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Garden Design

How to beat colour anxiety – white it out

Anthony Tesselaar

Anthony Tesselaar

April 19, 2017

Quite often I have someone admit to me that they suffer from what I’d call ‘garden colour anxiety’. They’ll take me into their confidence and whisper that trying to work out a colour scheme for their garden makes them as anxious as a visit to the dentist. Which is sad because mucking around with anything garden-related is surely meant to be fun?

You can’t go wrong with white: here the ground cover rose Flower Carpet White in close-up


But I do understand what they mean. Some people know how to throw clothes on and look fantastic: others just manage to look dressed. Some people’s interiors could be photographed as-is and feature in a magazine, but not most homes.

So how to help those gardeners – and these are perfectly normal people – who freak out when it comes to choosing colour in the garden. Simple. Avoid colour. I smile and reassure them that they can pull off a fantastic result with just green… and… white.

All-white gardens are on-trend too as seen in ‘Back to Babylon’., designed by PTA/Eco Outdoor/Tract at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show 2017


If you think about your garden when it’s least flowery – usually in winter, depending on where you live – then you can get a sense of the background that you’ll be working with. If you’re keen to do this seriously, the idea is to take out any existing colour, leaving only the green of foliage to act as the bones or foundation planting.

White always goes with white – foxgloves, shasta daisy, gardenia, roses and magnolia

White star jasmine frames this house entrance and picks up the white house detailing


If you’re lucky you may already have a Mexican orange hedge (Choisya ternata) with its white scented flowers. Your fences might have existing cover thanks to the white star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides). And in your garden beds there may be a happy mix of green things: clumping grasses, maybe some box hedging or clipped balls, a little bit of lavender, rosemary, an olive or one of the smaller eucalypts (Eucalyptus caesia is lovely). Remove (or move) anything that’s bright. The hot pink hibiscus. The self-sown orange nasturtiums, or those massive yellow dahlias the size of dinner plates that just didn’t work as well as you’d hoped.

Keeping it simple packs a punch. The brick walls define the space, the bulk of the planting reads as green and the massed roses make it all sing


If you find it hard to be ruthless, ease the pain by gifting your colourful misfits to friends. Also, I find a bit of blue and grey seems to be ok to keep in the mix which is why I’ve given the rosemary and lavender the thumbs up.

Now to the fun bit. Find any white flowering plant that will thrive in your area and pop it in. Do this freely, with gay abandon and without fear because it will all come together and work brilliantly. Think: classic small flowered daisy; something like the free flowering white scented Flower Carpet rose; white jonquils and tulips in spring; white petunias or Volcano phlox in summer; white cosmos; white salivia, white impatiens, Christmas lillies, the white form of the rock rose (Cistus), the white African daisybush (Osteospermum)… etc etc.

You get the idea. If it’s white, bung it in because you can’t go wrong. And if you want to step this up just a little, look at when each thing will be in flower and hunt down white flowering plants to fill in any gaps so you can have a flower show all year around. It’s that easy. Honestly. And if will look really lovely.

Just to prove how well the keep-it-white approach works, compare the planting in the foreground (left) with that towards the rear (right). White has the knack of making things pop


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Bernard Chapman
Bernard Chapman
7 years ago

Dear Anthony,

Thanks for a great article on a subject close to my heart. I have always loved Vita Sackville-West (white) sorbet between her pink garden, and her husband, Hugh’s, bold orange ones.

My front garden is small, so I especially feel a white theme enhances the space.

I also use silver foliage as part of my colour palate, lambs ears, silver plectranthus, rosemary and lavender (but without the flowers).

I am in Sydney and use lots of the plants you mention. At present, now Autumn, the wind flowers (both single and double), gardenias, osmanthus, arum lilies, impatiens and vinca, plectranthus and a wonderful dwarf agapanthus (I think a Tesselaar one) never stops flowering in a magical white display.

Another important point is white is the best colour for shade, and the last colour to disappear at night!

Cheers, Bernard Chapman

Catherine Stewart
7 years ago

This also explains why I’ve found it so hard to place white in my rather colourful gardens. I’ve lusted after a bought numerous white-flowering plants in the past, tried them in countless positions but have never been able to find a satisfactory home for them. They just demand too much visual attention. But you’re right, white goes fabulously with white. Although I also saw a white and cream combination years ago at Moidart garden in the NSW Southern Highlands (cream roses with white tulips) which was surprisingly wonderful too.

Anthony Tesselaar
Anthony Tesselaar
7 years ago

Never forget though that white helps accentuate the rest of the other colours. Your eyes dance from white, to the different shades of green foliage, back to white, and then the along the path which most times in a white garden may have different texture and colour too. Added to this to have a blue ceiling of soft blue sky on a cloudless day, which can quickly change to different shades of white and gray from the clouds above, helps make the beautiful white flowers enhance the whole experience.
But more importantly, it is all about enjoying the benefits of gardening, no matter what colour scheme you chose.

Trevor Nottle
Trevor Nottle
7 years ago

A green – and white garden can look great, and is free from the guilts about what goes with what and what goes with this, or what goes with that. Choosing this manner of gardening also brings up a few non-flowering considerations. Even without getting all garden-designery the forms of plants become significant players – fan shaped leaf clusters, fountain-like grasses, gigantic leaves such as Montanoa, acanthus, NZ flax (if you must) and bergenia. And then there are the striking forms of succulents and cacti think aloes, agaves and cereus. More subtle are the reflective qualities of leaves – the high-gloss of camellia leaves that reflect light and sparkle, or the matte qualities of green Japanese maples and bamboos that just soak up the sun’s glare. One more aspect, too often overlooked, is the capacity of some leaves to transmit light so that they seem highlighted against other shades of green. This takes careful, and thoughtful placement at the beginning but it can look marvellous and requires no coloured flowers at all. Doing things with these features in mind brings about a totally different experience of gardening. Usually we see a garden on the move, as we are passing through it on our way somewhere, or as we are making a tour. A garden made with light, reflections, shadows and highlights is the sort of garden that calls for appreciation by staying still. So choose you favorite sitting place in the garden, or a chair by the widow where you read and consider the possibilities.

7 years ago

Excellent article! I just would like to suggest a trick used by the queen of white gardens, Vita Sackville West, to make white looks whiter: instead of using pure white flowers, use white flowers with yellow or grey details. If we want to use just one colour, we should pick up slightly brighter or slightly contrasted shade of that colour to make it look more brilliant. Guaranteed!