Sissinghurst: monochromatic colour schemes, by Abbie Jury

December 6, 2012

in Articles, General Interest

“All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.” Vita Sackville-West from ‘In Your Garden’.

Not surprising, with such a romantic introduction, that single colour gardens became so fashionable. (This was before meadows or even New Perennials or Prairies for those thinkingardens readers under forty…) Here is a consideration of the consequences of this wonderful dreamy prose by Abbie Jury, our correspondent from New Zealand.

It seems very apt when I understand that Sissinghurst is looking for a new head gardener. Speaks to the challenge…

Anne Wareham, editor


Sissinghurst White Garden copyright Abbie Jury for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham, Veddw, South Wales garden

Abbie Jury:

Back in the days when I first started garden writing and we were in the grip of seven day a week retail and mail order plant supply, I used to despair at the numbers of well-heeled women in search of plants for their white garden. Mostly from the upmarket suburbs of Auckand, dear, and most had been to the ultimate white garden – designed and planted by Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst in England. It was seen as the benchmark for restrained style and class and all wanted to emulate that standard. So all plants had to have white flowers and preferably be scented. Yellow stamens were permitted and cream was allowed but no other colour in the flowers. Fading out to white fell short and white flushed pink flowers were usually rejected as impure.

There were rules for foliage too. Green was fine, silver foliage even better. Variegations were acceptable as long as they were white and green with no yellow or red.

Lapageria alba copyright Abbie Jury

Apparently the secret of the white garden is revealed at night when all those pure flowers light up under moonlight to glow with ethereal beauty. Experienced gardeners realise instantly that this means it needs to be a summer garden because who wants to go out in winter or early spring to see the glowing white rhododendrons and camellias? But not many white garden devotees of the early nineties were experienced. I recall reading a critique at the time that far too many of the white gardens were thrown together solely on the basis of flower colour. As long as it was white, it could be included. Gardens were criticised for the lack of thought given to planting combinations and inappropriate conditions for many of the plant subjects.

When we finally visited Sissinghurst, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the ultimate white garden put together with skill – where plant composition, shape and foliage combinations rule supreme, without the distraction of colours beyond white and green. Alas I was underwhelmed, disappointed. It looked to me rather like plants selected solely on flower and foliage colour bunged in together. So much for setting the standard. It may well have been different in the original days of Vita Sackville-West but when we visited in 2009 it didn’t quite cut the mustard.

purple border copyright Abbie Jury for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham, Veddw, South Wales garden, Welsh gardens.

Colour and flowers hide a multitude of sins. The purple border at Sissinghurst was far more successful on the day we were there and that in part could be attributed to the huge range of tones in blues and purples. There is not a lot of variation of hues of white and cream so it is harder to get visual oomph.

I suspect that monochromatic garden schemes are often the refuge of less experienced gardeners but in fact they require considerable knowledge and skill to get them looking good. They are not actually monochromatic because gardens have green as a base colour but that is generally treated as colour neutral. If you garden only with foliage, or with foliage and only one additional colour, then form and texture are your tools and the plants you choose to complement each other and to fill the picture become critical. At its best, it is a restrained and disciplined approach to gardening which can be very restful to the eye. More often, alas, it is a hodgepodge – sometimes a pretentious hodgepodge – or downright dull.

Abbie Jury

Portrait Abbie Jury copyright Abbie Jury on thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham, Veddw






website – Tikorangi, The Jury Garden’s website See also Abbie’s pieces: Review of ‘Garden Tours’ and Lagerfeld Rules. 

Hydrangea Immaculata copyright Abbie Jury for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham, Veddw,

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Diana of Elephant's Eye December 26, 2012 at 11:22 am

When they built the Baxter theatre in Cape Town (1977!!) the garden was deliberately planted with white flowers. I remember white plumbago. That made a great impression on me, exploring a new designed garden in the interval of a theatre performance.

I visited Sissinghurst when my first garden was still – I’ll have one of everything, but mostly indigenous. With my mother’s enthusiasm for Vita Sackville-West at the back of my mind.

One of the four beds in my Paradise and Roses is Winter Chill – not a bunch of dreary white roses, but very pale colours. Six years have elbowed the rose bushes aside, all but the most determined. Today that bed is dominated by a huge palest cloud blue wild sage, and a grey camphor bush, bordered by santolina. Not a White Garden as such.

Sara Manela December 7, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I prefer to mix my flowers with my veggies, so all-white would leave me with… parsnips? fennel? Not to mention if it’s a summer garden you’re viewing at night, you have to stay up pretty late for it.

However, we have a deep lawn with a very shady section in the back, and I can imagine how lovely a series of white flowers and plants with silver or light-green foliage would look back there from the house. I really don’t understand people who plan their gardens based on trends, rather than the peculiarities of their space and outdoor habits.

annewareham December 7, 2012 at 4:10 pm

It’s good thinking to respond to the garden and its context, but all the same not many of us would respond to our gardens today by adding crazing paving and a wishing well, or heathers dotted about with dwarf conifers.. (she says, hoping…) Trends are bound to influence..

Catriona Tudor Erler December 7, 2012 at 3:04 pm

It was back in 1982, so no doubt things have changed, but when I visited the white garden at Sissinghurst on 4th July that year, it was spectacular. Everything was in its peak of bloom. Timing a visit is important for a flower-based garden, as is proper upkeep. Perhaps it has not been maintained to the proper standard.

Jill Anderson December 7, 2012 at 10:16 am

An interesting & well thought out take on this famous garden, good point about white gardens at night. Choosing plants based on their colour can be so limiting, although silver & green are also part of the mix, it does need skill & experience. I think we prefer a more free approach these days. Jill

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