I Don’t Like White

Nadeen’s white garden late May 05

So sayeth I, frequently. My reasons? For the first, I offer a simple equation:

white + a mulberry tree + birds = purple-spotted white

Seven years of purple-spotted white fences and garden furniture. Need I say more?

My second objection to white is its lack of potential. Think of the crispness of a freshly painted white bench, or the pristine petals of a newly opened white bloom. When you start out so perfect, there’s simply nowhere to go but downhill. On fences and furniture, white quickly gets splashed with mud, stained by birds (see objection number one), greened with algae, and discolored by wind-borne dirt and road grime. And pure white flowers seldom stay pure white for long: If you’re lucky, they’ll take on greenish, bluish, or yellowish tints as they age, but most often, they’re all too soon a yucky brown. So, that’s why I don’t like white.

Well, I guess I could qualify that statement: I don’t like white – in my own garden. I do rather like seeing it in other people’s gardens, actually. The photo at the very top of this entry is from my friend Nadeen McShane’s garden. She has an excellent eye for creating great combinations (oh, what she can do with chartreuse and blue!), but this white vignette in her garden is one of my favorites. Ok, so I don’t mind white the way other people use it, but I don’t like it in my own garden.

Iris ‘Florentina’ and Iberis sempervirens May 5 06So…if I don’t like white in my garden, I have to ask myself: “Why, then, do I have so many white-flowered plants?” Myself has no good answer. Well, I have a sentimental reason for keeping this ‘Florentine’ iris (which reads as white from a distance but is ever so lightly tinged with blue up close), and it makes a nice contrast of form and texture with the perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) I’d acquired for a project I was working on.

Leucanthemum ‘Becky’ with Molucella laevis and Geranium Rozanne early July 05 Leucanthemum ‘Becky’ with Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’ and Artemisia abrotanum mid July 05

And, well, I’d heard everyone raving about the Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum) ‘Becky’, so I had to try it too. Above left, it’s paired with bells-of-Ireland (Molucella laevis) and Rozanne geranium (Geranium ‘Gerwat’); on the right, it’s with the foliage of ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum). I’ll grant that it was a beauty for several weeks, but it didn’t add anything through the rest of the year. Both clumps died after two years, anyway, so I didn’t have to decide whether I really liked them well enough to keep them.

Allium karataviense ‘Ivory Queen’ with Aquilegia Dianthus Geranium and Salvia late May 07You know, though, white is quite nice with blue. I bought Allium karataviense ‘Ivory Queen’ for its foliage and shape more than its color, but it turned out to be a pretty companion for the blue leaves of white-flowered dwarf fan columbine (Aquilegia flabellata var. pumila f. alba) and ‘Spotty’ dianthus, especially with a shot of green from the foliage from ‘Brookside’ geranium and the intense blue flowers of ‘Marcus’ salvia. And below, a sprinkling of white from the flowers of ‘Cramer’s Plum’ love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) saves this combination of ‘Walker’s Low’ catmint (Nepeta), ‘Caradonna’ salvia, and Rozanne geranium from being just too blue (if such a thing is possible).

 ‘Cramer’s Plum’ nigella with Nepeta and ‘Caradonna’ salvia June 1 06

White may be short-lived when it’s in the form of flowers, but it can stay sharp and clean for much longer when it appears in foliage form. Now, I realize that leaf variegation is a touchy subject for some people, so if you object strongly to stripes, spots, and splashes, I suggest you click away now. Okay, you’ve been warned! To continue the blue-and-white theme, I first offer ‘Loraine Sunshine’ oxeye (Helianthus helianthoides) with ‘Sarastro’ bellflower (Campanula).

Heliopsis ‘Loraine Sunshine’ with Campanula ‘Sarastro’ June 8 06

And here’s another pairing along the same lines, this time the finely speckled foliage of ‘Spider’s Web’ fatsia (no, it’s not hardy here; it’s in a pot) with a self-sown seedling of blue mist shrub (Caryopteris x clandonensis).

