Growing a monochrome garden, or a garden where a single color predominates, has a long history.
Paintings from the Mughal Empire in India depict people enjoying white gardens filled with fragrant pale night bloomers.
Celebrated gardener Gertrude Jekyll wrote the book “Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden” in 1908. Jekyll grew a famous blue garden. And writer Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden, planted in the 1950s at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, became an influential garden that still draws crowds of visitors today.
Sackville-West wrote about her garden coming to life in June with “little avenues of almond trees down the centre,” draped with “lacy white festoons of Rosa filipes and the genuine old ‘Garland’ rose,” all coming up through gray Artemisia and silvery Cineraria maritima.
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Even Grey Gardens, the East Hampton, New York, estate at the center of the cult film about the eccentric Beale family, got its name from its garden filled with pale flowers surrounded by cement walls and dunes.
Some local gardeners, too, have embraced the challenge — and art — of growing a monochrome garden.
Doreen Guenther, head grower at FarWest Landscape and Garden Center in Boise, remembers helping a client choose plants for a new flower bed. She pulled together a group of plants on the spur of the moment with a burgundy hue. She chose a maroon blanket flower (Gaillardia amblyodon), a sneezeweed or Helen’s flower (Helenium), and others.
“It was so cool, I decided to make my own,” said Guenther.
She found that designing a bed with burgundy hues is quite easy. In addition to burgundy flowers (tree form vanilla strawberry hydrangea, whose flowers age to burgundy, and Lenten roses — Hellebores — among the earliest blooms of the season, for example), many plants have burgundy foliage. Possibilities include coral bells (Heuchera), or coral bells and tall cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Guenther also plants rhubarb, a nice surprise in a flower bed, for its satiny red stems.
Guenther likes to include flowers that are not purely burgundy, but that have touches of it, including a white rose of sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) with a dark red center, and a coreopsis, Big Bang Star Cluster variety, that’s white with a wine-red center. Another cream-colored coreopsis has specks of burgundy on its petals.
Guenther has also designed monochrome pots for weddings that focused on pale foliage as much as flowers, including most any artemisia and dichondra (Argentea “Silver Falls”). Such pots could be called white, blue or even gray.
And that’s kind of the beauty of it. Gardeners have the freedom to define “monochrome” for themselves.
“A cool thing with monochromatic plantings is that you’re looking at plants with a new kind of interest and perspective. There’s room for interpretation, and you can play. There might be something I’m calling burgundy, even though it’s not really burgundy,” Guenther said.
Tips for growing your monochrome garden
1. Don’t be too doctrinaire (unless being hardline about color is part of the fun for you):
Even the experts are flexible. Sackville-West considered her white garden to really be a white, gray and green garden. On the subject of blue gardens, Jekyll wrote, “It is a curious thing that people will sometimes spoil some garden project for the sake of a word. For instance, a blue garden, for beauty’s sake, may be hungering for a group of white lilies, or for something of palest lemon-yellow, but it is not allowed to have it because it is called the blue garden, and there must be no flowers in it but blue flowers. I can see no sense in this; it seems to me like fetters foolishly self-imposed.”
Guenther agrees. “I like too many different things, and every year I see something I love and have to have. I can’t be too rigid.”
Sometimes, the most striking thing about a monochromatic garden, as Jekyll noted, is the stunningly different hue that sets things off — that single hot yellow black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) in a bed of purple blooms, for example.
2. A monochromatic garden benefits from a variety of flower and leaf forms:
For example, a white garden might include round classic daisies (Leucanthemum), but also spires of foxglove (Digitalis) and veronica, mixed with clouds of baby’s breath (Gysophila), which might be cliche in a rose arrangement, but that takes on a different character growing loose in a flower bed.
“I think more people should pay attention to foliage in general because it’s always there. People go shopping in the spring. They’re excited. They buy things in bloom. Then, later in the year, there’s no color and no room to plant things that bloom later,” Guenther said.
3. Don’t forget the grasses:
Sure, flowers give you color, but so do ornamental grasses, many of them perennials that will stick around for years. For her burgundy garden, for example, Guenther grows Miscanthus purpurascens and Andropogon gerardii “Indian Warrior.” Many grasses, including Carex evergold, have pale yellow stripes. Elijah blue fescue is a great addition to a blue, gray or lavender garden or can be a cool counterpoint to a hot color garden with lots of oranges, yellows and reds.
4. Hardscape can help you:
Another famous monochrome garden is The Blue Garden in Newport, Rhode Island, designed in 1908 by Frederick Law Olmstead. (Olmstead and partner Calvert Vaux also designed New York’s Central Park.) The Rhode Island garden has a profusion of blue and purple blooms offset with white accents but also relies on accents of cobalt blue planters and blue reflecting pools. Even without the garden budget of turn-of-the-century Newport socialites, you can explore the same ideas with colored pots, bird baths, lanterns, mosaic paving stones, etc.
5. A few more tips from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:
▪ Build a hot-themed bed with just three plants: coleus, crotons and cannas. Want more? Include scarlet salvia or sage (splendens, Vermillion Bluffs are good) and zinnias from the Sun Series, and you’ll have what the Brooklynites call a “most unsubtle garden.” Don’t limit yourself to flowers. Look for plants with bright seedpods like chiles.
▪ But maybe you want to go cool. You can create an elegant silver garden by concentrating on foliage. Consider lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), catnips (Nepeta), santolina and wormwood (Artemisia). Try using an assortment of ornamental grasses, such as “Heavy Metal” switch grass (Panicum virgatum). Licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) is a silver-leafed plant that pulls the garden together as it spreads.
▪ If you want to grow both cool- and hot-colored flowers in a small space, insert some white flowers and silver-leafed plants to create a transition between the two and avoid color clashes.
Doreen Guenther’s tips for growing any garden
1. If you planted something, and it isn’t working, dig it up and move it.
2. Fertilize and water right: People expect their flowering plants to grow gorgeous blooms. But you have to give them the tools to do what you’re asking them to do, said Guenther. Fertilize them and water them deeply when they need it, rather than the incremental sprinkling from above that will cause them to grow shallow roots.
3. Have anchor plantings: Guenther follows the rules of having a few plants she plants in odd-numbered groups of threes and fives. Alternately, she has planted a profusion of short lilies that bloom red throughout her garden, acting as a unifying design element.
4. Unsure about a plant? Start it in a pot, then move it to a garden bed if you like it.
5. Shop throughout the season to get a sense of what’s in bloom when. This makes it easier to plant for a long season succession of blooms.
Building your palette
Here are a few blooms to consider for a variety of monochrome gardens:
White: Nicotiana (or ornamental tobacco, “Only the Lonely” variety), tall garden Phlox (”David” variety — a great, late summer bloomer), white lavender, moon flower
Blue: Flax (Linum usitatissimum), delphinium (“Blue Bird” variety), plumbago, morning glory
Green: Zinnia (“Envy” variety), bells of Ireland (Nicotiana Lime Green variety), cone flower (Echinacea — Green Jewel variety)
Yellow: Coreopsis, many varieties, yarrow (Achillea), daisy (Leucanthemum — Broadway Lights variety), Basket-of-Gold (Aurinia) and blanket flower (Gaillardia)