(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
By definition, a white garden is color-less. As a result, 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.
How do photographers do this? First, by playing up contrasts between dark and light. Second, by creating pattern and repetition. Last, 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 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 not only varies in texture, but also in surface. Glossy leaves reflect light at certain angles whereas matte leaves reflect light in different directions. 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. From a distance, leaves with cream or white markings can mirror the look of white flowers. Most importantly, they keep ‘blooming’ long after other plants have expired.
Variegated foliage plays up dark and light
3. CHANGE UP SHAPES AND SIZES
By varying shapes and sizes of plants, you can create 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 horizontal flow. On the other hand, low-growing, rambling species play with perspective while visually enlarging a space.
Mixing repeating groups of tall, rounded and rambling species creates rhythmic patterns that the eye will follow naturally. And this makes for a pleasing composition.
Tall spires of white delphiniums
4. REPEAT FORMS
In the landscape, repeating forms brings rhythm and unity to a composition. I often create groups of one plant and then repeat the form elsewhere in the garden with plants whose flowers are similar.
For instance, garden roses look a lot like peonies and have a similar shape to the rounded flower heads of Annabelle hydrangeas. Tiny Boltonia asteroides, bears an uncanny resemblance to miniature Shasta daisies. And within the iris family, the elegant flowers of ‘Immortality’ echo those of the small-sized Japanese iris ‘White Swirl’ to dramatic effect.
White garden roses
5. ADD SOME BLING TO YOUR WHITE GARDEN
Silver plants reflect light and help ease the transition from one plant to another. I often place velvety ‘Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’ at the front of the border to create a soft edging. For added drama, I’ll add the beautiful foliage plant Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ to the mid section of the bed. Here, its silvery, fern-like leaves provide a great contrast 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 downside of 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 species stops flowering, I 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’