Planting the White Garden

Planting the White Garden–A How-To

According to colour theory, white conveys purity, cleanliness, safety, wholeness, perfection. That’s not my own idea, you’ll find it in just about every resource about colour. (Including this interesting one about “white in ‘Breaking Bad'”!) White will glow in low light situations, like your shade garden, or in the evening.

It also conveys a sense of restfulness, so while other gardens encourage you to get in there and play, or work, or DO something, the white garden wants you to sit, read a book, have a glass of wine, REST.

A disclaimer to start with: none of the  pictures included here are my own, since I don’t have a white garden myself.


I’ve said this often before: layer your garden with trees, shrubs, tallish perennials (or annuals for that matter) and low growing ground covers. (It shouldn’t look like stadium seating– remember, you’re viewing the garden from lots of different angles.) The white garden is no exception, in fact will need layering even more.

Vines will give a variant on the taller shrubs. Evergreen Clematis armandii blooms in late winter and will climb as high as there is something to climb on. Ditto for climbing Hydrangea petiolaris. The latter needs something REALLY strong to hold it. Like a brick chimney, or a tree. I recently designed a garden with Hydrangea petiolaris climbing a very large, very dead old cedar that the owners were unwilling to pay exhorbitantly to have removed.


Any garden needs a combination of textures. Spikey (Acanthus, Yucca, New Zealand Flax), soft and fluffy (Baby’s Breath–Gypsophila, wonderfully fragrant Alyssum), grassy (Miscanthus sinensis, as below, or Mexican Feather Grass–Stipa tenuissima), bold–large leaf Hosta, Rodgersia, Rhodo.

Two plants next to each other that have similar leaf shape sort of meld into one, even if the leaf colour is different (unless they’re very different, like the dark copper of Ninebark (Physocarpus), and the gold/chartreuse of  Spirea). But put a bold leaf Hosta next to an ornamental grass or Baby’s Breath or the Spirea, and you’ve got the beginnings of a dynamite combination.

Sequential Blooming

Choose plants that will bloom at different times in the year. Of course, starting with spring bulbs–snowdrops, then crocuses (croci?), tulips, alliums. Then move on to early perennials like Iberis sempervirens (perennial Candytuft), white Columbine (Aquilega), white creeping Phlox subulata. White flowering shrubs can take the place of one or another season of whites: Azalea blooms mid-spring, Philadelphus and Deutzia mid-late spring, Hydrangea early to mid summer. And don’t forget trees–Cornus (Dogwood) ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ in late spring, Oxydendron (Sourwood) in late summer.  I don’t have to list every possibility–you’ll have the idea now.

The garden above, almost completely bordered by hydrangea, will look a little tatty in late summer/fall as the white blooms turn to brown. A white garden might require a little more diligent deadheading than a mixed colour garden, simply because the faded white blooms sometimes look less attractive that other colours.

Style–Formal or Chaotic?

One of the things you usually see in white gardens is a fairly formal style. It doesn’t have to be that way, but white and green lends itself to a formal feel. White roses will complement the formal style–as long as it is highly disease-resistant. Check rose suppliers in your own area for roses that will work for you. The Sissinghurst White Garden below started in the 30’s as a white rose garden.

If formal isn’t your cup of tea, but you still want soothing effect of the white palette, a simple solution is to just have non-formal shaped beds. Formal beds would be symmetrical, very geometric, usually square, and often surrounded by boxwood or another clipped hedge. Changing up any of those elements would “casualize” the aesthetic.

Unless your house is very linear (think Frank Lloyd Wright), square, or “Arts and Crafts” style, most other houses, with or without curvy lines in the roof, porch or other, will easily accept curved planting beds. That feature itself will instantly eliminate that rigid formality. No straight lines means the borders will vary in width and depth, which means they’ll also vary in how the plants–even the same plants as in a formal design–are located.


You might consider planting some surprise colour spots in your white garden. Nothing too striking, no red geraniums or orange daylilies (Hemerocallis), and of course, no wide swathes of colour. But maybe a few purple alliums in spring, some pink Astilbe, the very airy blue of Brunnera, maybe gold Rudbeckia…


Iberis sempervirens

Iberis sempervirens


I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried a white garden. What has worked best for you? What suggestions do you have to add to this? What would you do differently?

Always happy to hear comments.


5 Elements to Designing Curb Appeal

5 Elements to Designing Curb Appeal

What really constitutes”curb appeal”? Is it just making the front of the house look nice? Is it just a sales tactic, like baking bread or lighting a fragrant candle?

