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A clean, well-whited place

I love the Fourth of July in our Nation’s Capitol. This was my first in way too long. Heat, humidity, fireflies, family, fireworks, and concerts in the park. It was great, but I’d forgotten how hot it can be until I went out for a nice, long walk. As I sweatily criss-crossed streets in search of shade, my eyes were drawn to the soothing cool of every white flower and variegated leaf along the way, and I was reminded of my front garden in Connecticut. There, after spring’s riotous colors, my front garden always subsided into a calm green and white affair.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

I miss this calm, cool refuge -- an elegant oasis of glacial whites and luscious cool greens contrasting with the heat of a summer day.

Ever one for escapism, I began fantasizing about what I would plant if I had the discipline to create a white garden. Discipline, I say, because a white garden obviously means the utter exclusion of colors other than white, green, and silver -- but maybe only for a season. If you were clever, you would let the unruliness of colorful spring bulbs and perennials abound unrestrained, only to yield in summer to chilling whites before glorious oranges, yellows, and reds of fall set in.

It’s always best to start with the bones of a garden, so I’d start with crisply clipped dark evergreens – boxwood, yew or holly. Then I’d incorporate birch trees, the white bark of which would look as lovely in winter as in summer. Birches like their roots shaded and moist, so I’d plant them where the summer sun could not broil the soil beneath them. As they aren’t known for their heat tolerance, the best choice for Georgetown is the Whitespire Birch (Betula platyphylla japonica 'Whitespire'), which is relatively heat-resistant. Most white-trunked birches are susceptible to leaf miners and the bronze birch borer, so a program of inspection and treatment is essential.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

I’d have to have hydrangeas in my fantasy white garden, but which one? I adore oak leafed hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) with their exfoliating bark and strong dark red fall color, but their texture would be too woodlandy and coarse. Instead, I’d choose the Annabelle hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle”). Annabelle is very well behaved in gardens, and unlike many hydrangeas, can be cut back severely in spring since she blooms on each year’s new growth. I love her umbels of delicate white flowers, which start out a light chartreuse and then fade to white, and I’d leave the tan-colored skeletal blooms in winter to contrast with the dark evergreen backdrop.

Beneath Annabelle and the birches, I’d plant variegated periwinkle (Vinca minor `Variegata`), which would bear blue flowers in early spring but would be perfect for the all-white summer garden. Planted in a shady spot, the white margins on its leaves would lend the illusion of dappling sunlight and offer a contrast to the darker leaves surrounding it.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

In a sunnier location near a wall, I’d pop in variegated Winter Creeper (Euonymous fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’). Its small leaves are a mottled green and white, and its structure would serve as a shrubby groundcover, as well as a climber. It would make its way up the wall, and in winter would be beautiful in snow while in summer it would serve as cool backdrop for everything else. This euonymous is a tough little workhorse that does well in a variety of conditions and soils, and doesn’t have the powdery mildew problem that bedevils Manhattan euonymous.

Naturally, my fantasy white garden would be incomplete without flowers. I’d usher in summer in late May and early June with pure white bearded iris. Their stiff, pointy leaves, a light green, would also provide great texture for the rest of the season. The bearded iris might be followed with white lilies for fragrance, and white Echinacea for simplicity.

Surely I’d be tempted to be whimsical and plant the exotic, bold, pure white rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)in the garden, just to make me laugh. This hardy Southeastern native dies back to its roots each year, but that doesn’t stop it from growing 4-6 feet tall in summer and sporting flowers the size of dinner plates. My friend, Anthony Archer-Wills, the British water gardener, planted them heavily in a wetland on which we collaborated, so I know it needs moist soil and full sun. My preference would be the hybrid “Hibiscus x ‘Blue River II’”, a pure white bloomer that blooms all summer.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

This garden would be stunning on long hot summer days, but, since white gardens double as moon gardens, I’d ensure my night lighting was perfect, too. After all, it is my fantasy garden and money is no object! My pet peeve is up-lighting. The last time I saw a natural light source emanating from the ground was -- never. Although garden lighting has its practical applications (safety, security, etc), your lighting should never look like you are aspiring to hold major league baseball night games in your back yard, or like the lighting around Ryker’s Island (unless you live with inmates who threaten to break out and indulge in nocturnal mischief). I will grudgingly agree that sometimes up-lighting can be attractive, but in general, the best lighting for gardens is LED lighting, discreetly hung from tree branches or buildings , and produce a soft light that replicates moonlight. This would certainly be the best for the white garden at night.

Alas, the Fourth is over. I’m back to reality…..but stay tuned for my next escape.