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A White Garden for the Prairies
by Sara Williams
November 12, 1999

When I think of a white garden, I think of quiet, of solitude, of stars, perhaps a full moon. I think of a bench in an out-of-the-way corner of the garden, backed by the white, peeling bark of a birch, of a walk curving toward the bench, and great bunches of flowers and shrubs on all sides.

The traditional white, night, or moon garden, as it evolved in England, was a 'room' unto itself. Tightly clipped yew hedges formed the walls, mini-hedges of boxwood defined the symmetry of the plantings, and the design was usually quite formal, with a focal point of a pond, a sundial, a statue, or an ornate birdbath. Vita Sackville-West’s white garden at Sissinghurst in Kent captures the essence of the traditional white garden.

(Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) was an English poet, novelist, gardener, and garden writer. She married Harold Nicolson, with whom she purchased Sissinghurst Castle in Kent in 1930, and created a garden in which Harold designed the layout and Vita the plantings.

Sissinghurst is considered the epitome of the English garden, 'intimate in scale and rich in plants, its infinite variety given cohesion by subtle colour schemes and the unifying effect of a strong architectural layout.' (The Oxford Companion to Gardens) The garden consists of a series of enclosed gardens--garden rooms--of which the white garden is perhaps the most famous. Sissinghurst is now owned by the National Trust and open to visitors.)

Since yew and boxwood won’t survive here on the prairies, and caragana just doesn’t have the right image, prairie gardeners have to adapt the idea to our own circumstances. We begin this trans-Atlantic adaptation by going from a formal to a more informal design.

The possibilities in terms of plant material are almost limitless: annuals, biennials, tender and hardy bulbs, vines, house plants 'summering' out of doors. And don’t ignore the endless varieties of variegation!

Where?

Think of a corner of your yard which is currently unused or underused because it is either too out of the way or too bushy or shrubby. You want a location where even during the day you can go and have a quiet cup of coffee and it might take a three-year-old an extra 30 seconds to find you.

If there are existing trees and shrubs, what are their attributes? If any of them have white bark, white flowers, or white fruit, begin with what you have.

Trees for the White Garden

A small to medium tree that provides shade but does not sucker is best. White bark transcends seasons, but white flowers and fruit are also good.

Both the cutleaf weeping birch (Betula pendula ‘Gracilis’) and the native paper birch (Betula papyrifera) have attractive white bark, but the paper birch forms a smaller tree, remaining in scale with a smaller garden.

The Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) is a small tree with large, flat, triangular flower clusters. They progress from bright white to creamy coloured as they age. They are highly fragrant, and fall like confetti when they’re finished. ‘Ivory Silk’ is a lovely cultivar often seen in Manitoba, but still quite rare in Saskatchewan.

Mountain ash (Sorbus spp.) or rowan trees grow to about 6 m (20 ft). All have large, flat clusters of white flowers in spring and waxy, orange berries in summer, which slowly turn bright red by early winter. These provide a veritable smorgasbord for winter waxwings.

Many ornamental and edible crabapples, including the Siberian crabapple (Malus baccata), bear white flowers. ‘Tanner’ is a low-headed, upright tree of 3 m (9 ft), with fragrant, white flowers in spring. ‘Snowcap’ forms a small, neat tree that is covered with white flowers in spring and that holds the small, cherry-red apples well into the winter.

Ceilings

A garden’s ceiling is most often formed by the sky or a canopy of high trees. In a more intimate setting, an overhead trellis (painted white, of course!) and covered with vines provides direct enclosure. Select one of the hardy species clematis or their hybrids. While the flowers of hardy clematis may not be as showy as the more tender Jackman types, they are produced in great profusion on hardy vines that require no winter protection. The western white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia) climbs to about 4 m (12 ft) and produces white flowers about 2 cm (1 in.) in diameter. The plants are either male or female, so gardeners who dislike the feathery seed heads should grow all male or all female plants.

Several hybrids of the big petal clematis (Clematis macropetala) are also suitable for a white garden. ‘Grace,’ which has small, creamy-white flowers, was developed by the late Dr. Frank Skinner of Dropmore, Manitoba, with western white clematis as one of the parents. ‘Pamela’ produces an abundance of small flowers from mid-summer to freeze-up. ‘White Swan’ is another Skinner hybrid. It produces large, nodding white flowers over a long season due to the plant’s ability to bloom on both new and old wood.

