Tag Archives: white gardens

White frou frou, shades of green and jute twine

Ammi majus – my seed source currently growing in Mark’s vegetable garden

On our Sunday morning discussions on Radio Live Home and Garden Show, Tony Murrell and I have started an ongoing topic of colour. Last Sunday, we opened with the revered or reviled white gardens. Revered by many because, you know, Sissinghurst and sophisticated. Reviled by those who see it as a contrived and dated cliché which can be very flat, lacking vitality or oomph.

I have pretty much covered all my thoughts on white gardens in recent posts – White Gardens for the New Age and Shades of White in the World of Flower Gardens – and I do not think that I have more to add to that. Just a quick update on my own efforts on a seasonal white border to shine before the auratum lilies bloom in a riot of summer colour.

I want white frou frou

I mentioned this to Tony and he asked if I would consider renga renga lilies (Arthropodium cirratum) which are in bloom at the moment and looking very charming at our entranceway. I recoiled in horror but not because I don’t like the plant. I want frou-frou – light white froth dancing in the air. The renga rengas are too heavy, too weighted to the ground. So my plans are for the popular Orlaya grandiflora, Ammi majus (the Bishop’s flower) and even coriander and carrots which have light, white umbelliferous flowers. Maybe I will admit the pure white poppy that is flowering at the moment.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have started planting this garden. Now it is on hold but in hand. This is a new area and the rabbit problem has been devastating. They have probably taken out half the auratum lilies as they came through the ground and it will be interesting to see how many of the bulbs survive in the ground through until next spring. Mark and the dogs are doing their best. The dogs are particularly highly motivated, having no residual qualms about Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket. With one dog now elderly, slow and stone deaf and the other dog being a townie in his earlier years and still learning the role of rural estate dog, their enthusiasm is not matched by their success. Mark has by far the greatest hit rate – nine so far. In the meantime, the rabbits had eaten all my early efforts at planting out white umbellifers.

Maybe I will add the white poppy to my frou four mix

Also, being a new garden, there is a mass of weeds germinating so I am assiduously cultivating the area every few days. This is an easy task with my trusty and trusted Wolf-Garten mini cultivator but ongoing. Worth it, I think. Given that I want to sow the area in predominantly self-seeding annuals, if I spend this year getting the area weed free, it is going to save me an awful lot of work in the future when it comes to weeding. In the meantime, I am gathering seed to save for next year so that I will be ready to go when the area is relatively rabbit and weed-free. Gardening has taught me patience in a way in which none of my other life experiences have.

Having ‘done’ white gardens, Tony and I plan to go onto other monochromatic gardens (the blue, red or yellow border), the two-colour schemes (maybe red and white, or blue and yellow), then managing more complex colour schemes and the impacts of whites and pastels as well as the curious colour impacts of orange and yellow in a mixed border. Also the role of greens and whites in colour schemes. Are they colour neutral in garden settings? I am sure I will harp on about my intense dislike of pink and yellow as a colour combination. That will be Sunday mornings through January on Radio Live.

Not all greens are equal or natural, let alone invisible!

While on colour, I was slightly surprised at the suggestion from an esteemed gardening colleague that you could spend your down time in winter painting your garden stakes green to make them less obvious in your garden. To be honest, it had never occurred to me to do this. I mentioned it to Mark and he thought that it would be better to paint them in jungle camouflage rather than straight green.

It is so easy to get the shade of green wrong, in which case your ‘invisible’ stake suddenly becomes highly visible. A friend who trained in design once commented in passing that if you want something to recede into the background, you use black. Not shiny black, I would suggest, and maybe not pure black. Think creosote colouring – matt and dark.

In terms of unobtrusive tying, I have now gone to old fashioned jute string which is apparently still on the market though I have yet to find who is selling it. I shall go looking and stock up because it is one of those traditional products that can suddenly disappear. I have tried many tying options, including black twine (but it was synthetic), nursery tying tape (black plastic) and stockinette ties in muted hues. The jute twine is easy to use as long as you are tying loosely, so unobtrusive it is near invisible and it is a natural product. This means that when it comes to de-staking plants later in the season (I am currently staking some of the lilies), it doesn’t matter if the ties fall to the ground to gently decompose. That is my practical hint of the week. Find some jute twine. We have been horrified at the amount of plastic that has turned up in birds’ nests. Maybe they will find the jute twine instead.

Finally, on the topic of green and white, can any knowledgeable gardener confirm with authority that this is an albuca and put a species name on it? Huge bulbs, as large as any I have seen, which like to sit half out of the ground and flower spikes up to a metre and half tall. The albuca family is a large one that I am having trouble disentangling, especially as we have thought for many years that this plant was in fact an ornithogalum. I am not sure where we got that idea from.

