The weather is still rather erratic here, bouncing from days in the 50s to a spell in the 90s in one week. It looks like the nights are staying at least above freezing from now on, though, so I can finally get busy planting out the annuals and tender things. I follow pretty much the same routine each year: first the best reds, oranges, and yellows for the main front path; purples and the rest of the reds, oranges, and yellows for the middle front path; the rest of the purples and yellow and some pinks in the far front path; pinks and blues starting around the side; and finally, whatever whites I’ve ended up with. From its rank in my planting priorities, you might guess that white isn’t a color I’m particularly drawn to, and you’d be right.
My main objection to white flowers is that they tend to look awful once they’re past their prime. They open in perfection but can quickly brown, detracting from those that are just starting.
It’s not a huge problem if the flowers are pretty small, as on the white blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica ‘Alba’) above, or if you see the planting from a distance, but it’s icky when you have to see the soggy brown splodges up close. (You have many wonderful qualities, ‘Immortality’, but oh, your spent flowers are reeeeallly awful. )
While I’m rarely tempted to buy a plant with white blooms specifically for its flowers, I’ve ended up with a fair number of them anyway. Quite often, it’s because I wanted the plant for its foliage and it just happened to have white flowers, as with variegated mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius ‘Variegatus’):
‘Ravenswing’ cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris):
‘Red Dragon’ knotweed (Persicaria microcephala):
And rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)—what a waste to cut off the flowers!
Sometimes, I want to try a white-flowered plant because I’ve heard good things about it, or because it’s fun or unusual. I was ok with adding wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) to my meadow, for instance, because it was supposed to be so tough and long-flowering.
Once I saw it was all that and then some, I brought some into the garden.
I had to give bats-in-the-belfry (Campanula trachelium) a try just for the name, so I figured I’d sow the white form instead of the usual purple-blue. It didn’t stick around long, but it made me smile while it lasted.
It’s hard to resist any of the ball-flowered alliums, so for a while, I had both ‘Ivory Queen’ Turkestan onion (Allium karataviense, above) and hybrid ‘Mount Everest’ (below).
Annual bunny tail or hare’s tail grass (Lagurus ovatus) is way up there on the adorability scale.
There’s nothing so demure about garden heliotrope (Valeriana officinalis) when its 6-foot-tall stems are topped with white flowers in summer, but I admire its vigor and enjoy its wonderful fragrance.
And there’s the equally tall swan plant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus), a milkweed relative that’s usually grown for its puffed-up seedpods, but I think the individual flowers are pretty cool too.
Still, I’ve never much liked white flowers or white-variegated leaves mixed with other colors, which is how I ended up relegating most of them to one part of the side garden—not with the specific intention of designing a “monochromatic” planting but simply because I didn’t know where else to put them. Gradually, I started to see the appeal of a white garden—or at least some white-with-white combinations.
Above is orris root iris (Iris ‘Florentina’) with perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens); below it’s with sea kale (Crambe maritima).
Above, American ipecac or Indian physic (Gillenia [Porteranthus] stipulatus) with variegated boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’) and giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha).
Below, white betony (Stachys officinalis ‘Alba’) with variegated ‘Prairie Frost’ purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), ‘Cora White’ rose periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), and ‘Berggarten’ sage (Salvia officinalis).
And some emphatically white phlox cultivars: above, ‘Miss Lingard’ phlox (Phlox carolina) and ‘Miss Manners’ obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) with ‘Kumson’ forsythia (Forsythia viridissima var. koreana); below, ‘David’ phlox with ‘Silver and Gold’ yellow-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea).
In the back above and the the foreground below is smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), here with Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha), and silver willow (Salix alba var. sericea).
Over time, some of the excess blues, purple-blues, and pinks (my other unfavorite colors)have ended up in the same area, for lack of anywhere better to put them. And though the results are sometimes a bit precious, I’m getting to rather like them too. The blue-and-whites are quite nice, actually.
Above, a simple spring combo of ‘White Festival’ Dutch hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) with grape hyacinths (Muscari).
