NEW YORK — First come the snowdrops, peeking through the snow, then as things warm up, hellebores and crocuses, followed by geraniums, peonies, anemones, camellias and many more. But there's one thing all the flowers in this particular garden have in common: They're all white.
This white garden is part of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, located on Staten Island in New York City, just a ferry ride away from Manhattan. It was inspired by a famous garden in England, the white garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, a National Trust historic site. But you don't have to own a castle or be a professional gardener to experiment with an all-white theme. White is a great color for home gardens too.
The Sissinghurst garden was created by writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. Sackville-West hatched the romantic vision for the color scheme in 1939. Originally, according to the National Trust, the white garden was filled with roses, but over time they were replaced with white gladioli, irises, dahlias, anemones and other flowers. The design included formal walkways and jam-packed, wild-looking flower beds. The color scheme inspired a fad for white gardens around the world.
The garden on Staten Island does not use the same plants as Sissinghurst because "our summers are hotter and our winters are colder here," said Greg Lord, director of horticulture at the Snug Harbor Botanical Garden. But it does use a wide variety of plants, including alliums, summer snowflakes (leucojum), camassias, crambe, geraniums, peonies, roses, sweet bay magnolia, veronicastrum and phlox. In the fall, there are perennial Japanese anemones with single and double blossoms, and camellias — a variety called winter's waterfall that blooms right through December.
The mix of shapes and sizes includes cascades of wisteria blossoms, hardy orange and crepe myrtle trees covered with white flowers, tiny primroses and tall asters. The garden has three sections: a large rectangular flower bed, an area with seating and trees, and a border.
For home gardeners who'd like to experiment with white, especially those with limited space, Lord recommends planting close to the house. "At night, the white flowers will show up and look incredibly beautiful," he said.
Indeed, white blossoms — whether in a window box, planter, raised bed or big yard — seem to glow in twilight, reflecting whatever ambient light they happen to catch from windows, streetlamps, candles and the like. The luminosity is especially nice on summer evenings when folks hang out in porches and yards.
That high visibility factor is "also nice for people who work during the day," Lord said. "They come home in the evening, and that's when they're looking at the garden."
White gardens are far from monochromatic. Flowers may be creamy, pale or bright white, and gray and green foliage helps show the hues off. Boxwood edging and other broad-leafed evergreens can help define and balance the delicate white, Lord said.
For those who care to visit, there's a lot more to see at the Snug Harbor Botanical Garden than just the white garden. Other features include a Tuscan garden, ornamental vegetable garden, sensory garden, shade garden, and its best-known section, a Chinese Scholar's Garden with Asian art, a koi pond and a plum tree that blooms each year just as winter turns to spring.