In looking through pages and pages of Houzz pictures, I’ve determined the following 5 (of course) landscaping elements  that are essential to curb appeal:


I’ve written about this before, so I won’t completely repeat myself. I’ll just say, make sure your guests/visitors feel welcome to approach your front door.

1. Where is the entrance?

Sometimes it’s just not clear how one is supposed to approach the house. It may be a fence that surrounds the site and you have to look for the gate. It could be plantings that obscure  the path. Not infrequently there isn’t actually a path, other than from right by the garage or carport, so you have to drive right in to find the entrance.

From this angle you can see the tiny entry path, but from right in front it's just a lot of tall grass and cedar hedging.

From this angle you can see the tiny entry path, but from right in front it’s just a lot of tall grass and cedar hedging.

Take pity on your poor guests or observers, and signpost the entrance. Build a path if there isn’t one, plant some identifying feature plants by the gate if it’s hard to find, or remove those feature plants if they’re hiding the entrance. People shouldn’t have to ask “How do I get in?”

This lovely Japanese Maple is a little too low for most people. Better to move the entry path than trim the shapely tree.

This lovely Japanese Maple is a little too low for most people. Better to move the entry path than trim the shapely tree.

2. Tactile Texture

This is where the plant-lover in me starts to get excited. Our 5 senses  are all integral in creating enjoyment. Vision has been addressed in the first section (can you see the way in?), and taste we’ll leave for a future post on the fruit and vegetable patch. But touch, that’s one sense we can capitalize on in the entrance garden. Lamb’s Ear is soft and fuzzy; Sedum spectabilis has leathery leaves; Mexican feather grass begs to be stroked or brushed like a ponytail!

Stipa tenuissima. Photo credit.

Stipa tenuissima. Photo credit.

Even sharp things are attractive to the curious–who doesn’t like to check if houseleek leaves or Bear’s Breeches flowers (Acanthus) are really sharp to the touch? (I’d recommend against checking out the Bear’s Breeches…)

Just make sure you don’t have to brush by those sharp spiky things.

3. Fragrant

This one is a no brainer. Some fragrant plants just barely need to be brushed against to release their fragrance, many don’t even need that. If your entryway is in moderate shade, the surprise sweetness of February-blooming Sarcococca (called Sweet Box for a good reason) will delight passers-by. Plant fragrant foliage plants (such as Artemisia, Oregano, or Lavender) so the perfume isn’t limited to a short-lived blooming period.

You may notice that people sense smells differently. For example, I’m not at all fond of lavender or oriental lilies. ( I’m definitely in the minority in the case of lavender, not so much with oriental lilies.) Some find the smell of Ladies’ Mantle or Boxwood unpleasant (cat pee, I’m afraid…), or hyacinths too strong. Give some thought to which might be the best in your own situation.

4. Water feature

Yes, we’re experiencing with our vision again, but the real beauty of water is in the sound it makes as it tumbles over rocks. If you’re thinking of installing some kind of water feature, consider putting it in the front where visitors will appreciate it right away–and then maybe add seats to encourage guests to linger longer.

5. Pretty from all angles

As much you’ll want your front yard to look great for passers-by and visitors, how much more should you want it to look good to your own eye, from the viewpoint you’ll be viewing it? Do you view your garden from the front windows? Or from a mid-garden patio? Or from a veranda? Make sure you don’t hide the beauty of this new design from your preferred viewpoint. Shrubs that create a backdrop when viewed from the street might be too high to see over when viewed from the front porch. A lovely little Japanese Maple that balances the plantings around the new pondless waterfall may completely hide that waterfall from another angle–your angle!

On the other hand, your preferred viewing spot may be quite high up, giving you almost a bird’s eye view of the garden. Will it look one-dimensional from above, or will the layering still be obvious?

Last pictures

A few more local pictures to analyze:

Yes, you can certainly see where the front door is, and there's nothing painful to brush by, nothing unpleasant to smell, but somehow, this garden just doesn't work!

Yes, you can certainly see where the front door is, and there’s nothing painful to brush by, nothing unpleasant to smell, but somehow, this garden just doesn’t work! Think of how big your chosen plants will get at maturity! And think about BALANCE.

Another unbalanced front garden.

Another badly balanced front yard. Not to mention squeezing  between those two egg-shaped junipers to get in the front gate.

A lot of work went into these topiary'd trees--and to what purpose?

A lot of work went into these topiary’d trees–and to what purpose? Click on any pictures for larger view.


Uh, cute, but…