Purity and beauty

The intricate flower detail of the hydrangea White Spirit: it is a lacecap that opens up like the purest work of art.

Peter Dowdall says the simplicity of a white flower is a calming contrast in the garden to an excess of colour.

THE colour white is pure — in all walks of life — but particularly so in the garden. With the riot of colour in the herbaceous borders and bedding, white flowers are refresingly calming. Colour combinations are an obvious consideration when planning a new garden or a new bed, but it can be very effective to concentrate on one colour, in particular white. A white flower border is fresh and calm, enticing the viewer with its purity.

It’s hydrangea time and gardens and hedgerows all over the country are decorated now with large, abundant blooms of blues, pinks, reds and purples, and all shades thereof. I change my mind every day as to which is my favourite; I love all of them. ‘Snowball’ is a beautiful, white mophead variety and ‘White Spirit’ is a lacecap that opens up like the purest work of art, the pale green of the foliage fabulously complementing the intricate white flowers.

The most flouncy of the white flowering hydrangeas is the arborescens variety, ‘Annabelle’. Every year, this beauty causes admirers to breathe in in awe. Do be aware that the flowers are so prolific, and so showy, that the stems fall over and break under the weight, so staking is necessary, particularly with newer plants and also during a rainy or windy summer.

Phlox ‘White Flame’, like all the Flame varieties, is shorter than the others, making it more robust and less likely to flop over. It is also resistant to mildew (many of the phlox are not). Quite strongly scented, and free-flowering, its simple flowers, which last from mid-June to October, make it a real favourite of mine.

The common Foxglove, Digitalis, is purple, but has a white form. The pale white fairy thimbles, with black markings in their throat, offer a sense of wonder and contrasting texture to the white border.

Leucanthemums come in all shapes and sizes — the pure white ‘Wirral Supreme’ and the beautiful, big flowering white with yellow centre, ‘Lacrosse’ — but my favourite of all is ‘Shaggy’, which has long, shaggy white petals outside the yellow button centre and will keep the white border in flower well into the autumn.

I first encountered Verbenas, which come from South Africa, in 1989, in my first job in horticulture, a nursery, now sadly a housing estate, in Dundrum in Dublin. These were the bedding-type Verbena, which are frost-tender. There are dozens of colours and shades available now. Then, you have the perennial forms, like Verbena bonariensis and its lower first cousin, ‘Lollipop’, which give a great, airy texture to the back of a planting. There is a beautiful, low-growing spreading variety, called ‘Sissinghurst White’, which is a great addition to the front of a white border. If planting in a raised bed, allow it to fall over the side of the bed: its texture, with its clingy display, adds as much to the scheme as the colour.

Another one for the front of this white border, or as an under-planting of the taller plants, is Viola ‘Mrs Lancaster’. Beautiful, simple-white, violet-type flowers are produced en masse above very low-growing rosettes of pale-green foliage. This will make a stunning white display for months, but in a way it’s cheating, because they are nearly all herbaceous — dying back for the winter.

It can be easy to create wonderful displays that are seasonal, but the trick is to extend the beauty for 12 months. To do this, use some foliage interest, Euonymus ‘Silverstone’, with its masses of tiny white and green leaves mixed with Euonymus ‘Harlequin’, with its pure-white new growth maturing to green and white, creating a dreamlike effect all year long.‘Harlequin’ can be temperamental if it gets too wet during the winter and drops a lot of leaves. If this happens, cut back during early March and enjoy the new leaves bursting forth again.

I thought roses were high-maintenance, but I now adorethem and the display from the disease-resistant ‘White Flower Carpet’ will leave you speechless. Let me just suggest a few more beauties for your white oasis: Lilium regale or its dwarf form, Lilium formosanum, Astilbe ‘Gladstone’, Echinacaea ‘White Swan’, Dianthus ‘Itsaul White’, ‘Mrs Sinkins’ and Anemone ‘Wild Swan’.


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