Taking Up the Tradition of a Pale Garden

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It's been said that the most copied garden in the world is the White Garden at England’s Sissinghurst Castle, created by Vita Sackville-West in the mid-20th century. Because light-hued flowers and leaves take on a special glow at dawn and dusk, such gardens are often placed where they can be admired at those times. Do you have a porch offering comfy seating for morning coffee or a patio with a generous table for the evening meal? Such spots may provide the perfect vantage point for a pale garden, as Sackville-West herself referred to the original. 

The White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle

The White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle

Here are other points to consider when choosing and placing plants:

White isn’t always white. A white flower may contain traces of cream, pale pink or blue, which will become much more noticeable when it is placed next to a pure-white flower. To keep all players looking their best, use green or silver foliage plants between off-whites and pure whites. (Traces of other colors within white will be most apparent during the day, so if you plan to view this area mostly in the morning or evening, the point may be moot.)

Create contrast with form, size and foliage. Your pale garden will lack the interest that comes from different colored flowers playing off one another. Be sure to use plants of different shapes and sizes, different flower forms and foliage in different shades of green, blue and silver to add depth and character. 

Make sure there is a strong background behind the garden. A deep green hedge is perfect for setting off white flowers. A dark-painted wall or fence will also do the trick. Avoid colorless backgrounds. 

Spring flowers for the pale garden 

Shrubs and trees: false goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa); many magnolias and rhododendrons; mock oranges (Philadelphus spp.) 

Perennials: bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia ‘Alba’); lupines (Lupinus); peonies; beardstongue (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’)  

Bulbs: crocus; snowdrops (Galanthus spp.); daffodils (Narcissus cvs.); tulips  

Annuals: sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima); spoon flower (Osteospermum cvs.) 

Summer or autumn bloomers

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)

Anenome (try ‘Honorine Jobert’)

Astilbe

Camellias

Clematis

Cleome

Dahlia

Foxgloves (Digitalis spp.)

White coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’)

Miss Wilmot’s ghost (Eryngium)

Gaura lindheimeri

Hydrangea paniculata

Lilies (such as ‘Casa Blanca’)

Gardenia

Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata)

Border phlox (i.e., ‘David’)

Montauk and Shasta daisies

Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Alba’

Foliage favorites 

Include plants with white- or silver-marked foliage that will provide a consistent glow as white flowers pass in and out of bloom. Note that most plants with pale variegation need some shade during the day, and be aware that some are not as vigorous or stable as their plain-leaved counterparts. 

Agave

Japanese painted fern

Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)

Caladium

Sedges (Carex spp.)

Shrubby dogwood (such as Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’)

Cyclamen

Hosta

Variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegata’)

Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)

Sedum

Yucca

Image credit: tomline43/CC BY 2.0