-white garden seems, also, to do away with some of the indecision and the elements of chance associated with traditional borders that need so much applied “art” if they are to look special.
How to warm up a white garden
By tinkering with the all-white rule, and using a slightly broader colour palette, you can raise the ‘temperature’ of the garden by a few degrees. But don’t use dark green or yellow variegated foliage, it’s altogether too strong.
Creamy white and lime green
White gardens can include foliage and flowers on the creamy side of white. Lime green also works, as do plants with pale green and cream variegated foliage.
Trees and shrubs
Variegated Portugal laurel, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Queen’, P. tenuifolium ‘Irene Paterson’, Rhamnus alaternus ‘Argenteovariegata’.
Cream/lime green perennials
A host of euphorbias lead by the stately E. characias, as well as golden Smyrnium perfoliatum, bright, pale green hostas and the excellent cushion-forming golden marjoram.
Cream variegated grasses and creamy yellow daises (Anthemis tinctoria ‘Sauce Hollandaise), and even bold white daisies with yellow centres (the leucanthemums) can subtly enliven a cream/white scheme.
Shrubs with lime green flowers
Two beautiful but tricky-to-source shrubs come to mind: Bupleurum fruticosum (tips of its leaden evergreen shoots are adorned in high summer with long-lasting “cow parsley” flowers), which is deciduous (and slightly tender, so needing a warm wall); and Cestrum parqui, with clusters of night-scented flowers.
Tints of pink
Try plants with plum/green variegation or even deep red foliage in the mix. Such gardens have a different atmosphere to an all-white/silver-grey one.
Trees and shrubs
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, Sambucus nigra laciniata, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ (small ever-plum shrub, new shoots green at first) and Pittosporum tenuifolium purpureum (makes a small tree, eventually).
The flowers of Astrantia major, an adaptable, admirably snail and slug resistant, self-seeding border perennial, are generally described as white, but many have a distinctly pink tinge.
This is accentuated beautifully when growing next to, say, the foliage of a plummy-leafed cotinus or Persicaria microcephala ‘Red Dragon’. The same is true of other white flowers, such as the pink-tinged Gaura lindheimeri.
Tints of blue
More additions may follow, inspired, as is so often the case, by combinations seen in the gardens of others.
A cool white garden can be pushed in other colour directions: flowers with a hint of blue can look wonderful next to silver foliage, or the blue-grey leaves of certain hostas (that have pale lilac flowers themselves) and the plumelike greyish leaves of Melianthus major.
In fact, if you look carefully at adjacent flowers that are pleasing to the eye for no apparent reason, you may find they share a subtle colour characteristic.
Gardens with these kinds of “corrupted” white planting schemes can become more exciting and fluid places than those bound by a stricter palette.
As they develop they will begin to reflect, quite naturally, the gardener’s innate and individual colour sense. Nori Pope would probably approve.
Where to start with white
The smaller the border, the harder it is to populate it with a good succession of white flowers that provide a long season of interest. A pure white palette is limiting – consider introducing another tint (see “How to warm up a white garden” above).
That said, there is no law against having a lot of fun creating an all-white flower bed, using a mass of annuals grown from seed. The amount of direct sun a garden receives will dictate planting choices. A shady or dappled-light area is a very different proposition from a sunny one.
A white garden in shade will depend for much of the year on a permanent structure, such as a backdrop of evergreen shrubs (yew is best), and on leaf shapes and textures rather than flowers. White plants are least impressive when grown against a naked wooden fence – try staining it black or darkest green. Or hide it with shrubs or white-flowered evergreens (I always recommend Trachelospermum jasminoides.)
Many white-flowering plants are early performers, although a crowd of flowering white Honesty can be planted where its translucent papery seed-heads will be backlit by autumn sun.
The best plants for an all-white garden
A prolific floribunda rose with bright foliage and a light scent. There is also a climbing version.
Scented rambler, best up a tree.
‘Little White Pet’
A non-stop flowering dwarf rose, suitable for a container.
Trees and shrubs
Silver-leaved trees, such as pear, plum, cherry and hawthorn, have a big role to play. Other front-runners include:
Weeping silver pear (Pyrus salicifolia) (above) and Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’. The latter, along with another silvery shrub, Salix exigua, have a tendency to produce suckers.
Among the shrubs, try “ever-greys”, such as Olearia ilicifolia, Ozothamnus rosmarinifolius (pink in bud, white in flower); Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’; the white-flowered versions of lavender and rosemary.
Shade-tolerant brachyglottis is useful (but strip every single flower truss to avoid dozens of raggedy acid-yellow flowers).
Hippophae rhamnoides and Atriplex humilis are also useful shrubs worth considering, both tolerate coastal winds.
Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) and white wisteria head the list, but are slow to grow and also deciduous.
Clematis (C. montana, and early and late flowering varieties) scramble magnificently on structures or among other plants.
Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), with its shiny evergreen foliage and scented flowers performs several functions in an all-white setting.
There are white versions of many common annuals, biennials and perennials.
Self-sowers and bulbs – sweet rocket, foxgloves, wood anemones, hellebores, forget-me-nots, snowdrops, tulips, narcissi.
Border plants – Phlox ‘David’; Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ (note each flower has a dull purple “eye”); white campanulas; Astrantia major ‘Shaggy’.
For vertical emphasis – delphiniums, Campanula persicifolia and foxgloves all look good against chunky topiary shapes.
Silver leaves – Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’, Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’, Cynara cardunculus (cardoon), Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’, Onopordum acanthium.
Fillers – Helichrysum petiolare (frequently seen for sale among the bedding plants) makes a brilliant sprawling, long-lasting silver “gap filler”.