Dress Whites

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Elegant gardens composed of only luminous plants with either silver foliage or white flowers are part of the English gardening tradition. So much so, that Berkeley plantswoman and sculptor Marcia Donohue poked fun at the idea with a "silver garden" of knives, forks and spoons sticking out of the ground in her backyard. The most famous silver and white garden is about 50 miles outside of London, planted by the late Vita Sackville-West, who wrote about gardening for the Observer between 1947 and 1961. Her garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, maintained now by the National Trust, is a favorite destination for garden tourists.

Writing about her garden, she once commented that "provided one does not run the idea to death, and provided one has enough room," one-color gardens are "endlessly amusing," especially the "gray, green, white and silver garden, which looks so cool on a summer evening."

That is precisely why Pasadena interior designer Pat McNamara planted only white and silver in front of her handsome 1924 villa designed by legendary architect Roland Coate. "Besides, white is the only color you can see at dusk," she said, recalling the warm evenings when she and her late husband would rendezvous in the garden "with a glass of wine and the birds singing."

"And," added McNamara, who also designs gardens, "it just looked right with the house," which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The stark design of the white stucco building was inspired by the simple Tuscan homes of Italy.

One of the first things the couple did when they bought the house in 1984 was to wall off the corner lot and put in geometric garden beds--edged with real limestone curbs--similar to formal herb plantings they had seen in Europe. Paths overrun with violets separate the beds. A simple little pool with a spouting frog anchors the garden at one end.

The beds are filled with all sorts of plants that have white flowers--from snow-in-summer to the native Matilija poppy--though the most obvious are the tough and reliable 'Iceberg' roses. Big, old specimens grow in each of the four beds and another trained as a tree grows in the very center of the garden. A 'Climbing Iceberg' grows on the trellis over the pool.

McNamara said she finds that while white flowers bring "simplicity and harmony" to gardens, silver or gray foliage add "clarity and presence." Some plants combine white flowers with silver or gray foliage, such as the snow-in-summer or the bush morning glory, so you get both, a kind of two-for-the-price-of-one deal.

She has included a very few plants with pale violet or blue flowers, such as nepeta, which make the white flowers look even cooler and whiter. This gardener, who first studied under the late Santa Monica plantsman Phil Chandler, has been very careful to weed out plants with blooms that are not quite the right shade of white.

"It would seem that most white flowers are too creamy or a touch too yellow," McNamara said, "or they are too much of a paper white." She's always editing and experimenting, which is the part of one-color gardening that Sackville-West found endlessly amusing, noting "you take away the things that don't fit in, and replace them by something you like better."

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Favorite White Blossoms

A few of Pat McNamara's favorite white flowers:

* 'Iceberg' rose

* 'Gourmet Popcorn' miniature rose

* 'White Meidiland' ground-cover rose

* Matilija poppy

* White lantana

* Star jasmine

* Bush morning glory

* Gaura

* Various white-bearded iris

* Lychnis coronaria 'Alba'

* Nutmeg geranium

* Lamium 'White Nancy'

* Snow-in-summer

* Santa Barbara daisy

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