Fatsia ‘Spider’s Web’ with caryopteris seedling mid Sept 05

White-variegated foliage isn’t good only with blue, of course; it also pairs well with white flowers, and with silvery leaves. Below is a patch of variegated tawny daylily (Hemeocallis fulva ‘Variegated Kwanso’) flanked by a bit of white-blooming ‘Ravenswing’ cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and the exceptionally silvery ‘Looking Glass’ Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla).

Hemerocallis ‘Variegated Kwanso’ with Brunnera ‘Looking Glass’ late May 05

But why stop there? If a little white foliage is good, then more must be better, right? Below left, variegated heartleaf iceplant (Aptenia cordifolia ‘Variegata’) covers the ground around a clump of ‘Snow Fairy’ caryopteris. And below left, white-variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’) adds height to a pot of ‘Harlequin’ wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) and ‘Burgundy Glow’ ajuga.

Caryopteris ‘Snow Fairy’ with Aptenia cordifolia ‘Variegata’ late Aug 06 Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’ with Euonymus ‘Harlequin’ and ‘Burgundy Glow’ ajuga early Sept 05

Um…a little too much of a good thing? Maybe so. But you know, white’s so nice in the garden that it can be hard to avoid getting carried away with it. I should know. So….what was I talking about anyway? Oh, yeah: I really like white! How about you?

About Nancy J. Ondra

Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.

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28 Responses to I Don’t Like White

  1. Joy February 9, 2008 at 7:35 am #

    You really have said all that I was thinking about “white” !
    I have a lot of the plants you have spoken about .. and I love them to bits !
    White lilac Madame Lemoine as a corner stone on one side of my garden .. a temporary colour in season but glorious ! ..
    Little Lamb hydrangea, Echinacea, Jack Frost is one of my favorite almost “white” .. a mixture of other whites with silver, then something in a bold colour to pop it further.
    I love WHITE too ! haha
    Joy

    Welcome, Joy! Isn’t it great that we can make and break whatever rules we choose to in our gardens? I think short-lived whites, such as your lilac, may be among the best, as far as flowers go: They look exquisite for a bit, then disappear instead of lingering in a muddy mixture of brown and white.
    -Nan

  2. Elly Phillips February 9, 2008 at 7:50 am #

    Ha! What a marvelous post! I have to agree with you about white flowers becoming brown mush–a heartbreaking sight, especially if you love white double peonies such as ‘Festiva Maxima’ as I do. I must have my peonies, but otherwise try to restrict white flowers to single-petaled forms, such as Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ and various clematis; single flowers tend to drop their petals before they brown. But ah, white-variegated foliage!!! However, you clearly forgot one element of white in the garden (which also browns all too soon): SNOW. I see we’re getting some even as I write…

    Oh, yes, double white peonies – that’s good (or bad) one. But how dare you invoke the “s” word, Elly? I’m actually going out this morning, so I’m trying to pretend that it is *not* … well, you know, sneeting.
    -Nan

  3. mss @ Zanthan Gardens February 9, 2008 at 8:55 am #

    I love this essay. I often talk myself into the opposite point of view once I begin writing out pros and cons. Consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of small minds. One should always be flexible enough to change a position when new data is revealed.

    I love white, especially with green, because it provides a cool, crisp feel during our hot and humid summers.

    Right, mss – down with consistency! Who needs it? We have so many other rules we must follow that it’s liberating to do as we please when we can. And good point about white making you feel cool. When I see bright white, it’s like the same sensation as smelling peppermint; definitely refreshing.
    -Nan

  4. Dee/reddirtramblings February 9, 2008 at 9:02 am #

    I use white as a punch of neutral between two opposing colors like purple and orange. I like white flowers, like ‘Becky’ shasta daisy. It does really well here. I also enjoy variegated foliage, although it can be a little busy. Great color post.~~Dee

    Dee: You’re using purple, orange, and white together, then saying variegated foliage is “a little busy”? Just teasing ya. The colors that make you happy are the very best colors!
    -Nan

  5. jodi February 9, 2008 at 11:06 am #

    Oh, you’re a funny, funny girl, Nan! I started chuckling in the second paragraph, and kept on right to the end. One of your bestest posts ever! My white roses ARE irksome when the fog and rain causes them to ball up like dirty kleenexes, but they all smell so lovely and glow so winsomely otherwise, I forgive them. And yes, I have a lot of white, too–one of my musthave plants this year will be the Leucanthemum nipponicum, or Chrysanthemum n., or whatever it is called botanically THIS week–that glossy, shrubby foliage and the white daisy flowers…Yowsa! (it’ll go nicely with the various other white daisies I have…I’m hopeless, I admit it.