Perennials

Snowdrop anemone, or windflower (Anemone sylvestris), produces a myriad of nodding flowers on 30 to 38 cm (12-15 in.) stems in early spring, with a few more flowers in fall. The plants self-seed and spread by rhizomes, so they will need some control in formal settings but are excellent when allowed to naturalize in a less formal setting. They perform equally well in sun or shade.

Babysbreath (Gypsophila paniculata) has been declared a noxious weed in Manitoba and has become quite invasive of pasture land in parts of Saskatchewan. Dwarf babysbreath (Gypsophila repens) presents no threat as it is non-invasive. It has a spreading, prostrate form and dainty white flowers above 45 cm (18 in.), mound-like foliage. It blooms in mid-summer and does best when planted in full sun in well drained soil.

Balloonflower (Playtcodon gradiflorum), which is related to the bellflowers, has a white form called ‘Album’ which grows to 60 cm and produces bell-shaped flower in July. Plants do well in full sun or partial shade.

Bellflowers (Campanula spp.) form a large group which includes many white forms. ‘White Clips’ is a white-flowering bellflower (C. carpatica) which grows to 30 cm (12 in.). It flowers through most of June and July and will surprise you with seedlings. A white form of the creeping bellflower (C. cochleariifolia) is only 10 cm (4 in.) high and spreads slowly to form a mat. The peachleaf bellflower (C. persicifolia) has a white form of 75 cm (2.5 ft) which blooms in June and July.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) has a white form called ‘Alba’ which is 60 to 90 cm (2-3 ft) high with finely divided foliage. They thrive where provided partial shade, an organic soil, and even moisture.

Blue fescue grass (Festuca ovina var. glauca) is a neat blue-grey bunch grass of only 25 cm (10 in.) that is extremely well-behaved. Never aggressive, it works well in a more formal white garden as a border or edging plant.

Chrysanthemum ‘Morden Cameo’ (Chrysanthemum morifolium) is a white-flowered mum of 60 cm (2 ft) that flowers from August until hard frost. Mums prefer full sun and even moisture, and may not be fully hardy in all areas of the prairies.

Ground clematis (Clematis recta) is a herbaceous clematis with slightly fragrant white flowers borne in late summer. It is a sprawler rather than a true climber and is most attractive when provided with a low support over which it can drape.

Columbine (Aquilegia spp.) is available in white-flowering forms, blooming through May and June on 30 to 60 cm (1-2 ft) stems. Plants grow in both sun or shade, but prefer even moisture and soil rich in organic matter. (Columbines are highly favoured by small green caterpillars known as columbine worms or delphinium worms. In some places, the feeding of these larvae make it nearly impossible to grow these plants without a nearly constant powdering of rotenone. I suppose you could look on the bright side and consider a rotenone-dusted plant yet another addition to the white garden!)

Cranesbill, or perennial geranium (Geranium spp.), has a number of white forms, varying from 30 to 60 cm (1 to 2 ft) and blooming in mid-summer above attractive foliage. They do well in full sun or partial shade in most soils.

Perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) has evergreen leaves which benefit from snow cover over winter. Masses of white flowers are produced in early June on 30 cm (1 ft) stems. Plant in full sun or partial shade.

Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum x superbum) is often relegated to the back lane because of its tendency to self-seed excessively. ‘Alaska’ has large, single flowers on 60 to 90 cm (2-3 ft) stems, while ‘Silver Princess’ is a dwarf cultivar of only 30 cm (12 in.). Plant in full sun or partial shade.

Delphiniums (Delphinium elatum) are stately, old-fashioned plants of 120 to 150 cm (4-5 ft) which do well in full sun in rich, evenly moist soil. ‘Galahad’ is a white cultivar. It will need staking!

White perennial flax (Linum perenne ‘Alba’) produces a myriad of small white flowers over a long period in mid-summer. It reaches 60 to 75 cm (24-30 in.) in height. Plant in full sun on well-drained soil. Flowers close at night and in shady or cloudy conditions.

