North Coast Journal

by Terry Kramer

A Garden In White

When bayside gardener Lynne Wells steps out of her kitchen, she sees a formal courtyard garden filled with more than 100 varieties of perennials, annuals, roses and bulbs that all have white flowers. And if the plant doesn't bloom white, it has white, grey or blue foliage. It is a garden filled with white sunroses, white lilies, white gladiolus, towering white foxglove and double white poppies, to name only a few.

To those unfamiliar with a white garden, something like this may seem stiff and starched, much like an old-fashioned nurse's uniform. Quite the contrary. Wells' white garden is one filled with textural surprises, in addition to bright splashes of white flowers.

The 36-by-52-foot garden, surrounded by a two-story Victorian farm-style house on the south and east sides with a redwood fence on the north and west sides, was patterned after the famous all-white garden of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst Castle, England. Sackville-West was a celebrated gardener and writer earlier this century.

Her all-white garden at Sissinghurst blooms today just as it did when she was alive. It is filled with all-white flowers and plants, mainly perennials, that have white or silver foliage. What Sackville-West called "An experiment which I ardently hope may be successful, though I doubt it …" turned out to be one of the most memorable and impressive gardens in the world, one that has inspired many to emulate.

Since Wells has a passion for white flowers and lovely gardens, she decided to construct her own white garden based on Sackville-West's original.

"I love coming out and having a glass of wine in the evening, reading the paper and just being in the garden. What I really love about this garden is that there is something happening in it all of the time.

"It's one of the few things that I can remember doing that I really feel totally satisfied with. Of course, I'm always adding and changing and moving plants, but this has been a very satisfying experience. I don't know whether it is the planning of it, or what. I really did take a long time working on the planning," she says.

Wells spent many months pouring over garden books, learning about white-flowering plants, garden design and garden construction. With the aid of North Coast garden designer Mary Gearheart, the white garden began to take shape - first on paper.

The garden is formal in design, which means it is composed primarily of straight lines of classic symmetry. What appears on the left side of the garden is supposed to be duplicated on the right. Formal gardens are generally rectangular in shape with statuary, a sundial or birdbath in the center. The Wells garden reflects these principals of design.

"I just had this little small space where I wanted to do something a little more formal than what I had been doing. Most of my gardening is hodgepodge; poke something in here and there.

"I like the English country garden look, but I wanted to try something a little more formal to go with the architecture of this old house," Wells explains.

Having a definite plan was important to Wells before starting the project.

"It was Mary's idea to make it formal. I would have had curvy paths, and she said if you want something formal, look at the lines of the house.

"She is much more of an artist than I am. I don't always see the final picture, which is why I wanted her help in terms of the frame," says Wells.

The white garden is filled with blooming foxglove, iris, gladiolus, sunroses, rockroses, poppies, daisies and old-fashioned heirloom roses. Masses of white-flowering and white-foliaged ground covers spill from the formal raised beds into the wide gravel pathways. Ground covers include a white lamium, sweet woodruff, sunroses, snow-in-the-summer and silver thyme.

While having the garden planned on paper was necessary, Wells explains she had to deviate somewhat from the original plan.

"The design changed once I started putting it together. It is not completely symmetrical because this side of the house (north) is so shady that things grow differently. Look at this artemisia (on the north side where there is less light) compared to this artemisia over here, which as had the most sun.

"I've learned not to be too attached to a design, because, first of all, some plants are not available. Certain things cost too much, and certain plants just don't work out," she says.

Wells frequently changes and replants areas in the white garden. "If a plant doesn't work out, I find something else that does; throw it out or give it to somebody."

Many plants do work out, however, and she attributes the robust vitality of her garden to the fact that she had truckloads of pure garden compost placed in the beds during construction.

"Bob (her husband) and I did most of the labor on the paths and all of that. But I had tons of compost brought in. We basically scraped it down and got rid of everything that was here. Then we filled the beds with compost.

"And I really think it is the compost that makes everything grow incredibly. I really think that the foundation is most important. If you have to spend money on anything, spend it on the soil," she advises.

The fence that surrounds part of the garden seems to keep the deer in check, but Wells does have to contend with slugs and snails.

"They are not too bad in here," she says. "I do come out mornings and have my slug patrol. I have my bucket filled with one quarter with water and I pour salt water in it. Then I go around snail plucking. I drown them in salt water."

Wells says she spends a lot of time digging and moving things about, but it is because she is always finding something new and different to put in her white garden. "People say to me, `What would you put in?'

"But there are so many plants that flower white. It's incredible. At twilight it is beautiful to walk out here. It glows."

Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and the owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.

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