    Oh, goodness yes: white roses rank right up (or down) there with white peonies: So perfect when new, so icky so soon. And now that you mention it, I do have the Nipponanthemum-whatever too, and it was quite nice. Even better, I think – or at least just as good – is Leucanthemella serotina, if you can find it. Bolt upright without staking, abundant white daisies in September, and 4 to 5 feet tall. Here’s a photo from last September, showing it with Caryopteris x clandonensis, Salvia argentea, and Salix alba var. sericea.
    -Nan

    Leucanthemella with Caryopteris Salvia argentea and Salix alba var sericea Sept 17 07

  6. Hap February 9, 2008 at 11:54 am #

    I have to say that white has never been in my flower mix. I know it has to do with growing up in Alaska where there are at least eight months of snow. When spring finally came around I wanted color, loud, boisterous color! Even the trees and shrubs I planted were picked to have colorful bark that would add something to the snow and stands of white birch during the long dark winter. The metallic copper of Amur Choke Cherry trees with a tangle of bright red Siberian rose would catch the low angle sun in the winter and pop like neon against the snow and the stark black and white of the native birch.

    Even now, transplanted to California, the only white flowers I have these days are the huge Echinopsis and Cereus cacti blooms, but they win me over by being so huge, fragrant and making me feel like I have a collection of Georgia O’Keefe paintings in the garden….

    I can see why white wouldn’t hold much appeal for you, Hap. I’m glad you’re now in a climate where you can surround yourself with rich color. But see, you prove my point: Those white flowers have a way of sneaking into the garden despite our best intentions!
    -Nan

  7. Benjamin February 9, 2008 at 12:17 pm #

    Ha, Nan, did you intend for this post to evolve as it did? As a writer, interesting to follow anyway. I’ve REALLY gotten into variegated leaves lately, as my catalog orders seem to attest to, but I’ll keep trying white blooms. My coneflowers please me the most, and the balloon flowers come in second. I’m trying some tulips this spring, but I have to agree with you (not having even tried this yet), that speckled, striped, dappled foliage is the way to go (harelquin b-fly bush anyone?). I mean, once the week or two of blooms is gone, what are you left with? Well, if you’re smart, you can be left with a whole heckuva lot.

    Well, you know I’m a big fan of variegated foliage too, so I agree with you completely, Benjamin. (Er…did I ever send the variegated pokeweed seeds I promised you? If not, let me know.) Having dependable color from leaves makes the flowers that come and go all the more interesting.
    -Nan

  8. Lisa at Greenbow February 9, 2008 at 2:20 pm #

    I about cracked up reading your post Nan. Starting out saying you didn’t like white and then ending up saying you like it. Ha… It is so funny to me because I was one of those people that didn’t like varigated leaves because I thought they made the plant look sickly. Now my garden has quite a few varigated plants and I want MORE. All of your pictures were gorgeous but that first one is a stunner.

    Thanks, Lisa! That scene at Nadeen’s blows me away every time I see it. I’m glad you’ve gotten hooked on variegated plants too. Anymore, I’m afraid to say anything bad about *any* plant. It seems that as soon as the thought “gosh, that’s really appalling” forms, I’m destined to acquire and adore it. Well, except for dwarf conifers. Twenty years after a summer job standing in full sun potting up thousands of junipers (ow), my brain still screams “pain! bad!” every time I’m near any conifer. Come to think of it, though, I do have a small ‘Gold Cone’ juniper in one of my holding beds. Oh no…it’s happening *again*…
    -Nan

  9. Benjamin February 9, 2008 at 3:07 pm #

    Indeed you did send them, the pokeweed and I will linger with each other this summer. Thank you!!