Gasplant (Dictamnus albus) is very similar to the peony in foliage and form. It is extremely hardy and long-lived. A white form, called ‘Alba,’ produces white flowers on 90 cm (3 ft) stems in July. All parts of the plant are poisonous. Plant in loamy soil in full sun.

Goats’ beard (Aruncus dioicus) is a tall perennial of 1.3 m (4 ft) that is native to the lower reaches of the Swiss Alps. It produce panicles of creamy white flowers in July above feathery, dark green leaves. It does best in partial shade with even moisture.

Hostas are shade- and moisture-loving perennials varying in height from 10 cm (4 in.) to 1 m (3 ft). They are grown for their foliage, with many colors and textures, including green and white veriagation.

Bearded iris (Iris germanica) has many white forms: ‘Avenelle,’ ‘White Canary,’ ‘Bride’s Halo,’ ‘Country Manor,’ ‘Wedding Vow,’ ‘White Gem,’ and ‘Winter Olympics’ are just a few. All bearded iris prefer full sun and well-drained soil.

Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) produces small, fragrant white flowers in May and June. It performs best in partial to full shade in evenly moist organic soil. It should be divided every four years to keep it flowering at its best.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) is a useful plant for the white garden primarily because of its foliage, which displays white and silver splotches on a green background. ‘Sissinghurst White’ has the added advantage of white flowers. All grow to about 30 cm (12 in.) and bloom in June. Lungworts require a shady location with organic, evenly moist soil.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula spp.) forms a handsome plant, 1 to 2 m (3-6 ft) in height, with dainty plumes of white or pink flowers. They are excellent substitutes for those shade gardens where astilbes refuse to thrive. Most bloom in July and do well in moist, shady situations, in soil enriched with organic matter.

Peony (Paeonia spp.) is an old-fashioned, long-lived perennial with many white cultivars: ‘Ave Maria,’ ‘Florence Nichols,’ ‘Leto,’ ‘Moon of Nippon,’ ‘Solange,’ ‘White Innocence,’ ‘Festiva Maxima,’ and ‘White Sands’ are a few. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil. Always give careful consideration before planting a peony because it will not respond well to frequent moves.

Dwarf phlox (Phlox subulata) has a number of white cultivars. All are low, evergreen, mat-forming plants which bloom in early spring. They prefer full sun or partial shade and do best with snow cover and well-drained soil.

Carolina phlox (Phlox carolina) has a white cultivar called ‘White Pyramid’ that grows to 90 cm (3 ft) in height and blooms in July and August. It should be planted in organic, loamy soil in full sun.

Grass pinks (Dianthus plumarius), despite their name, have several white forms. They are about 30 cm (12 in.) in height, with grassy foliage and fragrant flowers that look like small carnations produced in mid-summer.

Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) includes a white cultivar called ‘White King.’ It is about 60 cm (2 ft) in height and blooms in June. Plant in full sun with good drainage. Individual plants tend to be short-lived, but they self-seed readily to maintain themselves in the garden.

Pussy toes (Antennaria spp.) is a ground-hugging prairie native with tiny grey-green foliage. Plants reach a height of only 5 to 7 cm (2-3 in.), with tiny, nodding white or pink flower clusters in June or July. This rugged, drought-tolerant survivor will thrive and form a dense mat in full sun and good drainage. Plant it in sunny spots amid paving stones in the garden.

Rockcress (Arabis spp.) makes an excellent ground cover or plant for the front of the border, with grey leaves and masses of white flowers on 20 cm (8 in.) stems in May. Plant in full sun with good drainage.

Sea campion (Silene vulgaris var. maritima) tends to self-seed and may be best suited to an area where it can naturalize freely. It is 15 cm (6 in.) in height, blooms from June to October, and does well in full sun and well-drained soil.

Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) is a yarrow that produces tiny, button-like flowers in July and August on 45 to 60 cm (18-24 in.) stems. It is useful in fresh and dried arrangements. It has ferny foliage and spreads by stolons. It is best suited to a site with full sun and good drainage.

Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) is well suited to the white garden both because of its flowers and its silver foliage. It produces masses of tiny white flowers in early summer and is absolutely drought-tolerant. It requires full sun and good drainage.

Small soapwort (Yucca glauca) is another perennial that does double duty, valued for both its flowers and foliage. The foliage has a rather unique, grey-green, spiked form with creamy, pendulous bells produced on a 90 cm (3 ft) stalk in July. It is a desert plant which requires full sun and well-drained soil to thrive.

Eurasian Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) is a woodland plant which does best in moist, shady locations. It produces graceful, arching stems of 75 cm (2.5 ft), under which pairs of white, bell-like flowers can be found in June.

Spike speedwell (Veronica spicata) has many white forms, generally about 90 cm (3 ft) in height, with spikes of white flowers in July and August. Plant in full sun in well-drained but evenly moist soil.

Wormwoods or sages (Artemisia spp.) add a grey touch to the night or white garden. Artemisia are ruggedly drought-tolerant, preferring full sun and well-drained soil. ‘Silver Mound’ is a well behaved mound-forming plant about 30 cm (12 in.) high with a slightly larger spread. ‘Silver King’ reaches 60 to 100 cm (2-3 ft) and spreads aggressively if not contained. Artemisia stellerama has an upright form, growing to 45 cm (18 in.), with finely cut leaves. ‘Silver Brocade’ has lacy leaves on prostrate stems. The plants are not aggressive, but will re-seed around the garden. If seedlings are not desired, simply remove the flower heads in early August.

Annuals for the White Garden

ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)alpine poppy (Papaver alpinum)angel’s trumpet (Datura spp.)annual babysbreath (Gypsophila elegans)bishop’s flower (Ammi majus)butterfly flower (Schizanthus x wisetonensis)candytuft (Iberis spp.)Canterbury bells (Campanula medium)cape daisy (Venidium fastuosum)annual carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus)Chilean bellflower (Nolana paradoxa)China aster (Callistephus chinensis)clarkia (Clarkia spp.) coleus (Coleus x hybridus)cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) feverfew, matricaria (Chrysanthemum parthenium)four-o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa)annual foxglove (Digitalis purpurea ‘Foxy’)geranium (Pelargonium spp.)globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)hollyhock (Alcea rosea)ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum)immortelle (Xeranthemum) impatience (Impatiens spp.)larkspur (Consolida ambigua)love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)lupines (Lupinus hybrids)mallow (Lavatera trimestris)marigold (Tagetes spp.)pansy (Viola)petunia (Petunia x hybrida)annual phlox (Phlox drummondii)pincushion flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea)pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)prickly and Mexican poppy (Argemone spp.)Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota var. carota)salvia, clary sage (Salvia spp.)snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata)spider flower (Cleome hasslerana) star-of-the-veldt (Dimorphotheca sinuata)statice (Limonium spp.)strawflower (Helichrysum bracteatum)sunflower (Helianthus annuus)sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) sweet sultan (Centaurea moschata)sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)ten week stock (Matthiola incana annua)tobacco plant (Nicotiana alata)verbena (Verbena spp.)Vinca ‘Little Blanche,’ or Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)Virginia stock (Malcolmia maritima)wax begonia (Begonia x semperflorens)winged everlasing (Ammobium alatum)zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

White Tender Bulbs

dahlia (Dahlia spp.)gladiolus (Gladiolus x hortulanus)

White Hardy Bulbs

grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.)lily (Lilium spp.)ornamental onion (Allium spp.)squill (Scilla sibirica)striped squill (Puschkinia spp.) tulip (Tulipa spp.)

White Vines

clematis (Clematis spp.)cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)moon flower (Ipomea alba)morning glory (Ipomea tricolor)sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

Sara Williams is the editor of The Gardener for the Prairies magazine, author of Creating the Prairie Xeriscape: Low maintenance, water-efficient gardening, and co-author of Perennials for the Prairies. She gardens on 5 acres of sand near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of The Gardener for the Prairies magazine (formerly The Saskatchewan Gardener). For information on subscribing to The Gardener, or to find out about gardening books published by University Extension Press, visit the University of Saskatchewan Extension Division website at http://www.extension.usask.ca/

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