Any colour you like... so long as it's white

By Liz Potter

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THERE’S NOTHING MORE SOOTHING in the height of summer than a white garden. The pared-back colour scheme is both calming and minimalist, creating a timeless, classical feel that’s easy on the eye and never goes out of fashion.

It’s the colour scheme of a shimmering woodland glade – all ferns and birch trees; the gardening equivalent of tasteful neutral décor. It’s instantly relaxing, and offends no one.

Gardeners flock in their droves to visit the white garden at Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in Kent. Yet it’s creator, Vita Sackville-West, very wisely referred to her own white garden as a ‘green and white garden’. She knew that the secret to success was not so much in the selection of  white-flowered cultivars but in the careful choice of foliage plants to plant between them. In a white garden, foliage plays a crucial role, offering not just a neutral foil for the flowers but also filling the gaps without jarring. Without colour in a border, the shape, tone and texture of foliage is paramount. And, if you choose evergreen and ever-grey foliage plants, they’ll provide structure for the garden that lasts all year round.

Having tried to create my own modest ‘homage to Sissinghurst’ in my front garden in Cambridgeshire, I’ve learned through trial and error that there are lots of pitfalls to avoid with a white garden. The mains ones are:

 Sissinghurst's white garden

Sissinghurst's white garden

1. Separate the silver foliage. It’s all very well choosing white cultivars of foxgloves, pulmonaria (right) and lavender, but it’s the foliage that brings the garden together. I’ve found it’s more visually effective to separate out the silvery-grey and green-grey (glaucus) foliage plants such as lavender, helichrysum and artemisia away from the greener foliage plants, not least because the silvery-leaved plants tend to prefer full sun while the greener foliage plants tend to be shade lovers. 

2. Avoid cream, gold and yellow variegated foliage. Any warm notes will stick out like a sore thumb beside the cool green foliage plants in a white garden. In particular pay attention to your variegated shrubs and go for green and white or green and silver, rather than green and gold or green and cream. I like pittosporum ‘Variegatum’ and Euonymus fortunei. Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is quite small but still effective as ground cover.  

3. Create a formal layout. White gardens deserve a bit of formal symmetry – it suits the restricted colour scheme. Use smart evergreens such as buxus (box), taxus (yew) and ilex (holly) in clipped and topiaried forms such as balls, cones and standards, as well as low hedges that will help to frame and contain more relaxed flowerbeds filled with a jostling mass of white flowers. Ilex crenata and Euonymus japonicus are good alternatives to box if you’re worried about blight.

4. Plan for a succession of blooms. To keep the flowers coming in a white garden you can’t really escape snowdrops at the start of the year, followed by white hellebores, crocus, hyacinths and daffodils in early spring, tulips and white alliums in May and after that you’re spoilt for choice. It gets harder at the end of summer, so plant white sedums, geraniums, dianthus and penstemons that will keep on going. 

5. Stick to your guns. People will say that a white garden is boring. You can either ignore them and carry on, or add in a few pink, blue or yellow flowers to add a little extra oomph to your planting scheme. The truth is, white flowers are far from boring if you rise to the challenge and mix together different flower forms (daisies with umbels such as anthriscus or Ammi majus), heights (tall white foxgloves with shorter lupins or antirrhinums) and combine them with sympathetic foliage colours, shapes and textures.  

If you're ever stumped for inspiration, you can always take a leaf out of Vita Sackville-West's book: she used to pluck a leaf or flower from a border and carry it round the garden, comparing it with potential partners for a colour match. It’s a great way to find new planting combinations whatever the colour of your garden.