Postscript: a helpful and knowledgeable reader tells me the plant is most likely Albuca nelsonii and from an internet comparison, that certainly appears to be the case. The largest of the albuca family. 

White gardens for the new age

I have only seen the white garden at Sissinghurst once and, to be honest, it did not inspire me at the time. I need to go and have a second look but certainly leading English landscape designer, Dan Pearson’s comments on white gardens in general and Sissinghurst in particular, rang true for me. “Too many whites together in one space”, he wrote. Vita Sackville West called it her ‘grey, green and white garden’. Maybe over the years, more attention had been given to the white flowers at the expense of grey and green tones?  Or maybe it was just the sheer size of it and the tight constraint of all those neatly clipped hedges and edgers that did not inspire me. And the memories of all the customers I met in the trendy nineties, mostly of the Ladies Who Lunch brigade, buying plants for their white gardens. There must have been an awful lot of such gardens going into aspirational New Zealand real estate back then.

Sissinghurst white garden from the tower on our one and only visit in 2009

I opened my heart more to the contemporary white gardens we saw on our recent trip.  The Sissinghurst model is not the only style and it is now an historic garden from a different era. Too often the reinterpretations of Sissinghurst White can be stiff and contrived, relying mostly on clipping and rigid shrubs. Such style is not ‘timeless’. The original is historic. The copies and reinterpretations are more likely to be ‘dated’.

The white entrance to the functions barn at Bury Court. Eagle-eyed purists may note the touch of pink in Lilium regale

Bury Court,  south of London had a big wedding market – and the best setup I have ever seen to accommodate weddings and functions without compromising the essentially private nature of the garden and its residence. It was entirely appropriate that the small garden at the entry to the functions centre (a converted barn of some antiquity and great style) be white. So too were there white feature plants in strategic places which allowed for photos, but these were integrated in wider contexts of colour. The emphasis at Bury Court was on contemporary plantings of frothy or bold  perennials and grasses.

The white avenue of Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy was an ephemeral affair – a good photo opportunity, Mark calls such plantings. Spectacular, the essence of simplicity and of brief duration, but no less charming for that on the day.


The white border at Parham

Parham House had a white border, too. Here the context was one of colour controlled, contemporary, herbaceous borders. These were generous borders, both wide and long, one in blues and another in yellows while others were mixes of hot colours. There was also rather a lot of white statuary. Similar to the smaller white garden at Bury Court, Parham’s white border is a summer feature of voluminous perennials – soft, full and lush.


Simplicity at La Torrecchia

La Torrecchia, near the more famous Ninfa Gardens south of Rome, was an early Dan Pearson garden and showed a restrained use of white plants. The artfully simple self-seeding plants in the full light at the back of the villa were mostly white or grey and a delightful example of understated charm. I liked even more that the pale blue chicory was allowed to remain. The white purist would have pulled it out for failing to conform to the colour requirement but it added to the simple charm. There were plenty of white flowering plants used at La Torrecchia but not in the formal, contained style of Sissinghurst. Rather, they were spaced to lead the eye through the garden – plants used as markers for garden wayfarers.

Dare we mention that the white rose opens from yellow buds? Purity in white is rare

The pinnacle in my book is the advanced gardening skills that see the colour composition change over the seasons. We looked at Beech Grove Gardens at the Barbican in London in June (the work of Professor Nigel Dunnett and his team) when yellow phlomis, tawny kniphofia (red hot pokers) and Verbena bonariense were dominant. I was astonished to see photos of the same garden in the first week of September when it was largely white with Japanese anemones, the white wood aster (A. divaricatus) and the white barked birch trees (betulas).  It was a dramatic change to what we saw in early summer and an interesting design decision to turn a cool autumn garden to white. When you think about it, the light levels start to lower dramatically in autumn in that northerly climate, so a white autumn garden possibly shines even more.

The first section of the auratum lily border gets planted and mulched

I have never coveted a white garden myself. I have, however, recently planted a new border. Most of it is beautiful, bold auratum lilies of Mark’s raising – pushing towards 40 metres of them so that took a whole lot of bulbs. The lilies are in many shades of pinks, whites and deep carmine reds. But because they will all flower at the same time, I have added white umbellifers to flower either side of their blooming season. White umbellifers have been a hot fashion item in UK gardens for at least the last decade and show no signs of abating popularity. Think cow parsley and carrots – give or take. So far I have only put in two different ones and I still need a tall one to tower above. Plus any other white umbellifers that come my way. I just want them to seed down and gently fill the space around the lily stems. They will be my white garden.

