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White in the Garden

February 18, 2019

Written by Dave G.
Autumn Angel Encore Azalea

Planting up your garden is a big project, depending of course on how big your garden is, and how complex you want it to be. Along with choosing sizes, shapes, evergreen or deciduous, and what will grow where, there are many possibilities to consider with color, from both foliage and flowers. When we go out to a garden center there is a tendency to be attracted by unusual colors, and plants with dark red flowers, or purple and red leaves, are always big sellers. One color that is often ignored or passed by is white, which is very often seen as ‘boring’, or ‘colorless’. Gardens with only white flowers come in and out of fashion over the years, and they can be seen as either high-fashion or pretentious, depending on when and where they are. But used with other colors white has a lot going for it, so let’s consider how and why using white in the garden is a great thing to do.

White Always Stands Out

A wonderful virtue of white is that it always shows up, and never disappears into the background. A problem with dark colored leaves and flowers is that they can look rich and vibrant close-up, but a few yards away they can disappear. This is especially a problem in shaded areas, where these colors often vanish into the shadows. White will never do this – in fact it glows out of the darkest corner, catching the eye from across the other side of the garden, and opening up the scene. As well, white is at its best in late afternoon and on long summer evenings – which is often exactly when we use the garden, after a busy day at work. The calming effect is clear, and it makes a relaxing and yet sophisticated atmosphere – perfect to chill out in after a stressful day.

The lesson is that while white becomes ‘washed out’ in sunny spots, in shade, in the early evening, or on cloudy days, it really stands out, and the focus on using it should be in those situations. Where you live is an important factor. If you are reading this in New Mexico, then you will almost certainly instead go for bright colors, because the sun is always there. If you live in Oregon, or the north-east, cloud is a fact of daily life, and on those cloudy days your garden will look at its best if you have added plenty of white to the mix.

White Never Clashes with Other Colors

Worrying about what colors go with what is a regular concern of gardeners who want to create a harmonious scene in their garden beds. Sometimes we worry too much about this, because green is a great harmonizer, and if you have plenty of green leaves around the atmosphere will be forgiving in a way that doesn’t happen with interior decorating. Even so, often when we look at a garden, we see nice colors used, but the overall effect is flat and unexciting. Using acidic yellows to lift plantings of pinks and purples is a well-known designer’s ‘trick’, but for all color plantings, white has the same effect. It magically lifts all other colors to a higher level, brightening and intensifying them, and turning a dull bed into a beautiful vision.

Yet because it is often seen as ‘no color’, many gardeners ignore it, and lose out on the beauty it brings. The great historic color-gardener Gertrude Jekyll, who gardened in England in the late 19th century, and invented the idea of blending garden colors, would always grow a supply of white-flowering plants in pots and use them when she noticed dull areas, or where something like bulbs had died down and left a gap. Most of us today don’t have the facilities behind the scenes to do such a thing, but the idea that ‘white will always work’ is a good one.

Where to Use White Plants

Around our homes we often plant ‘foundation planting’. These shrubs make the transition from the hard, upright lines of a building into the soft, rounded shapes of the garden. The hide foundations and utilities, cover blank walls, and hold our homes in the hands of our gardens. So that it always looks attractive, it is usual to use evergreens for most of this planting. If you are in areas warm enough for flowering evergreens, then choosing white flowering ones makes a lot of sense. No matter what the color of your walls, or if in the future you decide to re-finish them, when the flowers are out there can never be a clash, and everything will look harmonious.

We also often put larger shrubs in the background of beds. ‘Larger’ could be 5 feet in a smaller bed, or 15 feet in a bigger one. I am not suggesting avoiding plants with beautiful colors all together, but a good balance of white blooms in those areas makes the perfect neutral background, so that you can play around in front with roses and flowers without any color problems.

Some Useful Plants with White Flowers

If you live in warmer zones, a great choice for background and foundation planting are the Encore Azaleas. These fast-growing plants will grow well in sun or light shade, such as along the north wall of a house, and as long as you have the necessary acid soil, they are easy to grow. Their big feature is flowering not just in spring, but also through summer, with an ‘encore’ blooming in fall too, bringing flowers for months. In the range of Encore Azaleas there are three with white flowers, that work well for different scale planting.

The smallest is Autumn Ivory, growing just 2½ feet tall and 3 feet wide. It’s ideal for weaving areas of white among brighter colors. Next in size is Autumn Angel, growing 3 feet tall, perfect for smaller beds and the front of foundation plantings. Then there are Autumn Moonlight and Autumn Lily, both between 4 and 5 feet tall, which is perfect for the back of smaller beds, or around the house. Autumn Moonlight is especially useful, because it will reach 5 feet tall, but stay only 4 feet wide, so for a narrow space against a north-facing wall, or between a path and a fence, it really cannot be beaten.

Other good choices for white-flowering foundation shrubs include Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), especially one with smaller leaves which flowers profusely with 4-inch spikes of tiny white flowers every spring. This is the Otto Luyken Cherry Laurel, which is the very best choice in all but the largest gardens, as even un-clipped it won’t grow much over 8 feet tall and wide.

Another more uncommon shrub to consider for shade, especially if you have damp, shady areas, is Virginia Sweetspire, or Itea Little Henry, now more correctly called Cyrilla racemiflora ‘Sprich’. Growing just 2 or 3 feet tall, with scented white flowers all summer, its perfect to edge a shady pathway, or between a lawn and a wooded area, and the white blooms will glow out of the shade, just like we suggested earlier that it would.

Once you start looking out for white-flowering plants you will see just how common they are, and have lots of material to work with that won’t disappear into the shade, or clash with other colors – top reasons why white should be your top choice.