    Great; you’re most welcome, Benjamin. I still have a few packets if anyone else wants to try variegated pokeweed. (For details, see Unpopular Plant Series – Picking a Poke.)
    -Nan

  10. Robin at Bumblebee February 9, 2008 at 7:06 pm #

    Excellent post.

    I happened on a quote today (that I’ll surely use at some point) that seems appropriate about the high-maintenance nature of white furniture and such:

    “A garden is a thing of beauty and a job forever.” – Richard Briers

    How true is that?!?!

    The extra work I have to put into putting a fresh coat on the white Adirondack chairs or hose and scrub the white picket fence is, in my mind, worth it. Also, of course, white extends my enjoyment of the garden past sunset.

    –Robin at Bumblebee

    An excellent quote, Robin, and totally appropriate! I am very glad you’re willing to go the extra mile for your lovely kitchen-garden fence; it’s *definitely* worth it.
    -Nan

  11. Elly Phillips February 9, 2008 at 9:43 pm #

    Love Robin’s (well, Briers’s) quote! And of course, I also love pokeweed–even unvariegated–so I’d love to try the variegated version if you have a packet to spare.

    I’ll be glad to send you some seed, Elly, or you can come and get some seedlings this spring!
    -Nan

  12. Pam/Digging February 9, 2008 at 10:49 pm #

    A little white goes a long way for me. I like white guara and ‘Marie Pavie’ roses in my own garden, and I’m trying some of Annie in Austin’s white iris this year, but that’s it for flowers.

    Now foliage is another matter. I like variegations with stripes or even little dots as in ‘Milky Way’ aspidistra. I’m not as fond of the yellowish, sickly-looking variegations.

    But you see, with photos as tempting as yours, I could probably be talked into trying some of those as well. Great post, Nan.

    Oh, now you’ve presented me with a challenge: trying to come up with attractive combinations for the sickly-looking variegates! I’ll have to think about that one. I suppose there are a *few* variegates that are less appealing to me than others. Hmm…
    -Nan

  13. Ken from Sweden February 10, 2008 at 5:17 am #

    Hi Nan!
    You now that we like varigated leafs, and for white flowers….well we cant get too much of them.We want to have like Sissinghurst in England.
    So we do a large gardenroom whith only white flowers and different plants whith foliage in white-varigated and silvergray.

    Some of our plants in the Whitegarden:
    Acer Drummondi, Crataegus monogyna var
    Cladrastis Kentukea, Euonymus Fortunei var
    Pyrus Salici olia pendula and some more. (we even try to have Davida involverata in our garden and we have it for three years)
    Also alot of roses, peonys and perenials all in white that I cant wright the names on here.
    Later in the seson we shall show you whith pictures in our blog.
    We seams to have the same taste, alot of the flowers you shown in your blog today we hawe in our garden to.
    White in garden is beautiful even if you must work whith the furnitiure evevry year.
    Regards Ken & Carina

    Hi Ken, and welcome Carina, too! Your garden sounds really lovely. I’ve admired the silver-leaved pear in pictures for years, but here, it’s so susceptible to a bacterial disease called fireblight that I can’t grow it. I’ve found that silver willow (Salix alba var. sericea) makes an excellent substitute, though. How wonderful that you can grow Davidia and Cladrastis too. I am very much looking forward to your summer photos!
    -Nan

  14. Jan February 10, 2008 at 7:39 am #

    I love the color white in the garden. You are right about it working in so many ways and combinations. As for the mushy, brown flowers that white turns into, if they are large ones, I just plant them on the outskirts of the garden. That way I don’t notice them so much when they die.

    Jan Always Growing

    Welcome to GGW, Jan! That’s an excellent idea: Plant the whites at a distance where you can admire them when they’re fresh but not be subjected to the dirty-sock effect as they decline.
    -Nan

  15. Curtis February 10, 2008 at 11:32 am #

    Oh so you do like white after all. I really like white and silvery foliage. Makes a good contrast to deep colors.