Umbellifers! Still at peak popularity

This particular column was started as my contribution to the January issue of NZ Gardener magazine (yes, contributors are required to work some months in advance). With recent events culminating in my resignation this week, I have adapted it and decided to post it to follow on from last weekend’s work on white flowers






Shades of white in the world of flower gardens

“The arums make the white of Persicaria polymorpha a very definite cream and highlight the problem I had with Sissinghurst of putting too many whites together in one space. White flowers always have something else in them, be it blue, pink, mauve or even brown, and these off-whites soon look grubby when they are shown up by the purity of something like Zantedeschia aethiopica. A cream rose such as Rosa ‘Nevada’ needs to be with the right partners, and, since it fades to pink, it is a shame for this ageing process to feel muddied by wrongly placed companions.”

Natural Selection, A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson (2017)

I have been drafting a piece about contemporary white gardens for a publication, so my mind has been on white blooms. Yesterday, in the post-election hiatus and the gloom of a wet, grey day, I headed round the garden with my vintage flower basket to pick a selection of white and largely white flowers.

Ringing in my ears were Dan Pearson’s words above, even though I had read them so really they should have been flashing in front of my eyes – visible rather than audible, so to speak. I had not really got my head around the different shades of white before. Neither, I am sure, had the many women whom we used to describe as being of the Remuera genre back in the 1990s, but who would be known as “ladies who lunch” these days. These were the ones who were hellbent on putting in a white garden, à la Sissinghurst. They were numerous and, in our peak retail days, we met a fair number of them. I recall some for whom white flushed pink was out of the question. Candidates for their white garden had to be pure in hue. White and nothing else. I wish I had the Pearson quote back then. There are many, many plants that open from a pink bud to a white bloom.

Never did I hear any of these women getting their heads around the different shades of white. Nor indeed the role of cream and where creamy white becomes more cream than white. Let alone where cream crosses over to palest yellow. It is spring here, so we have a number of rhododendrons in flower. Of the maybe ten different white rhododendrons I picked, only one was what I would call pure white.

Is Narcissus ‘Thalia’ (on the left) acceptable in a white garden, though it is cream, not white? If ‘Thalia’ is acceptable, how about the narcissus with the pale lemon corona and white petals? And if that lemon corona is still okay, does this go across to ‘Beryl’ and other poeticus hybrids with white petals and small coronas which are somewhat stronger coloured and into the yellows and oranges? Where is the cut-off point? I tell you, this white garden business is fraught with problems and judgement calls.

Are green flowers permissible? If so, why not the white Moraea villosa with blue peacock eye markings or Lachenalia contaminata or Onixotis triquetra which are white with maroon markings? If the latter two are not acceptable, does that rule out the white rhododendron with maroon spotting. Is it not sufficiently pure? Is it okay for a white rhododendron to open from a soft pink bud? No? How about a soft lemon bud or one with a green cast?

I laid all the whites out to peruse and Mark walked into the room. All he wanted to do was to add yellow to lift the scene. I have never wanted a colour themed, pure white garden. It is just not our style and it is hard to stop it being a little flat, a little lacking in energy or pzazz. But if you want one, maybe start considering the importance of different shades and textures of white.

White is not always whiter than white and not all whites are the same. Detail matters and never more so than when you are taking on somebody else’s idea in your garden. Without that attention to detail, you will only ever have an inferior interpretation of the original but without the originality.

Postscript: Should I mention to overseas readers that the white arum lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, can be found listed on every weed reference site in New Zealand, though I am not sure how widely it has been banned outright at this point? It is generally seen as a sign of poor land management to be growing it. Pure white it may be, valued it is not. It joins the giant gunneras and even the erigeron daisy as a botanical crime here.  

Be bold with colour. White is not always right.

My first ever video upload (two minutes of a mass of tui in a campanulata cherry tree) and notes on the magnolias in flower have just been posted on www.jury.co.nz (our garden website).

Winter colour on the mandarin tree - and food for tui

Winter colour on the mandarin tree – and food for tui

It was most refreshing this week to receive an email from a reader seeking recommendations on a suitable sasanqua camellia for a hedge. “Anything but white,” was her request. I liked her instantly. White flowered camellia hedges can indeed look pretty and fresh but have become such a cliché in this country (especially as nine out of ten white sasanqua hedges are Setsugekka). It is most unusual for someone to specify colour.

We have a curious obsession with white flowers in this country. Why is Iceberg still the biggest selling rose here? Probably followed by the white Margaret Merrill or Rose Flower Carpet White. They are good plants but are they much better than other coloured options? No, they are just white. According to the Rose Flower Carpet agents, the coloured ones are much more popular overseas and it is mostly NZ that prizes the white. My informant put this down to our mild climate here and the fact that we are never snowbound. “If you spend months of the year looking at a white landscape,” he said, “the last thing you want is a garden of white flowers.”

