What’s the secret to success when designing a white garden, and what plants do you recommend?
Bob Lewis, Dayton, OH
Choose plants with contrasting shapes when creating a white garden.
Photo/Illustration: Allison Starcher
Barbara Blossom Ashmun, a contributing editor who designs gardens in Portland, Oregon, responds: Making a white garden is challenging. With the flower colors all the same, it can easily become monotonous. The key is to provide enough contrast in flower form, leaf shape, and leaf color that the plants don’t blend together into an amorphous blur.
When selecting plants for your design, consider all the various flower types—round, spiked, trumpet-shape, daisy-shape, and panicled. Combining these contrasting shapes makes each plant more distinctive. For summer blooms, place a white peony (Paeonia spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–8) beside a white ‘Butterball’ delphinium (Delphinium ‘Butterball’, Zones 3–7) to juxtapose their round and columnar flowers. During the delphinium’s second bloom period, in autumn, try pairing it with the round flowers of ‘Honorine Jobert’ anemone (Anemone X hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’, Zones 4–8). Combine trumpet-shape calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica, Zones 8–10) with a panicled white-flowering Crambe cordifolia (Zones 6–9) for early summer display, or ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies (Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’, Zones 4–8) in front of spikes of Veronicastrum virginicum f. album (Zones 3–8) for a late-summer picture. And use the airy white flowers of ‘Whirling Butterflies’ wandflower (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’, Zones 6–9) and Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’, Zones 5–8) as fillers that will flower from spring into fall.
Add shrubs with variegated leaves to bring out the flower color in a white garden. Trailing ‘Emerald Gaiety’ wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’, Zones 5–9) can be trained to weave between neighboring plants or to climb a trellis, while ‘Confetti’ glossy abelia (Abelia X grandiflora ‘Confetti’, Zones 6–9), with its white-edged leaves, remains a low-growing evergreen shrub. For tall backdrop shrubs, try redtwig ‘Elegantissima’ dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’, Zones 2–8) and ‘Harlequin’ butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii ‘Harlequin’, Zones 6–9) with their outstanding variegation.
Add life to the border with variegated perennials, like succulent ‘Frosty Morn’ sedum (Sedum alboroseum ‘Frosty Morn’, Zones 6–9) or variegated cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Variegatum’, Zones 4–8), which look even prettier with a froth of white sun rose (Helianthemum ‘St. Mary’s’, Zones 6–8) or Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus, Zones 5–7) nearby.
White gardens often include silver-leaved plants to add light and tranquility. The gray foliage of ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia (Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, Zones 7–9) and Senecio ‘Sunshine’ (Zones 9–10) mix well with white-flowering plants. But be careful not to overdo silver and variegated leaves, as too many will result in a restless garden. Above all, the appeal of a white garden is its calm atmosphere, which soothes the gardener’s soul.