    Yep, I guess I do, Curtis. Though I suppose I defeated my own purpose in writing about it, since the point of this month’s topic was to see colors other than white and brown. Oh, but that *does* give me an idea…
    -Nan

  16. Frances February 10, 2008 at 6:10 pm #

    Your post is like the peppermint taste you describe for the color white, packs a lot of punch! Love that metaphor. Gorgeous photos and fun text. We have lots of white and one year did a white garden, but other colors creeped in and before you could say ‘variegated’, no more all white. Looked good on paper however.

    Frances at Faire Garden

    Thanks, Frances! I admire gardeners who have the discipline to focus on and maintain specific color themes. I keep trying, but as you say, other colors have a way of creeping in before I know it.
    -Nan

  17. wiseacre February 11, 2008 at 8:10 am #

    My shade garden is the place I “need” white. The darker nooks need something bright to stand out and truly be visable from a distance. Light pink is too lonely by itself and deeper colors fade into the shadows.

    The bottom line for me really is – if it blooms – I want it no mater what the color. In my book any color combo is good.

    You raise yet another excellent point about using white, wiseacre: for adding sparkle to shady sites. I guess that’s why I so liked the idea of white fences and arbors and funiture in my previous garden. And why I was so peeved at ending up with dull, purple-stained white instead of the pristine white I’d envisioned.
    -Nan

  18. meems February 11, 2008 at 8:14 am #

    Oh, Nan, what a fun post. When I first started reading my mind was saying, “yeah, but what about…” which you in turn worded so aptly as you moved along.

    The flowers northern gardeners can grow are so amazingly varied and lush compared to our tropical-ness down here in Florida. We truly do rely on variegated foliage just to give us color in the midst of our heat. Even then we don’t have the choices your photos display. Can you hear the waaaa? (I guess you just can’t have it all)Your photos make me want to move just so I could see what it feels like to garden like ya’ll.

    I am partial to white and I seem to choose it as an accent color over yellow which I’m not too fond of. White especially catches my eye at dawn and dusk as our bright sunshine washes it out during the rest of the day.
    Thanks for this fun post, Nan.
    Meems at hoeandshovel.blogspot

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments, Meems. It’s both enlightening and amusing to hear you admire our “varied and lush” northern plantings, when some of us try very hard to replicate your own tropical extravagance. I hope you’ll forgive me for not feeling too sorry for you right this minute, when our air temperature is in the single digits, our wind chill is well below zero, and the weather forecasts are full of snow for tomorrow. Perhaps we should consider a gardener exchange program: We’ll bring you southerners up here for the winter and send the northerners down south in August. I can think of no better way to raise our appreciation for our own gardens!
    -Nan

  19. Diana February 11, 2008 at 9:59 am #

    Your garden is beautiful and I love all the white – especially where it contrasts with the blue! So vibrant. I decided I liked white when I planted some with white foliage in shady areas – it just lights them right up!

    Hi Diana! Another vote for white in the shade garden – great. Yes, rich blues and white are perfect together, aren’t they? The combination is like Delft pottery brought to life.
    -Nan

  20. Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 11, 2008 at 11:10 am #

    I so agree about the mushy-brown problem of white flowers, but it’s hard to find the pink-flowered forms of Magnolia stellata. That’s 1 plant that’s worth a bit of browning flowers. The white flowers that have held up & faded best in my garden are Hosta & Astrantia. It can be difficult to determine when the Astrantia flowers have faded as they dry so well. As for using white to allieviate “blueness,” I find myself agreeing with what Gertrude Jekyll wrote – that blue flowers seem to cry out for lemon yellow.

    I used to be more into the white variegated foliage (as evidenced by the abudance of green & white Lamium in the garden), & I still like it with blue. But my heart belongs to chartreuse (for now).

    You’re quite right about the glory of star magnolia being worth the browning later. And amen to celebrating chartreuse!
    -Nan

  21. kerri February 11, 2008 at 5:02 pm #

    I’ve enjoyed your thoughts about white in the garden Nan, and the accompanying photos….amusing and helpful at the same time :) You’ve given me some good ideas to try.
    I had the mushy-brown problem with my white Rose of Sharon and was very disappointed, but other white flowers have been a delight. I also like the variegated foliage.

