Secret Garden Designs by Christina Oates BACK TO "Christina Oates - Garden Writer" Main Page

GETTING WHITE RIGHT

(published in the January 2000 issue of The English Garden magazine)

Mention white gardens and what do you think of? Sissinghurst, of course, which is famed the world over for Vita Sackville-West's incomparable celebration of one colour. Simple and seemingly effortless, this corner of a Kent garden has inspired many gardeners to emulate the idea - and also for many of them to fall by the wayside.

Novice gardeners, unsure of themselves, think this will be a safe and easy way to cultivate a guaranteed classy garden. Until, that is, they find out how badly wrong it can all go and they are faced with a washed-out boring mishmash of plants. Experienced gardeners are all too aware of the pitfalls but, at some point, many will not be able to resist giving themselves the challenge of making a white garden, viewing it as a culmination of all their gardening knowledge.

My main bit of esoteric advice is that after all the drooling over a delicious white flower, consider not how does your white garden grow but rather how does it die. Think of white lilac and how the brown soggy panicles cling on to the branches in ever-increasing numbers, or how the rose 'Little White Pet' has one perfect bloom in the midst of a cluster of corpses. So unless dead-heading features in your daily routine, check-out their death habits. It's also worth confirming whether it starts out pristine as many plants have strongly-coloured buds. Geranium macrorrhizum 'Album' sounds white but it has inflated red calyces. Lavatera 'Ice Cool' is my perfect white flower with snowy buds and the good grace to drop off the stem immediately its time has come.

When the Nicolsons drew up their plans, it was not to make an innovative statement - white gardens were not a new idea, having already been in and out of fashion - but, intriguingly, the impetus behind it may have been purely practical. It is thought that, because this was an area they had to pass through every night after leaving the family dining room to reach their own sleeping quarters, a gentle floriferous luminosity en route would be an appreciated indulgence. Meant to be viewed under moonlight, it is, therefore, a great irony that this most celebrated compartment of one of the most-visited gardens is only ever seen in its true colours, so to speak, by a handful of people who, I'm sure, must revel in the experience.

The key to a successful white garden, I feel, is to consider the kind of light under which it will be viewed. Knowing the shades of white which will work best with that light, and providing the right setting are other major considerations. Coming from the clear strong light of Australia to take on the garden at West Green in Hampshire, Marylyn Abbott found that the clean classic whites that shimmered in the southern hemisphere and which she had confidently planted in the walled garden at West Green, were too harsh under the northern light. They also seemed too crisp and modern to sit comfortably with the old brick walls. She comments that parchment whites, old whites, and pink-tinged whites such as foxgloves and lilies [see Andrew Lawson's trannies] together with barely-white roses 'Jacqueline du Pre and R. 'Sally Homes' respond best to the half tones of her new garden's old mellow surroundings.

These worn-in whites can be comfortably mixed together in an old setting and enjoyed during summer days. Very different though is the light of a spring morning in a space created by hedges and climber-covered trellis. In the brisk sea air of Lymington in Hampshire, Lyn Prior at The Little Cottage uses white in a different way. She has emphasised the intrinsic whiteness of the colour white, picking up on its lively energetic sharpness and bringing out its pure starkness by teaming it with masses of fresh greens, lime greens and very dark greens. It is important in this style of white gardening to use only immaculate whites such as Rosa 'Iceberg', as any hint of a pink-stained bud or purple-splotched petal lessens the clarity and purity.

The place which can allow for a relaxation of the strict discipline of keeping within one group of whites is, strangely, within the crispness of a formal yew-hedged enclosure. This seems to impose enough of its own calm discipline to allow for a loosening of straight-laced strictures. For instance, introducing splashes of another colour can add another dimension to a white garden. By using plum and blood-red foliage, deep pools of rich shadows create depth and movement in amongst the fluttering white. And if you have a hankering for persil white, then a pinch of blue will bring out the icy coolness especially when swished amongst white-edged hostas and other variegated leaves as can be seen at Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire And at Brook Cottage, Alkerton in Oxfordshire, a skilful melange of whites shimmer in front of the crisply-clipped dark yew hedge and blur the hard edges of the stone retaining wall together with their classic planting companions of silver-leaved plants, particularly artemesias.

Of course, pewter and glaucous hues occur most often in hot Mediterranean habitats and this increasingly popular style of gardening lends itself to yet another way of appreciating white flowers. The flowing gravel garden, lacking the conventional corset of sharp lawn edges, demands boldness in leaf shape such as jagged yuccas, globe artichokes and melianthus balanced with sheets of tactile Stachys byzantina 'Silver Carpet' and mounds of glistening Convolvulus cneorum. Strength of flower shape is extra important in the bright reflective light so by sticking to one colour such as white, dramatic impact can be made with the huge papery petals of Romneya coulteri, datura trumpets, towering tubes of Nicotiana sylvestris, and the exotic crinkled flowers of the rather prosaically named Hibiscus 'W.R. Smith'.

By contrast, the gentle undemanding softness of white can be explored by using veils of baby's breath (Gypsophila), swathes of fluffy grasses (Pennisetum) and wands of burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis) in the uncompromising setting of a sleek, metallicised city roof garden. Moonlight in this setting will be bounced off surrounding sheets of glass. A very different glow to that of Sissinghurst but, from quintessential old English to new millenium, the white flowers will still give pleasure late in the evening after a long day at work.

Copyright Christina Oates

I HOPE YOU FOUND THIS ARTICLE INTERESTING AND HELPFUL BUT, AS USUAL, PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED AND NO PART OF THIS PUBLICATION MAY BE REPRODUCED, STORED IN A RETRIEVAL SYSTEM, OR TRANSMITTED, IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY MEANS, ELECTRONIC, MECHANICAL, PHOTOCOPYING, RECORDING OR OTHERWISE WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.

Secret Garden Designs by Christina Oates BACK TO "Christina Oates - Garden Writer" Main Page