The New Monochromatic Garden
Undoubtedly you've come across a White Garden or even a black flowering Goth Garden at least once in your travels. For me, there's a certain magic that's unique to these single hued spaces. They're a celebration of texture, structure and calm clear energy, filled with life and seasonal change. They'll stop you in your tracks and take you to another world.
So, let's chat about what creates this feeling, why a single colour is so special, a famous monochromatic garden and how you can translate this concept into a modern naturalistic style to enjoy with minimal maintenance.
The Original White Garden
The most famous monochromatic garden in the world was built in 1949 at Sissinghurst Castle. The concept was a combination of several ideas that were emerging at the time.
Garden rooms, which had been around since Roman times but were seeing a resurgence thanks to a few prominent English designers like Lawrence Johnston and Phyllis Emily Reiss. Plus small experiments in monochromatic plantings, Hidcote for instance features both a White Garden and a Red Border.
As the gardens at Sissinghurst first started taking shape in the 30's, Vita (Sackville-West) and Harold (Nicolson) decided to combine and expand on these earlier design elements in White Garden. And, although construction was delayed by the outbreak of war, the White Garden became a reality just before 1950.
The idea was that of a garden containing flowers and foliage only in tones of white, grey, silver and green, in contrast to the to the other more colourful gardens found on the famed English property. The design built interest and drama through texture, shape and form rather than competing colours. Vita saw it as a series of grey and green mounds pierced by tall white flowers.
The final planting featured a diverse variety of plant material, all in the signature hues; sourced by the couple over several years. What remained of the original Elizabethan garden walls plus the addition of yew and box hedges provided an underlying structure for plants to tumble over and climb. All of this glimpsed through doorways from other rooms eventually enveloped the viewer in calming clouds of white as they reached its confines.
The main plan was laid out by Harold, the various rooms and long corridors, "a series of escapes from the world, giving the impression of cumulative escape". Meanwhile Vita designed the planting in her signature style, "Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny".
The entire adventure was cataloged and reported by Vita in her widely read columns featured in The Observer. And as the world followed along, the garden became, and has remained one of the best known in the world. A symbol of experimentation, forward thinking and mid-century elegance. The epitome of a romantic English garden.
“I am trying to make a grey, green, and white garden. This is an experiment which I ardently hope may be successful, though I doubt it … 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.”
Today, Sissinghurst is a National Trust property open to the public year round. The current head gardener, Troy Scott Smith, and a team of researchers have launched a major project on the history of the White Garden with the intention of recreating the original planting scheme. Scott Smith and his team are seeking a balance between Vita and Harold's ideas and intentions with a modern concern for sustainability and ecological function.
"Vita was an amateur so for her it wasn’t about perfect plantings and weed-free lawns. It was about the immersive experience and the emotional quality. Sissinghurst had become too ordered, moved away from immersive beauty into a place of horticultural perfection and just doing the same things as they’d always done. I thought we could look at it afresh and set a new direction.”
-Troy Scott Smith
White is of course not the only choice for a monochromatic planting although White, aka Moon Gardens in particular have had a resurgence during pandemic lock downs. Each hue in the rainbow carries different feelings and symbolism with it, you just have to choose which one speaks to you.
Science shows us that what we experience visually creates a change in our alpha brain waves which then triggers our hormones, causing our bodies to react. Colour plays an important part in this function, it can ultimately effect:
Pigments can even effect men and
women differently, causing us to see colours (and the combinations of) as either negative or positive depending on how they are used.
White - The total light reflection of white (containing the full spectrum) has the ability to both heighten perception and cause strain making it one of the most powerful pigments. By the way, green is mid-spectrum; the only truly balanced colour that allows our eyes to rest while looking at it. Which is why the combination of white and green is so effective.
Across cultures, white is linked to mourning and death but is also seen as clean, neutral and balanced. It is the opposite of black. Its luminosity feels refreshing, cool and futuristic. It is associated with goodness, purity and reflection.
Black - The yin to yang's white, black is a dramatic and sophisticated colour. And while it can be seen as formal, it is ultimately a powerful and edgy edition in the garden. Check out, Gothic Gardens, for some inspiration.
Yellow - Is happiness, creativity and warmth. At times it can signal warning but is more often responsible for feelings of cheer and optimism.
Blue - Creates a space filled with trust, peace and loyalty. It is associated with competence, tranquility and true openness.
Purple - A royal colour that speaks of luxury, spirituality, wisdom and creativity.
Pink - Is often connected with compassion, sweetness and femininity. But it can also fill a space with pure sophistication and energy while eliciting a feeling of youthfulness.
You will find that some colours will be more of a challenge to source in plant material than others, but that can also be part of the fun. A chance to collect interesting specimens, seeds and cultivars and combine them with more common varieties. They are a brilliant way to celebrate foliage, texture and contrast as well as unusual seasonal interest. So get creative and don't forget to practice bio-diversity and include year-round food and habitat sources for wildlife.
A New Twist
Although single-hued gardens as a concept aren't new, they're still highly relevant to modern life. Contemporary gardens offer us a chance to re-connect to nature, get out of our own heads and see the bigger holistic picture. They teach us patience and the power of nurturing others as part of a growing changing ecosystem that we are merely a part of. And monochromatic gardens in particular have an other-worldly quality that you can only experience in a cultivated space making them both exceptional and visually striking.
Naturalistic Planting Design is a style that is based in nature, using right plant-right place principles and plant communities to build a garden that respects natural processes while meeting human needs. It's a way to tie, our desire for certain aesthetics and visuals that feed our senses, to ecologically sound functions. Working with natural forces rather than attempting to harness or train them. So, it's a perfect garden style to add a modern twist on the idea of a single-hued garden.
If we start with relevant research into the space: climate, existing soil, topography and available resources then we can build a garden that matches the existing conditions. Creating a functional system and adding plant material that fits the scheme and needs while staying true to our desired feeling. And, we get the natural looking low maintenance garden of our dreams.
Sara-Jane & Alica at Simple Leaf Design
Simple Leaf Design are planting design specialists in the Vancouver, Canada area that love to build exceptional naturalistic garden spaces and chat all about it. And don't forget to follow us @simpleleafdesign2 on instagram.