    Many thanks, Kerri. I can tell from the name of your blog, and from your selection of photos, that you’re another color fanatic!
    -Nan

  22. Kylee February 11, 2008 at 7:05 pm #

    As I was reading down through this post, I was formulating my response and about to tell you, “me thinks thou dost protest too much!” LOL.
    I love white, too, and you have some of the loveliest combinations I’ve ever seen in any color!

    Hi Kylee! Yes, white simply *will* be liked, whether I wish it or not. Good thing, I guess, since I seem to have ordered a whole lot of seeds for white flowers. I hope your whites are glorious this year too!
    -Nan

  23. Annie in Austin February 12, 2008 at 12:38 am #

    This was a lot of fun to read, Nan, and I started imitating Emily Littella at first, too, thinking “What’s All this about not liking White!?” Well, I did have a whole little White Garden once in IL, just to glow in the moonlight, and would not give up my pure, un-eyed hardy white hibiscus for anything.

    Two thoughts:
    1] when the summer sun shines strong in Texas, it’s amazing how many pastel flowers are bleached white by mid-afternoon.

    2] if the furniture is white, at least you can see whatever blobs were left by Mother Nature’s critters… and avoid sitting in that spot.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Thanks, Annie! Isn’t it funny how a post can take on a mind of its own? Good point about the sun-bleaching, and about white furniture too. I had considered painting my garden furniture mulberry-purple instead of white, but that definitely could have created its own problems!
    -Nan

  24. carolyn February 12, 2008 at 2:40 pm #

    I don’t like white because we have too much of it in Chicago in the winter. Just kidding. I use white in shady areas mostly because it provides contrast .

    And my all-time favorite tree, Magnolia Grandiflora, has the most beautiful creamy white flowers.

    Love your garden.

    Right, Carolyn! At the moment, I’m definitely back to “I don’t like white (in winter)” mode. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it this summer, though. And really, could anyone *not* appreciate the beauty of a magnolia?
    -Nan

  25. Shirl February 12, 2008 at 4:43 pm #

    Oh Nan… you have me in a quandary now! I had been preparing photos for a post on white in the garden too but I can’t possibly follow this one :-D

    Excellent post – very entertaining too. I agree with many of your points. I love to see white in my cool partial shady back garden but I don’t enjoy it the same in my sunny front garden :-D

    Sorry, Shirl! But please don’t let that stop you. It seems that just about everyone here appreciates white in one form or another, so I’m sure we’d all be delighted to see your choices too. Pretty please?
    -Nan

  26. Shirl February 13, 2008 at 7:29 pm #

    Hi again, Nan :-)

    Seeing you asked nicely :-D

    Here’s my contribution to white in the garden http://blog.shirlsgardenwatch.co.uk/2008/02/almost-wordless-wednesday.html

    Yay, Shirl; many thanks. If anyone were still on the fence about the beauty of white in the garden, your photos would definitely nudge them to the “I love white” side!
    -Nan

  27. kate February 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm #

    Ah white … I have very little in my garden, come to think of it. There are pale pinks, but white. hmmm… now I’ll probably wake up in the middle of the night remembering white. Oh, I do have anemones in spring that are white.

    I’ll venture to say that by the time you woke up this morning, Kate, you realized that you have more white flowers than you first thought. I’m still recalling others that I’d forgotten when I wrote this post.
    -Nan

  28. Risa Edelstein February 23, 2008 at 8:44 pm #

    Nancy – I am curious how your grew your Bells of Ireland and if you were successful with seed? I adore these but had a hard time germinating them last year and they look so nice in your garden. Love the article. I am not a white flower lover either but I’ve got shasta daisies and montauk daisies in my garden!

    Welcome, Risa! I’ve found that the bells-of-Ireland seeds sprout and grow best in relatively cool indoor conditions (55-60 degrees F). Sometimes I direct-sow them instead, in early April, and that works well too; then they’re at their best a few weeks later in the summer.
    -Nan