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Using White in the Garden


Using White in the Garden

by Mary Frost (The Gardening Tutor) 

One of the most stunning gardens I have ever experienced was filled with only white blooming plants. To intensify the monochrome palette, the white flowers were backed by a stucco wall painted intense, cobalt blue! It felt exciting and serene at the same time. Bliss!

But what about when you want more than one color in your garden? Where does white fit in? Although white is technically the absence of color it really stands out and calls attention to itself. White actually feels like it is coming towards the viewer, while other, darker colors will feel as if they are receding.

When using white,  paying extra attention to proportion is going to help you design your space. In other words, when combining white with other colors-a little white goes a long way. For instance: Along the curve of a pathway, placing just one Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba' (White Flowering Bleeding Heart) will stand out and stop your visitors in their tracks! By placing this whimsical plant right on the curve your visitors will easily be able to get an up close look at the fascinating, heart shaped blooms. Another  suggested use of white as a focal point is to place a Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea) in a far corner of the garden.  With its large white, conical shaped flowers and large leaves this Hydrangea appears to come towards the viewer and will add some visual weight and interest to a design. White can sometimes be used in a large grouping, such as a drift of Japanese anemone; this is especially pleasing when the area is set off on its own away from competing color combinations in the rest of the garden.

One way to adjust the proportion of white in your garden is to think about when plants bloom and plan accordingly, so that a little white is blooming in each season instead of all at one time. There are many, many white flowering plants from which to choose, here are a few suggestions for each season: in late winter to early spring - Candy tuft, Clematis armandii, Narcissus and freesias; in spring - Dianthus, Dicentra spectabilis, Ranunculus, Viburnum plicatum, Delphinium; in summer - Ipomoea alba (fragrant, night blooming annual vine), Dahlia, Zinnia, Liatris spicata, Gardenia; in autumn - Pansies, Chrysanthemum, Aster, Japanese anemone.Using White in the Garden: Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba'

Also,  paying attention to  the color intensity of each combination will guide the direction of your design.  For example, Hot red and deep purple can be combined in several different proportions  to create a feeling of royalty but when you throw some white in there with the red and purple you may have a hard time making that work no matter how much or how little white you use. But when you switch from the intensity of your red and purple blooming plants to less intense pastels of pink and blue or lavender, you can use white in varying amounts with these pastels and the conversation between the colors creates a soothing and cooling affect.

Some shades of white have a pretty eye popping intensity of their own (as with Candy tuft) and this too is an element to pay attention to because the more white the flower, the 'louder' it becomes in your design. One way to help combine different whites with other flower colors is to find plants that bloom in one dominant color with a white edge or blush of white in the center (as with red Anemone or Flanders poppies).

So much of building our confidence with using color is about observing our surroundings wherever we find ourselves. Next time you are shopping for clothes, focus on how much white is in the fabric and observe how the white is combined with other colors. Look at the proportions of white to the other colors and pay attention to whether the other colors are intense or pastel. You can do the same observations with postcards, artwork, upholstery fabric as well as other gardens. By observing your surroundings and questioning yourself as to what it is you like about this or that combination of colors, you'll start to transfer this into your own garden design! You can do it!

Tip: When you are considering color combinations in your garden but you're feeling less than confident about your choices, you can start by creating color combinations in containers to see how well you like them throughout the season.

Mary Frost is the sole proprietor of The Gardening Tutor. Her services include consultation, tutoring, pruning and gardening. Mary teaches the Pruning Ornamentals class at SRJC and also offers workshops and horticulture walking tours.  For more information and gardening tips go to and check out The Gardening Tutor Facebook page. Want even more FREE tips: Sign up for the monthly newsletter on her website. You can reach Mary at 707.545.6863