CREATE A CLASSIC WHITE & GREEN GARDEN
Beware the harsh New Zealand light when creating this traditional-style landscape, writes Neil Ross.
This seemingly straightforward hue should come with a caveat to handle with care, for white isn’t the easiest of colours. We may think of it as a safe bet, but it can grab your eye and make a small garden feel even smaller.
Before you go too mad with the white stuff, be careful you don’t overdo it. Better a flurry than an avalanche.
In our strong New Zealand light – especially in summer – indigestible swathes of white can be as glaring as car headlights rather than cool and relaxing. This happens when designers use large blocks of one plant, especially those with larger, solid flowers like Flower Carpet roses, phlox, or hebes.
Still, with its crisp, cool, and neutral impression, no wonder so many gardeners prefer to eschew the bevy of brighter hues and instead play it safe with a sprinkle of virginal snow in their flower beds. Like icing on a cake, white looks better if it is diffused through other colours, adding a touch of sparkle in the evening as softer hues fade, rather than as one big gloop of glare. For this effect, you need flower heads that carry the colour in separate specks rather than in a mashed potato mass.
All members of the carrot family have a perfect arrangement of flowers in architectural spokes. The fern leaf bishop’s flower (Ammi visnaga) makes a bold yet delicate statement, creating a confetti of whiteness rather than a tsunami splurge. This is an annual for the back of a border and a lovely mixer with blue larkspurs (consolida).
Another of this shade’s pitfalls is that it is easily sullied, and some white flowers quickly lose their virginity as they age, which rather spoils the effect. Camellias are notorious for revealing soggy
brown bloomers as they fade and old-fashioned roses don’t fare much better. The answer is to be vigilant.
In an ideal world, buddleias would have you on guard all summer with secateurs and a step ladder removing spent brown spikes. And, though I love white foxgloves, I hate the way they drop their lower gloves so soon, leaving an ugly antennae of seed pods and newer flowers waving around at altitude. I give them two weeks before cutting them to the ground, lest they seed too madly.
Giant tobacco plant (Nicotiana sylvestris) has its long, ghostly funnels completely soiled by the brown, fading ones but they drop off easily enough if you can encourage their exit every few days with finger and thumb. All tobacco plants are great in shade – especially the richly night-scented Nicotiana alata (also called Nicotiana affinis), which is like a fireworks show in the gloom.
It’s in those places that white becomes a different creature altogether. Illuminating dark corners, white is never too gleaming to be unwelcome in shade. In such places I always reach for those stalwarts with cream variegated leaves such as brunnera, spreading lamiums, and a bevy of evergreen euonymus or coprosmas. Silvers are good too, but few grow well under the dripping canopy of trees – astelia, brachyglottis and helichrysum being notable exceptions.
These plants would all form a useful foreground to my two summer stalwarts: scented phlox and Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida), both of which are surprisingly drought tolerant once they are well established and will grow in sunny places too.
As with other colours, white seems straightforward, but you soon find as you put plants together that there are myriad nuances of the shade that don’t always sit happily together. At one extreme there is the bleached purity of agapanthus, which just makes the creamier tones look shabby if placed alongside. Such creams often include lemon yellows and greens in themix as seen in Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ with its huge pompom heads (from Woodleigh Nursery), or the smaller perennial Stokesia laevis ‘White Star’, which makes a lovely little plant for the front of borders.
Its creaminess is welcome seen straddling blue catmint or purpleleaved ajugas but rather murky beside brilliant whites. In other flowers the centre of the bloom sports a contrasting colour, as in the yellow centre of white daisies such as leucanthemums and marguerites, which allows you to echo these tones in complementary planting. Take the white spikes of Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ for example; each bloom has a lovely violet centre that looks good if emphasised by planting with purple salvias or plummy penstemons.
Similarly, don’t leave those rusty orange bosses in the middle of white echinaceas – they cry out for some neighbourly solidarity.
Try native Libertia peregrinans alongside and, in the evening light while the rusty tones glow with warmth, the rays of white petals should provide a welcome dash of bling.
Verbascum chaixii - a lovely mullein perennial, which never needs staking.
Stokesia laevis - this perennial repeat all summer if you feed and deadhead.
Ammi visnaga - beneficial insects will flock to these creamy landing pads.
Brunnera macrophylla - a cross between hosta and a forget-me-not.
Nicotiana alata - a squat tobacco plant, useful as bedding in sun or partial shade.
Eryngium giganteum - a cold climate seaholly.
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