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Gardening tips - how to use white in your garden

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 June 2017

Cornus 'Eddie's White Wonder' Photo William Kerr

Cornus 'Eddie's White Wonder' Photo William Kerr

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The way in which you use colour in your garden can have an impact on how the space feels. Griselda Kerr investigates the effect of eye-catching white

Exochorda x macrantha 'The Bride' Photo William KerrExochorda x macrantha 'The Bride' Photo William Kerr

In these pages over the last year I have written about a late summer/autumn border, about the balance of evergreen and deciduous in a garden and about using plants effectively in winter to produce both large swathes and intimate groupings of colour. In this last article of the series I want to think about using white in a garden – it is not something I am very good at and I am learning from my mistakes.

White plants are a wonderful way to catch the eye and there is no doubt that white makes a positive statement. Unless you are concentrating all the effort into making a white garden, or a predominantly green and white garden with splashes of rich colour, the whites, whatever their size and season, need to be thoughtfully chosen and spaced or, if using a single specimen, positioned where you want the eye to be drawn. I have learnt this to my chagrin. White plants give a heightened perception of space so they will invariably draw the focus to them. If therefore you have a border or a grouping of shrubs, or even a rose garden where you are including white, the shape and size of that white colour block is very important – much more telling than the balance of blues and pinks.

This spring I became acutely aware of my own shortcomings in this respect when I found myself wishing that a beautiful Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’, a Choisya ternata and a Spirea arguta ‘Bridal Wreath’ – all looking sumptuous individually – were much further apart from each other. They made the beautiful dark red Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Lady in Red’, the brooding dark purple of Weigela florida ‘Wine and Roses’, the appealing new bronze growth of Lagerstroemia indica ‘Rosea’ and much else beside, fade into insignificance. What a waste! There was lots to look at but not one of us could focus on anything but these three white plants. Had they been spaced to lead the eye over the whole area they could have been a huge success. (What a pity it is so difficult to move established shrubs!) If I had thought of white as a demanding rather than as a demure colour, I would have planted them with much more thought to their spacing. As it happened, these three white shrubs were a similar bright white but putting white plants into close proximity to one another is always tricky: a creamy white will look dirty not delightful beside a bright white (just as would a creamy veil over a pure white bridal dress) so mixing whites wherever they are placed, calls for circumspection.

A quick thought next about white roses – and also white camellias – and their balance amongst other colours. The inclusion of white will direct the dynamic structure of the whole. I have a bed of white roses at one end of a small series of beds – it will be much more satisfactory to have balance so I shall repeat that reliable white Rosa ‘Macmillan Nurse’ at the other end of the series. And camellias ... I have moved a ravishing single white camellia (C. ‘Swan Lake’) off the edge of a bed to near the middle – on the edge it hogged the limelight and nothing else counted for anything. Now ground hugging plants happily swirl around it in early spring – blue, green, even more white, all part of a balanced picture. All this is small scale – it is just as important on a large scale.

Camellia 'Swan Lake' Photo William KerrCamellia 'Swan Lake' Photo William Kerr

Moving on from shrubs I began to think about decorative trees with white flowers – a Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ on the bend of a path in the garden could not have been a happier chance planting many years ago when I hardly knew what a cornus looked like. Visitors always walk towards it when it is in flower and that leads them just where I want their footsteps to take them. A halesia (Halesia tetraptera var. monticola f. vestita to give this innocent plant its full grand name) planted more recently beside some steps is fine too – but only just. It was planted so that its bell shaped white flowers which hang in profusion in late spring can be viewed from beneath. It is near a strongly fragrant, creamy- white-with- tinges-of-pink Magnolia x wieseneri. Fortunately the blooms of one will just be over before the other is out or else we would have a Magnolia whose rare and undeniably beautiful flowers would look a dirty white beside the dead-white halesia. The potential pitfalls of planting are almost enough to put one off making any decision – except that is not so, because so much in gardening is just serendipity.

The inclusion of white herbaceous plants does very interesting things to a border. I avoided them for a long time finding if I did so they either made warm colours look harsh rather than soft or the blocks of white made other plants recede into the background. I think the trouble was the relative shapes and sizes of the plants I was using and the intensity of their white. The mounds of pure white scabious and spikey groups of hard white chelone jumped out of the border into one’s arms. Even the sturdy stems of white delphiniums created blocks of white which seemed to throw the plants beside them into the shadows. (I love white delphiniums with a passion but they now go elsewhere.) Having failed with these startling white mounds, clumps and unyielding spikes, I turned to other shapes, sizes and densities of white. Now I am finding that, repeated, tall spires of white can have an electrifying effect and that plants with a white transparency rather than solid growth can be uplifting. I use not too sturdy plants which create a block, but soaring eremurus, floaty asters (A. ericoides), effervescent Crambe cordifolia (looking as though someone has thrown a white lace tablecloth over its leaves), waving cimicifuga – all these seem to help bring the whole border to life. So there is after all a good way of using white; it just does seem to demand thought for proportion, spacing, density and the selection of the right white for the place.

Finally bulbs and annuals: perhaps lilies with a blush of pink are more successful amongst other planting than the cool pure white Madonna lilies (L. candidum), and Easter lilies (L. longiflorum) which look so ravishing and grand in their own containers away from other distractions. I think the same about the beautiful scented Acidanthera murielae which I am always tempted to put in beds (I have fallen into the trap again this year) but which are far more ravishing on their own where their beauty is better not mixed up with others. Yet little white ipheion, six to eight inches high, can dabble amongst plants and well engage the front of a border with their self-effacing grace. Annuals we cannot do without and there is no doubt that white cosmos and nicotiana playing through the border will effortlessly enlighten every garden, holding together the interest in planting schemes that are beginning to fall away. I put it down to their slender, transparent form when, at their best they intermingled with other plants like uplighters from the moon in the rich colour schemes of summer.

White has strength, it has delicacy, it has endless degrees of brightness, it can possess a strident personality or shy beauty, it can shout or it can moderate, it can demand its own space or be happy mingling with others. It will always add another interesting dimension to the garden.

Halesia tetraptera var monticola f. vestita Photo William KerrHalesia tetraptera var monticola f. vestita Photo William Kerr

Griselda’s garden at The Dower House, Melbourne, will be open in aid of the NGS on 24th, 25th June.

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