Tag Archives: What’s Going on in the Gardens?

Bold Subtlety: The White Garden

At a time of year when loud, colorful fireworks are happening all over the gardens as much as across patriotic night skies, it’s fair to wonder about the attraction of a single garden dedicated to white-flowering plants. After so many showy Peonies and Tall Bearded Iris, and now Roses galore, why focus on a subtle grouping of paler flowers? Here at White Flower Farm, it comes as no surprise that white flowers have an important story to tell. There is no better place to illustrate this than our White Garden.

The White Garden has been a feature at the farm since the 1940s, when nursery founders William Harris and Jane Grant created a 12-foot by 80-foot perennial border in front of a stone terrace and began filling it with nothing but white flowers. Inspired by the British moon garden, they considered the display to be the epitome of horticultural sophistication. It was so prominent in their minds, in fact, that their first idea for a nursery was to showcase only white-flowering perennials and shrubs — an idea that “lasted about a minute,” they later admitted. The simple yet sophisticated White Garden is nonetheless memorialized in the nursery’s name.

Beyond Color

As you approach the White Garden, the general impression of whites and greens invites further acquaintance. If you look more intently, individual plants begin to stand out for characteristics other than color. It is line, shape, form, texture, and value (light and dark) that begin to set them apart. At the front of the border, dense spikes of Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia Archangel™ White) create a well-defined corner. Green stalks of Salvia (S. nemorosa ‘White Profusion’), having dropped most of their snowy flowers, add further linear interest, as do the icicle-like racemes of Speedwell (Veronica ‘White Wands’). Set midway into the border, a stout specimen of Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens ‘Haas’ Halo’) punctuates the pools of perennials at its feet, encouraging visitors to pause and enjoy this first section of the garden.

If you linger, you notice the starlike blossoms of Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana alata) borne on tall, wiry stalks, hovering over the other plants like a small meteor shower.

Moving farther down the border and looking back, you’ll see another handsome vignette that borrows a distant, earthen urn for a focal point. A procession of diverse forms and textures unfolds. Spidery flowers of Cleome (C. hassleriana ‘White Queen’) explode in the foreground like miniature fireworks. Beneath them, fuzzy blooms of Ageratum (A. houstonianum ‘White Bouquet’) and the cascading stems of Salvia (S. verticillata ‘White Rain’) soften the edge of the bed. Bright white blossoms of Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum suberbum Amazing Daisies® Daisy May®) pop out against a backdrop of dark green Hydrangea foliage.

In addition to playing with multiple design elements, the White Garden demonstrates the harmonious way in which annuals, perennials, and shrubs can combine in a single space. The simplified color palette makes it easier to see how different plants can work together.

Dramatic Nuances

Juxtapositions of white-flowering plants lead to another interesting discovery, for there is a great diversity of color within the world of white. The pure white of Cleomes contrasts significantly with the lemon-cream flowers of Mullein (Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’) on bold, spear-like stalks. Similarly, the terminal inflorescences of Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), shown in the background of the photo above, have the appearance of brown butter. Petal-packed bombs of Zinnia (Z. elegans ‘Oklahoma White’) glisten like buttermilk, while small flowers of Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) gleam like pearls.

White flowers do something else. They help you see nuances of green like never before. Clean white starbursts of Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris ‘Only the Lonely’) and milky blossoms of Floribunda Rose (Rosa ‘Iceberg’) direct your eyes to the supporting foliage — glowing like the zest of fresh limes, on the one hand, and subdued and darker on the other. While the fascinating white flower heads of Gas Plant (Dictamnus albus) are past, their yellow-green seedpods and glossy forest leaves help other white blooms stand out.

Quiet Fireworks

Toward the end of the border, a large Rose bush (Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’) lends some stability to the sea of stems in front of it. There, visitors may spy a single white blossom aglow with light, like a quiet firework in a sky of dark foliage. Perhaps it can serve as a symbol of the White Garden’s bold subtlety.

The White Garden has one other claim to fame. No other garden on the property shines as brightly on a moonlit night.

A Passion for Peonies & Their Companions

The afternoon sun is dappling the gardens at White Flower Farm, and visitors on this day in late May might find themselves drawn to a quiet corner where two giant Lilacs stand watch over their precious compatriots – a plethora of Peonies. In a partially shaded bed at the southeast corner of the gardens, visitors would be greeted by a diversity of Peonies: Tree Peonies, Herbaceous Peonies, and Intersectional or Itoh Peonies (a hybrid between the former two types). The wide-ranging selection means there will be a long season of bloom, from the earliest Tree varieties in mid- to late May to the hybrids and finally their Herbaceous cousins in early to mid-June. On this afternoon, lucky strollers are in time to catch the spectacular first act of this seasonal flower show: the blossoming of the Tree Peonies. These woody shrubs produce huge, silky flowers, and mature plants may carry as many as 50 of these exquisite blooms. But there is more afoot – literally. At the base of each Peony, it’s easy to spy other botanical happenings.

The pearly white blooms of Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Ezra Pound,’ nearing the end of their exhibition, are mirrored by Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’ growing in shady recesses around the taller plant. The bright white, double flowers of the Trillium echo the showy Peony blossoms above, offering a pleasantly harmonious portrait.

A bit farther down the garden path, there is a second, well-planned vignette. This time the palette has transitioned to delicate shades of pink. The blossoms of Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Seidai,’ another spectacular Tree Peony, sweetly frame sprays of Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis).

Nearby, the rosy tinges of Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash,’ a colorful variety of Lungwort, continue the pink theme while the plant’s silver-spotted leaves add extra interest.

Groundcovers with exceptional leaf color provide another clever way to hide the bare patches of earth around Peonies while creating visually striking color combinations. Two such companion plants are Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and Coral Bells (Heuchera). The minty-chartreuse leaves of the former are a perfect complement for Peonies with deep magenta flowers, such as this variety of Rock’s Tree Peony, Paeonia rockii ‘Zi Lian.’ For a different flavor, pair with the rusty-leaved Heuchera ‘Mahogany,’ which accentuates the gold-and-red centers of this Peony’s flowers.

The journey is not yet complete. Just around the bend, a mauve-pink flower catches the eye. Next to it are the remains of what must have been a lovely sight – a stem of spent Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Leda’ was probably only in bud at the time those familiar, blue-and-lavender bells were in bloom. Still, the present scene is no less charming.

As this particular garden walk comes to an end, there is a last treasure to behold: the weighty double flowers of a purple-red Tree Peony, Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Rimpo.’ In the foreground, stems of a white variety of Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) produce a dynamic contrast with the velvety dark Peony blossoms. A background of False Forget-me-not, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost,’ completes the picture by adding frosted green leaves and frothy, sky-blue flowers to the mix.

No matter which or how many Peonies are in bloom when you visit the garden (in-person or virtually), companion plants go a long way toward adding season-long, and even year-round, interest to a single genus planting that otherwise hinges upon peak flowering time. Whether you catch Peonies’ emerging reddish stems, their finely cut foliage and ball-shaped buds, or their magnificent blooms, this garden promises to open your eyes to exciting combinations that are always fresh.