A month or so later, the quirky ‘Ivory Queen’ Turkestan onions (Allium karataviense) flower, here with ‘Silver Brocade’ wormwood (Artemisia stelleriana), ‘Brookside’ geranium, white dwarf fan columbine (Aquilegia flabellata var. pumila ‘Alba’), ‘Marcus’ salvia, and ‘Frosty Fire’ dianthus.
A couple of early-summer collections: above, silver sage (Salvia argentea) in bloom with ‘Caradonna’ salvia and ‘Brookside’ geranium in front of giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha); below, blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) with more of the giant fleeceflower.
And two for fall: above, Leucanthemella serotina with bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis); below, hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium) against ‘Bluebird’ smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).
Some white-and-pink pairings in this part of the garden: above, ‘Cramers’ Plum’ love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) with ‘Dark Towers’ beardtongue (Penstemon) and Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima). Below, ‘Prairie Frost’ purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with bunny tail grass (Lagurus ovatus), ‘Becky’ Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum), and the scapes (flowering stems) of garlic.
There are a fair number of whites and pinks in the outer borders and meadowy areas too. The spiky blooms of Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) are always dramatic, whether they’re with the daisy-form flowers of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, above) or the fuzzy tails of ‘Karley Rose’ Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale).
‘Jocius’ Variegate’ white snakeroot (Ageratina aromatica, above) is a big plant that can overwhelm many companions, but ‘Crimson Beauty’ fleeceflower (Persicaria) is substantial enough to easily hold its own. Speaking of substantial fleeceflowers, below is almost-done-flowering giant fleeceflower (P. polymorpha) with Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and ‘Cloud Nine’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum).
Whites are quite pretty with yellows, too. Right at the moment, I’m loving the sweet-scented white blooms of the golden mockorange (Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’) that’s growing next to my side-porch steps. The flowers and foliage are a perfect combo on their own.
I definitely need to start planting more white and yellow flowers together. The only image I could find in my archives is this rather messy pairing of ‘Cramers’ Plum’ love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) and Euphorbia palustris.
I do have some white flowers with yellow foliage, though, such as the white-variegated ‘Grace Barker’ Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum x hybridum) with ‘All Gold’ lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) above and one of the woody-stemmed white asters (Symphyotrichum) with Mellow yellow spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’).
Brown and white isn’t an obvious theme for a pretty combination, but sometimes it works. The late-flowering whites, especially, add a wonderful feeling of freshness when the rest of the garden is slowing down. Below is hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium) against little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).
And more of the woody-stemmed white asters (Symphyotrichum), above with little bluestem and ‘Cassian’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) and below towering above northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), ‘Tom Thumb’ cotoneaster, and ‘Sheffield Pink’ chrysanthemum.
There’s a potential for some interesting contrasts with dark foliage or flowers, as well…a sort of black-and-white thing going on.
Two spring combos for shade: above, dwarf comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum) with ‘Espresso’ wild geranium (Geranium maculatum); below, false rue anemone (Isopyrum biternatum) with a dark-flowered hybrid hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus).
For summer shade, smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies with ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’ ligularia (Ligularia dentata) above. And for sun, giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha) and ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) against ‘Center Glow’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius).
The contrast effect is interesting, but I like it even better when there’s a bit of echo as well, as in the pairing below: Rosa glauca with a seedling clematis that’s very similar to the classic hybrid ‘Henryi’.
Whites have a natural affinity to partners with silver, gray, or blue leaves, as with the woody-stemmed white aster (Symphyotrichum) mingling with rue (Ruta graveolens) below.
Above, bold ‘Becky’ Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum) and lacy bishop’s flower (Ammi majus) with ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum). And below, ground-hugging ‘Snow Flurry’ heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) with woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus).
Best of all, though, is the crisp and elegant combo of white and green. ‘Spring Green’ tulip, with a brushstroke of green on the outside of each white petal, harmonizes with all kinds of fresh green foliage. Below it’s with the leaves of white Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Alba’).
If I ever have any more doubts about the beauty of white blooms, these last two—‘Becky’ Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum) with bells-of-Ireland (Molucella laevis) and smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) with the emerging stems of an ironweed (Vernonia)—will always remind me that they deserve a place in the garden here…even if that place might not be the favored space out front (yet).