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August 2009


DIRT

The Right White Garden
by Dianne Benson

HOW TO PICK PLANTS THAT MAKE THE MOST OF A DRAMATICALLY PALE PATCH

Click on any photo below for a larger view.

[Image]
Panorama of Whiteness (click image for larger view)

What is it about a white garden that seems to engage the imagination like nothing else can? A Shakespeare garden doesn't do it (too Elizabethan, too herby). Knot and topiary gardens can be quite special but they are static. A rose garden is a great six-, well, eight-week garden, but rather miserable the other 42. Other "color" gardens just don't have the magic—not even the Red Border at Hidcote. So, is it the purity factor of white? The allure of pristine environs—fey and diaphanous? Glowing incandescence is certainly a compelling notion (as in moonlight captured). The immortal white garden of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson was placed definitively between the houses where the couple slept and did their writing. It was ordained that they pass through the white garden as it glowed in the dusk, lighting up the night.

Upon conjuring up my thoughts on white gardens, I swore that I would not make it a paean to Vita or Sissinghurst because such an "ultimate garden" is not what I hope to share with you. That sort of landscape requires rotation, acreage, gardeners, a vast supply of plants and lots of money. Plus, the white garden at Sissinghurst has so grown in stature that no matter how real it actually is (I saw it with my own eyes only four years ago, even though I had been unknowingly emulating it for two decades), it has achieved an unattainable pseudo-mythical status. But you know I never write about wishful thinking without suggesting how to make all of your dreams come true. So I propose that the harmony of whiteness needn't depend on a snap of the fingers or even by writing a big check. It can be achieved with diligence, forward thinking and serious plant hunting, tasks that will keep you occupied and delighted for years to come.

[Click on photo for a larger view.]

[Image] Don't dream of making this wonderland with blooms alone—a white garden that depends on white flowers is not only painstakingly difficult, it is impossible. Build the base of the garden with trees and shrubs that are white-leaved, white-variegated, white-barked or have some kind of a white mutation. The dogwoods Cornus controversa or Cornus kousa 'Wolf Eyes' or 'Angela' are a great place to start. The small tree Acer negundo 'Flamingo' has leaves that are sometimes all white. In the same maple family, there are many precious Japanese maples with white markings (sometimes a little pink creeps in, but that's fine, too). The very hard-to-find Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrellas' is inspirational, while the Japanese willow Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki' is everywhere—and affordable to boot. Variegated conifers, which keep the garden lively all year, tend toward golden hues (aurea)—so when you spot one with white (alba)—grab it or search out the great Thuja dolobrata (arborvitae) or Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Argentea,' which is weepy.

Popular shrubs like Pieris (andromeda) and Leucothoe have many wonderful white-bordered and -spotted varieties, so does Osmanthus (false holly, especially 'Goshiki'). Real hollies (Ilex) have a huge spectrum of white variegation. Hydrangeas, in all of their varying kinds, can satisfy almost a whole white appetite. There is even one whose leaf undersides are luminous white, for the most nuanced of white garden touches.

Interspersed among the larger plants and beneath it all, try carpeting the ground with a white-edged or white-speckled ground cover. The lamiums (or nettles) are a first choice because they are a nine-month plant and 'White Nancy' not only has silvery white leaves but profuse white flowers, too. Taciturn in its whiteness, an unsung great component of the carpet is the Saxifraga stolonifera—not only heavily white-veined leaves but wispy wands of small butterfly-like blooms (like an early summer Epimedium). Aegopodium or the much-prettier-than-it-sounds Bishop's Weed spreads and mounds just the way you want it to. Rounding out the choices are many terrific white-veined, white-mottled, white-rimmed and white-splotched types of classics like ivy (Hedera) and hosta that cannot be beat. Most of all, you need as many as possible of the impossible-to-overrate Japanese Painted Fern. There can never be enough. For variety, seek out cultivars such as 'Ghost' and 'Silver Falls,' as well as the species pictum available everywhere. For my money, it's simply the best garden plant there is. And don't forget the variegated leaf Iris pallida—the purple flower may last only a few days, but the great blue-and- white sword-like leaves go on forever.

[Click on photo for a larger view.]

[Image] To this mix of fronds, needles, leaves and barks, then add the brilliance of clean, chaste white flowers, which are the lit-up layer of beauty that makes a white garden irresistible. Start the season with drifts of daffodils (Thalia, Stainless and all of the poeticus) and follow with the opalescent tulips Mount Tacoma, Swan Wings and Maureen. Peonies, both the fragile singles (my favorite) or the many multi-petalled (Snow Swan, Mother's Choice) are a must, as are the dramatic and divine scrambling big white Clematis, especially 'Duchess of Edinburgh.' The Sissinghurst rose of choice is Rosa mulliganii, but certainly there are myriad climbing, mounding and twining white roses. 'Casablanca' and lily white are interchangeable words; there is no question about the importance of lilies. Extend the lily season and the beauty of your garden with trumpet lilies and Lilium candidum, the Madonna Lily, even waxy Asiatic lilies look good in white. The conical flower heads of late summer hydrangeas, the PeeGees and paniculata tardiva just can't be beat for the seasonal coda.

It's a perfect time to begin your search for white, which, if all the myriad forms of whiteness in the plant world are taken into account, will serenely transport your year-round garden. Aim for three to five clumps of four or five different varieties of plants in order to cover about 50 square feet. As early as the second season, it will begin to take shape as a charming pale tapestry, a patchwork, a mosaic—a veritable smorgasbord of white of your very own.

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AMAZING SELECTION OF PEONIES
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BEST BULBS AND CALLA LILIES
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VARIEGATED SHRUBS AND WOODY PLANTS
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SILVERY ENCRUSTED SAXIFRAGAS
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