I think it is conservatism. For the same reason, the trend is to have a near absence of colour on interior walls of the house (usually off white because pure white can be too stark and clinical to live with). Too often we play it safe in the garden. The garden backdrop of green is, for some curious reason, perceived as colour neutral and into that we drop another neutral in the form of white flowers. Call it serene, restful, stylish and sophisticated if you wish. In the right hands and at its best, it is. In lesser hands, it can be bland and dull. But safe. You can always be confident that your garden will be perceived by some as being in good taste if you keep to white, maybe with just the occasional colour thrown in as a feature (but just one colour, mind).

Fewer try the monochromatic scheme in other colours – though it is of course bichromatic (is there such a word?) because they are all plus green. Sissinghurst has its purple border, Hidcote its red border and both are beautiful in full summer bloom, but in NZ we tend to keep to white.

You can never have too much blue in the garden - especially if it is meconopsis

You can never have too much blue in the garden – especially if it is meconopsis

My first ever colour managed garden was to be all pinks, blues and whites. It looked pretty, but flat. Mark stood looking and said, “You need a touch of yellow.” He was so right. These days that garden remains predominantly pink, blue and white but it is the lemon and cerise (the latter, a surprisingly common colour in flowers) that give it some zing. Hence my choice of the Gertrude Jekyll quote below. Pastel gardens tend to be very feminine but they can be a little too “pastelle”, bordering on bland unless you get it absolutely right.

If you are unsure, go back to the colour wheel. It is touches of the opposite colour that will provide contrast. So yellow will be highlighted by purple, red by green and blue by orange. It does work. That said, I think blue flowers and foliage fit in with everything and you can never have too much blue in a garden. There is no theory to back that one up so it is entirely my personal opinion.

Colour to brighten a gloomy day - Magnolia Vulcan

Colour to brighten a gloomy day – Magnolia Vulcan

On a wintery day, however, I don’t want pastels or unrelieved green. Give me colour. The mandarin trees are a bright spot on a gloomy day, especially when populated by tui sucking the juice from damaged fruit. Most of our early flowering magnolias are in strong colours and can lift the spirits wonderfully with their over the top displays. The early flowering campanulata cherries lean to bright candy pink and cerise colours which are certainly a startling colour combination with the bright gold narcissi in bloom. There is no subtlety in any of those but I am not going to trade them for refined white flowers instead.

There is nothing subtle about the bright yellow of early narcissus

There is nothing subtle about the bright yellow of early narcissus

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

The perils of the monochromatic colour scheme in gardening

A random stranger in blue beside the blue and purple border at Sissinghurst

Back in the days when I first started writing this column and we were in the grip of seven day a week retail and mailorder plant supply, I used to despair at the numbers of well-heeled women in search of plants for their white garden. Mostly from Remmers, dear, and most had been to the ultimate white garden – designed and planted by Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst in England. It was seen as the benchmark for restrained style and class and all wanted to emulate that standard. So all plants had to have white flowers and preferably be scented. Yellow stamens were permitted and cream was allowed but no other colour in the flowers. Fading out to white fell short and white flushed pink flowers were usually rejected as impure.

There were rules for foliage too. Green was fine, silver foliage even better. Variegations were acceptable as long as they were white and green with no yellow or red.

Apparently the secret of the white garden is revealed at night when all those pure flowers light up under moonlight to glow with ethereal beauty. Experienced gardeners realise instantly that this means it needs to be a summer garden because who wants to go out in winter or early spring to see the glowing white rhododendrons and camellias but not many white garden devotees of the early nineties were experienced. I recall reading a critique at the time that far too many of the white gardens were thrown together solely on the basis of colour. As long as it was white, it could be included. Gardens were criticised for the lack of thought given to planting combinations and inappropriate conditions for many of the plant subjects.

When we finally visited Sissinghurst, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the ultimate white garden put together with skill – where plant composition, shape and foliage combinations rule supreme, without the distraction of colours beyond white and green. Alas I was underwhelmed, disappointed. It rather looked to me like plants selected solely on flower and foliage colour bunged in together. So much for setting the standard. It may well have been different in the original days of Vita Sackville-West but in 2009 it didn’t quite cut the mustard.

Colour and flowers hide a multitude of sins. The purple border at Sissinghurst was far more successful on the day we were there and that in part could be attributed to the huge range of tones in blues and purples. There is not a lot of variation of hues of white and cream so it is harder to get visual oomph.

I suspect that monochromatic garden schemes are often the refuge of less experienced gardeners but in fact they require considerable knowledge and skill to get them looking good. They are not actually monochromatic because gardens have green as a base colour but that is generally treated as colour neutral. If you garden only with foliage or with foliage and only one additional colour, then form and texture are your tools and the plants you chose to complement each other and to fill the picture become critical. At its best, it is a restrained and disciplined approach to gardening which can be very restful to the eye. More often, alas, it is a hodgepodge – sometimes a pretentious hodgepodge – or downright dull.