Sunday, April 1, 2018

Creating a White Garden (Sun Edition)

The white garden at Larkwhistle Garden on the Bruce Peninsula.

One of the most celebrated and iconic gardens in the world is one based around a single color–white. Created by Vita Sackville-West with her husband Harold Nicolson within the ruins of a Tudor manor house, the white garden at Sissinghurst was one of Vita's many experiments with color.  Vita's idea was to limit the flower colors to just one to better focus visitors attention on other design elements; texture, shape and form. Created to peak mid-summer, the garden was planted with a romantic mix of flowers like white lilies, delphiniums and roses set against a backdrop of silver and green foliage.

Limiting a whole garden to a single flower color would certainly require discipline. You'd need to have the willpower to pass on that sky-blue delphinium or the pretty pink rose you saw on your last visit to the local garden centre. Most gardeners, including Vita herself, would probably struggle with those restrictions. The white garden at Sissinghurst Castle was just one of ten "rooms", so Vita had plenty of opportunities to express her love of color elsewhere. 

A white climbing rose in a private garden in Toronto, ON. 

A white rose.

I adore color, so making a white garden hasn't appealed to me until recently. The change of heart began when we lost a large tree at the side of the house. The little courtyard with the tree at its centre was my favourite part of the garden, not because it was especially pretty, but because it always felt cool, comfortable and private the moment you opened the back gate. We've since replaced the fallen tree, but the magnolia we planted is still spindly and small. How I miss that old feeling of quiet and calm! 

While we wait for the new tree to mature, I began to think of other ways I might recreate the old feeling of a soothing green oasis. That's when it occurred to me to create a white garden.

There are so many great white options for spring: white tulips, narcissus and Spring Snowflakes, Leucojum vernum



To my mind, there are two ways to go about creating a white garden. You can start from scratch and grow only white flowers or you can work with an existing garden and slowly edit out the other colors. 

For me the working method will be the latter. There are a few hostas with lavender flowers that were shaded by the old tree. I was too busy to move them last year and the poor things got scorched, so they need to go, white garden or no.

Echinacea purpurea 'Pow Wow White'

Whether you are starting from scratch or editing an existing planting scheme, a few boundaries will need to be set. For instance, is a cream-colored flower close enough to be considered "white"? And is a white flower with a yellow centre "white" enough to be included in your white garden? I have a feeling that Vita might think that a cream flower and the Echinacea above aren't "white", but what the heck, her vote isn't the important one. It's your garden and there is no right or wrong answer. Only you can decide.

One of the things that interests me the most is the sheer challenge of working with one basic color. I think Vita felt the same way.

"It is something more than merely interesting. It is great fun and endlessly amusing as an experiment, capable of perennial improvements as you take away the things that don't fit in, or that don't satisfy you, and replace them by something you like better," she wrote in her weekly newspaper column.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Plan for flowers in each season. Bulbs and early perennials are a great way to start off in the spring. Follow with annuals and mid-season perennials. Keep the color going into late summer with flowers like Sedum, Phlox, hardy Hibiscus and Turtlehead.

• Shrubs and trees can also be a source of white flowers and add structure to the garden.

• One of the things Vita hoped to emphasize was form. You can do this as well by including a variety of flower shapes. For instance, lilies can have trumpet-shaped flowers while Delphinium has tall flower spires.

• Use white or neutral colored flower pots or lined baskets for annuals.

• Use plants that have interesting variegation and foliage that has a variety of shapes.  

White Columbine

The white garden at Larkwhistle Garden on the Bruce Peninsula.

White Lilac

There is one other advantage in creating this type of garden that I want to mention. Vita Sackville-West located her white garden in a place that she and her family liked to gather for dinner in the summertime. White flowers take on a luminous glow as twilight descends. 

If you are considering making your own white garden, locating it next to a deck or patio where you dine in the evening might be a nice idea.

White peonies at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Lavatera (annual)

Phlox paniculata 'David'

Though a single flower color was the core feature in Vita's white garden, she played it against a backdrop of mixed greens and silvery foliage.

Artemisia and Lamb's Ears

Here's a list of silver-grey plants:

Lamb's Ears, Stachys byzantina
Lavender (white flowering of course)
Artemisia (A word of caution: chose your Artemisia carefully. Some types can be aggressive.)
Sea Holly (Eryngium 'Miss Willmot's Ghost)
Snow-in-Summer (Another word of caution: this can be an aggressive groundcover. Chose your location carefully)
Dusty Miller

Dusty Miller (Annual)

Culver's Root, Veronicastrum virginicum 'Album'

A late summer white: Balloon Flower, Platycodon grandiflorus

If a white garden is of interest, here are some of the many plants you might want to consider:

White Flowers for the Spring Garden:

Bulbs: Hyacinth, Daffodils, Tulips, Scilla, Grape Hyacinths, Allium
Annuals: Alyssum
Low growing/rockgarden: Creeping or Moss Phlox, Candytuft, Arabis
Perennials: Columbine, Bearded Iris, Japanese Iris, Salvia, Campanula
Shrubs & Trees: Lilac, Crabapple, Weigela, Viburnum

White Flowers for the Summer Garden:

Annuals: Nicotiana, Cosmos, Cleome, Moonflowers, Stocks
Bulbs and Tubers: Gladiola, Agapanthus, Dahlia
Biennials: Hollyhock, Lychnis
Perennials: Yarrow (Achillea), Lupine, Shasta Daisy, Bee Balm (Monarda), Oriental Lily, Delphinium, Daylily, Butterfly Flower (Gaura), Coneflower (Echinacea)
Shrubs & Trees: Rose, Rose of Sharon, Hydrangea, Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)

White Climbers: Sweet Pea, Morning Glory, Rose, Clematis

White Flowers for the Late Summer/Fall Garden:

Perennials: Turtlehead, Coneflower (Echinacea), Yarrow (Achillea), Phlox, Hardy Hibiscus, Aster

If you have any other suggestions, please leave a comment and I'll update the list.

Sedum 'Stardust'


There is something so fresh about a white flower, don't you think? And at the same time, it feels restful. I am hoping that in creating a white garden at the side of the house I will be recreating that serene feeling that disappeared when we lost the tree.

Bookmark this post with a Pin.


  1. What beautiful pictures, information, lists and inspiration! I've bookmarked this and the shade version for reference.

    1. I am glad to hear that you found the pictures and inspiration both inspirational and helpful Linda.

  2. All these wonderful and pretty photos of such pretty flowers made me happy

    1. The end of March and the beginning of April have been cold, so it made me happy to work with spring and summer flower pictures and put the post together. I am glad it made you happy too Jo-Anne.

  3. Some, may find the idea restrictive, certainly eye catching though.

    1. I agree that white flowers are very striking.

  4. This was an interesting post Jennifer and I enjoyed reading the story behind how Vita and her husband came about planning their space. I had visited a white garden in Newport Rhode Island a number of years back which I fell in love with instantly. There is something about the simplicity of just white and green in the landscape if planned correctly.

    1. I think it is the simplicity that appeals to me too. It feels restful and creating a retreat from daily stresses is something I value more and more.

  5. My favorite flower color is white!
    Sounds boring to some, maybe, but I think almost any white flower is just perfect.
    I have never seen a white Columbine, and it is SO beautiful.
    Thank you for another wonderful post, Jennifer.
    Have a great week!

  6. I am trying a white garden spot this year. Love the look.

    1. I wish you luck with this new project. I am sure it will be fun to work on Earlene.

  7. I have always enjoyed a white or mostly-white garden. Where I now live, the yard is much too small so I've gone with a mostly monochromatic green garden, with some touches of colour. Admittedly, I couldn't leave out the white so have a couple beautiful large white lilies.

  8. Just found this post on Pinterest! I have a small side yard that I am converting to a white garden. It already has a Sweet Autumn Clematis. I started by planting white petunias in window box pots that I used to plant in geraniums. A friend gave me some white Iris, and I've bought a white rose. I'm going today to try to find a white Crape Myrtle - a small-growing one (6 to 8 ft max), as those do well in my area and bloom all summer.

    Thank you very much for your seasonal lists, I will use them to make sure that there are white flowers blooming all the time!

  9. What a fabulous idea, and I love it

  10. Been wanting one forever. Beautiful.

  11. I've decided to plant one area of the garden in white so I've found this very helpful and informative, thank you. We can see the bed both from the conservatory and from the living room window so it needs to be attractive as possible all year. Don't forget Helleborus for winter. Christmas Carol flowers in December for a long period.

  12. Actually I forget where, but I read that V. Sackville West didn't really like the idea of a white garden, it was her husband's notion. If I recall correctly she recommended planting in it flowers which gave the impression of being white without actually being so, like the hybrid musk rose 'Penelope' which has coral buds and fades to white.


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