Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Every few months, I start a new list of garden projects I’d like to try. It would be better if I’d keep just one running list, because the many small bits of paper scattered over my desk get used as bookmarks or coasters or end up getting filed with other papers, and I lose track of them. When I do run across an old list, it’s fun to read it over and see what I’d planned and what (if anything) I’ve accomplished. One project that’s appeared on quite a few of my lists is making a black-and-white garden.
So, I’m consistent about wanting to try one, but will I actually ever follow through? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’ve been dabbling with some combinations of deep purples to near-blacks with whites, silvers, and grays, and I’ve been learning from the combinations other gardeners have made. At the top of this entry is one of my first dark-and-white combinations, of a no-name clematis wandering among the dark leaves of Rosa glauca (R. rubrifolia). I say it was my combination, but to be truthful, I can take credit only for planting them next to each other; at that time, this clematis seedling hadn’t bloomed yet, so the result was completely a happy accident.
I’m not quite as sure how I feel about another unplanned combination in my front garden: the clump of blinding white ‘Immortality’ iris smack in the middle of a mostly red-and-purple area, shown below.
It certainly adds some liveliness to the scene; that’s not, however, the effect I was going for. It also breaks my rule of no white in the front garden, where I mostly keep the reds, oranges, and purples. Darned if I can remember why I put it there in the first place, but I’m so used to it now that I think I’d miss it, even if I could find a replacement that better suited the other colors there.
The combination above, of red orach (Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’) and Bowman’s root (Gillenia stipulata [Porteranthus stipulatus]) is one I definitely like. The tinier flowers make the white much less intense, and the whole effect is much more balanced. I figure that a black-and-white garden can have lots of silver, too, so that opens up a lot of options for foliage pairings. Below is a high-contrast pairing of ‘Oakhurst’ pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa) leaves with ‘Big Ears’ lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina).
The shock value wears off by mid- to late summer, when the pineapple lily leaves turn a bit more greenish and the lamb’s ears are more grayish green than silver-white. In this case, though, I think I actually prefer the high-contrast phase.
Below is a combination that I really thought would be neat, but it missed the mark. Starting with the galvanized container, I figured it would be clever to use silver foliage as well, so I added a clump of ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ lavender. Then, remembering the black-and-white concept, I tucked in the near-black Eranthemum nigrum and the supposed-to-be brown-black Haloragis erecta ‘Wellington Bronze’.
Maybe it would have worked if I’d set the container in full sun, as one would normally do for the lavender, but instead I kept it by the front door, so it got just a few hours of evening sun. The Eranthemum stayed dark, but the Haloragis mostly turned green, spoiling my clever plans. I’m almost tempted to try it again, because I still suspect it could work in the right site.
Good combinations of dark foliage with silvery blue leaves have completely eluded me so far. I never even would have tried, except for the combination of ‘Krossa Regal’ hosta and Cryptotaenia japonica ‘Purpurea’ (shown below) in a friend’s garden, which I thought was intriguing.
Not having shade, I tried to create a similar effect with sun-loving ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and ‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum).
Part of the problem might have been that the textures were just too similar. The pink phlox seedling that inserted itself was an even bigger problem: It would have been passable with either grass individually, but together it’s just awful, to my eye. I think this image has put me off trying powder-blue and black together again – for a while, anyway.