My appreciation for gardens planted in a white and green color scheme did not come easily. It has been a learning process that required several years of research and personal education. The photo essays of the iconic White Gardens at Sissinghurst in the UK were merely that, photo essays; they did not inspire me. Instead, I was actually puzzled by the owner’s intentions.
However, I was set straight by reading about the goals of contemporary designers, who can and do successfully execute white and green garden themes. Much of that came from studying the opinions and images from garden blogging colleagues around the world, over a period of four years.
This season, therefore, when a new client, asked for a garden makeover and insisted that green and white be the only two colors I could use, I was prepared and empowered.
I was commissioned to plant a garden of my own design with the understanding that, in the even that it did not please the client, I would redo it. The homeowner and I were on a journey to discover a garden that she could feel but could not articulate or sketch. In order to avoid any frustration and disappointment on my part, later on, I psyched myself up for the very strong possibility that a great number of plants would be rejected after planting and replaced. They were.
The client, a successful businessperson in her own right, is hands-on and in control of most projects that she undertakes. However, she knew nothing about gardening. All she had was a personal vision, without the technical vocabulary to describe it. My mission, therefore, was to help her find a way to establish creative ownership of her garden.
I began by working with a selection of plants far greater than that which her flowerbeds could hold. Then my staff and I planted, rearranged, discarded, and replaced where necessary.
By giving the client more choices than she needed, with enough plants to either welcome or banish, I was able to engage her imagination and intentionally provoke her to critique our work, all the while encouraging her to develop a personal vocabulary to express her garden needs. With time, this ritual would empower her to oversee the garden’s design and in the end she discovered her garden voice.
What surprised me was the realization that the homeowner, without any formal education in the elements of design, let alone gardening, understood the importance of movement. She wanted her garden to flow. In one instance, the most beautiful, most expensive plants were rejected because they impeded this movement.
Flow meant that the eye was to move through the garden, seamlessly, and that there would be no symmetry in the flowerbeds to create a static, visual experience. If the scanning eye stopped abruptly, the plant or plants that it fixed upon were either moved or removed.
My intention had been not only to - literally - give my client the flowerbeds of her dreams, but also to stimulate her creative potential, as it relates to gardening. I learned about this process when I first read Fran Sorin's book, Digging Deep. The idea that every person has a creative side to their personality, no matter how hard they protest to the contrary, seemed revolutionary at the time that I read Fran’s words. Now, after coaxing creativity out of countless clients, I appreciate even more her powerful insight into human nature.
The white and green garden I agreed to deliver could not be a cookie cutter or formula project. There was no preconceived plan in my repertoire to depend on. Nor was there a good old reliable template to whip out and recycle. I had to start from square one.
I began with a few background shrubs to give the white flowers a rich green environment in which to glow. My only restriction here was to avoid evergreen conifers. However, broad-leaved evergreens, such as Buxus, Ilex, and white-blooming Rhododendron were permitted. I also included a Philadelphus Minnesota Snowflake as an eventual anchor plant, when it grows to maturity, because its white flowers are delightful both to admire and to inhale. And the contrast of the white petals on the dark green foliage is enchanting. Then we added a layer of dwarf, deciduous, white blooming shrubs.
Included in this assortment are Weigela White Knight, Itea Little Henry, and white Potentilla. In between and in front of them, we planted white shrub roses, one growing vertical and one horizontal, white Itoh peonies, an hydrangea, pale cream hemerocallis, white astillbe, and white phlox paniculata in both short and tall varieties.
In order to allow all plants to grow exponentially, some empty negative spaces remained. Into them, we inserted a combination of the annual flower white Cleome and perennials white Persicaria Polymorpha and pink Eupatorium atropurpurea. The client agreed to Eupatorium for the first season even though it flowers in light pink only because I needed a temporary stopgap.
I expect that in the end, the Persicaria will have to go because its eventual verticality will impede flow. However, if the client appreciates the soft pastel shade of Eupatorium, that plant might remain because it’ produces rounded, frothy flower heads that echo the shapes of the nearby Buxus.Together the fluffiness and repetition combine to enhance the sense of flow.
As I write this report, the garden has already been tweaked several times; I removed some plants because they did not seem appropriate, and the client pointed out others that did not work for her. Now, as we wait for the blooming of one of the two white roses that still hasn’t bloomed this season, the client has already indicated that she is pleased with the overall appearance of the garden. Flow has been achieved.