ISSUE 24  |  White Gardens

Expert Advice: 10 White Garden Ideas from Petersham Nurseries

June 17, 2015 10:00 AM

BY Kendra Wilson

A white garden need not be wan and pale. Thomas Broom, horticultural manager of Petersham Nurseries in London, shows us that in editing color, your garden will have a stronger sense of shape and texture. It might smell more interesting too.

Here are 10 ideas–and his favorite flowers for a white garden:

Photography by Kendra Wilson, unless otherwise noted.

Shopping List: 13 Favorite Flowers

Above: Photograph by Thomas Broom.

Petersham still life: Florist-in-residence Thomas Broom lays down his flowers of the moment (clockwise from top left): Solomon’s Seal, peony, night-scented stock (and dotted around), clematis, allium, ranunculus, petunia, heuchera, sweet rocket, verbascum, bleeding heart, Ammi majus, Viburnum opulus.

Keep It Small

Above: Silver foliage of Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmot’s Ghost’ haunts Vita Sackville-West’s world-famous white garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. 

“A white garden should be relatively small,” suggests Tom Broom. “It is a narrow exercise; often enclosed.” The calm of a white garden offers respite, an escape from the rest of the garden, or the world.

Masonry Matters

Above: Lilium regale ‘Album’, on the other side of the wall at Sissinghurst, holds its own against brick (where smaller flowers would struggle to compete).

It is important to think about masonry, the immediate surroundings of the proposed white garden, advises Tom. A dark backdrop works best; yew is also useful here.

Before she designed her white garden, Vita Sackville-West already had made a purple border. Intrigued by the possibilities that a monochromatic garden would offer, she focused on a garden that glowed under the moon and would be filled with evening scent. See: Trend Alert: 5 Night-Scented Bloomers.

Add Other Colors

Above: Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ and Oxeye daisy at dusk. 

White gardens are rarely just white. “You don’t want a freshly laundered garden,” says Tom. Other colors will insist on being included, like yellow in a daisy or lupin. For those who tend to steer clear of certain colors, a white garden is the perfect opportunity in which to go against the grain, knowing that the predominant color of white will keep the others in their place. 

Green Vs. Silver

Above: Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ against a rusted iron walkway at Chelsea last year, in a garden designed by Hugo Bugg. 

Rosie Bines, head gardener at Petersham House Garden, talks to us about different kinds of white and the best way to offset them: “Cool whites go with silver leaves,” she says. “Creamy whites are complemented by warmer greens like euphorbia.” 

Foliage and flowers for cool whites:

“¢ Weeping silver pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’)
“¢ Sea holly (eryngium ‘Miss Willmot’s Ghost’)
“¢ Artemisia (A. arborescens ‘Powis Castle’)
“¢ Hosta ‘Royal Standard’, with its lilac-tinged white flowers
“¢ Silver-leaved Dianthus (‘Mrs Sinkins’), white lavender, white rosemary
“¢ The felty gray of Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’ and stachys (for instance S. byzantina ‘Lambs’ Ears’)
“¢ Darker leaves like purple sage or black elder (Sambucus nigra).
“¢ Holly, yew, myrtle, privet, ivy

Foliage and flowers for warm/creamy whites:

“¢ Alchemilla mollis
“¢ Euphorbia
“¢ Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’
“¢ Peonies ‘Cheddar Gold’, ‘Duchesse de Nemours’
“¢ Fennel
“¢ Ammi visnaga
“¢ Pale and spotted foxgloves: Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’, ‘Dalmation’s Cream’
“¢ Hornbeam, beech

And obliging with with both cool and warm whites: box, ferns, bronze fennel.

Pleasures of Perfume

 Above: Wisteria floribunda ‘Alba’ provides vertical scent whether it is grown the usual way on a wall or as a trained standard (shown here). 

Pots and Planters

Above: The patina of Petersham is a wonderful foil for a battered planter. Texture in this miniature white garden comes to the fore.

White flowers to consider for pots: agapanthus (on their own), white scented pelargonium inlcuding the classic ‘Attar of Roses’, white brachychome, marguerites (agyranthemum). 

 Above: The main elements of this container are petunia, the small euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and Muehlenbeckia axillaris

Shapes and Textures

Above: Allium ‘Mont Blanc’, against the purple leaves of Forest Pansy (cercis), espaliered viburnum and an understory of persicaria and ferns at Cottesbrooke Hall in Northamptonshire. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

Foliage can be any variety of green, silver, purple; it’s the flowers that need to be white, strictly speaking. Without the distraction of petal color we can focus on the contrast of shapes and verticals.

Topiary Backdrops

Above: The Topiarist’s Garden at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show was a favorite among visitors. Towers of white are particularly dramatic against the topiary shapes. Try also foxtail lily (eremurus), white hollyhock, Nicotiana sylvestris and Madonna lily (the latter two for scent).

Whiten a Meadow

Above: A white garden-meadow. Shown here: Camassia leichtlinii ‘Alba’ in long grass. 

For more landscaping ideas for a white garden, see: