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Whiter Shade of Pale Perennials And More

I crave color. I’ll even admit to sometimes overlooking the characteristics of a plant and its appropriateness for my zone, much less garden’s conditions, just to grab that color and add it to the garden. Color can make me an impulsive shopper at the nursery.

So . . . for someone obsessed with color, for a gardener who absolutely lusts over magnificent hues, what’s happening to me? Suddenly I’m enchanted with white. I can’t get enough white into my garden and I find myself marveling at the detail, delicacy and yes, vibrancy of those white blooms.

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I know that technically, white’s not a color – it’s the absence of pigment. White is a color without color – achromatic. If color brought me to gardening and I delight in unique hues and combinations, what’s going on?

Yes, I loved The White Album, look forward to seeing a show on The Great White Way and white fireworks exploding in the sky are my favorite type (you know, the ones that look like a dandelion before you blow away the seeds and make a wish).

white firework

I love the way small trees look when wound with bright, twinkling little white lights, whether decorating a sidewalk café in the summer or signaling the onset of winter’s holiday season.  A Midwesterner at heart, I’ll even own up to enjoying the occasional snowstorm – especially when it looks like frosting on an early, colorful bloom.


When Spring arrives, it’s the early white blooms that so many of us find especially refreshing and hopeful – all the more so when following a harsh winter. My garden’s first hellebores are white and often are accompanied by snowdrops, white crocuses (and purple), a mixture of daffodils (I have one huge clump of “Ghost” daffodils – the whitest I could find) and later, other Spring Whites appear. Is it the “whiteness” we find so refreshing? How could that be if we’re sick and tired of winter’s relatively bland landscape and/or done with snow? Maybe this is one of those gardening things to simply appreciate and revel in rather than trying to make sense of it.

As early spring bloomers emerge in earnest, it’s hard not to get excited about seeing the ground covered with blossoms instead of snow, ice and remnants of winter.  Galanthus, polygonatum, lily of the valley, white crocuses, hellebores, sanguinaria, Snowdrop anemones, “Miniature Snowflake” mock orange, and if you’re lucky, white lilacs (and more)– a beautiful, colorless yet colorful – transition from one season to the next.

white blooms collage 1

As I look at the garden now, midsummer, I’m delighted to see vibrant colors in the perennial bed and the “Green Bed’s” refreshing shades of green with many textures, growth patterns following the dry stream bed is accentuated by the occasional color from Maltese cross, blooming succulents, skullcap plant, salvia and more. White Shasta daisies border the Green Bed – proving more credence to the clean, crisp and refreshing combination of a white bloom against green foliage. Whether it’s the white scape of a hosta or the viburnum’s lovely white flowers floating above the long branch of green foliage, it’s that fresh white and green combination that seems so appropriate no matter what the setting or season.


But it’s the area we’ve been working on for a few years now that has really captured my attention and is now nicknamed The White Wall. It bears NO resemblance to tires and it is fueling my newfound respect for white as an important, treasured “color” in the garden.

What began as a trio of trellises covered in three different varieties of clematis has slowly evolved into a beautiful White Wall. The first step was extending the flagstone into a vertical, low, upright “edge” to a) define the area and b) retain the soil and plants. Here’s the “before” and “after.”


The next step, figuring out what to plant in the narrow, specific area using the trellises and existing boxwoods, proved a lot more difficult than I initially thought – especially using the bland brick as a background (I have no choice in the matter).

Coral tones and reds clashed with the sand colored background (sand is putting it nicely) and making it even more complicated is the location – directly across from the patio where we grill and spend a lot of time in the summer. It also happens to be a wall that’s visible from the dining room. It would be ideal to have a wall with year round interest but for now it’s a work in progress.

I’m absolutely delighted with the summer view – it’s my White Wall and it’s making me look at the entire garden with an eye towards opportunities to add more white here and there. The White Wall holds my respect for achromatic blooms.

After considerable thought, we decided to let the trellises stay where they were, moving the boxwoods in between them to provide a static, vertical structure “outlining” whatever we selected to place on the trellises.

By using a combination of white plants, accented very strategically with color, the area has come to life and is now a treasured area of the garden.  The mandevilla vines, cleome, and a magnificent “White Chiffon” rose of sharon provide the majority of colorless-color and their unique textures, bloom times, complementary foliage and visual interest makes this White Wall a thing of beauty (in my opinion). The entire area feels crisp, new, interesting, textured and incredibly unique:

white wall collageThe White Wall has made me take a look around at the other beds and appreciate the summer’s beautiful white blooms. The daisies, phlox, liatris, hydrangea, penstemon, astilbe and delightful buds on my new “Little Gem” magnolia are lovely in and of themselves, but they also help accentuate brilliant colors throughout the garden. It’s unlikely I’ll ever turn away from the razzle-dazzle of colorful summer blooms, but I do have an appreciation for achromatic plants, now.


White blooms make me pay attention to so much more about a plant than just the color of the flower – I look at the plant’s characteristics: the stem’s color, height and girth, the way a bud unfolds, the textures it reveals, the growth pattern and so much more. Without looking for intense color, I notice a petal’s shape more than I did when I overlooked a simple white bloom. I like the movement in each petal on the phlox and see a little color bleeding into each flower.

Little Gem’s flower opens to expose a lovely patterned center and the lacey astilbe waves in the slightest breeze.  Could I (or should I) have appreciated and noticed these lovely nuances before the White Wall? Of course. I’m simply grateful for this added layer of interest resulting from a simple task – planting a wall with a trio of trellises.

Forget what they say about not wearing white clothing before Memorial Day and putting them away after Labor Day – in my opinion, white in the garden is beautiful year round. It’s almost like a chameleon with its ability to fit in to whatever the weather, landscape or mood.

And if nothing else, how about using a lovely white vase to display the dazzling colors so plentiful during these magnificent summer blooming times?


Posted By: Emily Stashower, Behnkes Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Emily – you are truly talented! I love these pictures and reading your thoughts really gets me thinking about what I can do in my garden. Thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I’m glad you enjoy the Behnkes blog and it gives you inspiration. Just stroll the aisles of a Behnkes near you and you’ll be even more inspired (and get professional guidance, too). Enjoy your garden, plan for some fall blooms (fall crocuses are a delight) and it’s never too early to plan to plant for next year. Enjoy, Patti!

  3. Wonderful musing on white, Emily. Always a pleasure to read your reviews of this moment in the garden. And just the pictures to keep us entranced…as always!

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