Monochrome. A planting by Oehme, van Sweden and Associates at the American Museum and Gardens, near Bath, Somerset, England, UK. Open to the public. Photo © Claire Takacs

Secrets from The Garden: There's nothing black and white about a monochrome planting

Our new book, The Garden: Elements and Styles, unpicks the tricksy terms underpinning some of the world’s most beautiful gardens

Our new book The Garden: Elements and Styles is the go-to-guide for garden design, from the best-established traditions to the most recent vigorous styles and trends. The scholar, horticultural authority and author, Toby Musgrove offers a truly definitive view of how we shape our natural world. Read this book and you’ll discover, for instance, that sculpture gardens date back to antiquity, and were particularly popular during the Italian renaissance; and that a native gardening, or the favouring of indigenous species over introduced plants, appealed (perhaps all too predictably) to the gardeners of the Third Reich.

There are other movements, however, that are a little harder to call. Take for instance monochrome gardening, such as the garden above at the American Museum and Gardens, near Bath, UK. Do not adjust your screen; it indeed, full colour, and not back and white. “Monochrome is a word usually associated with photography or painting to describe a work composed in black and white or varying tints and tones of a single colour,” admits Musgrove in the new book. “While it would be theoretically possible (albeit of questionable aesthetic merit) to create a black-and-white garden using black infrastructure and the few very nearly black flowering plants in combination with lots of white ones, this would not be a true monochrome display, because all the plants would have green, variegated or coloured foliage. Thus, unless one makes a garden using only foliage (a fernery, perhaps) or green-flowered plants, it is not possible to be wholly true to the definition of monochrome [having just one colour].

 The Garden: Elements and Styles
The Garden: Elements and Styles

“That, however, is not necessarily a disadvantage, for in the most famous of all monochrome flowering displays, Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden (conceptualized in 1939, completed in the winter of 1949–50) at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, UK, the varied greens of the foliage accentuate and complement the whites of the flowers, the whole set off against the dark green of the enclosing yew hedge. Indeed, its maker called it her grey, green and white garden. More recently, a white garden was planted in the beds around the rectangular pool in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, London, as a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales. Another popular colour for a monochrome display is red; the inspiration for many are the twin mixed borders at Hidcote, Gloucestershire. Here, too, foliage is important, with the deliberate inclusion of plants with deep red and purple leaves; for example, the purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) is a recent cultivar.

“The diversity of materials available today means that monochrome planting may be co-ordinated with structural elements, perhaps in colour-themed garden rooms. Surfaces might be dyed rubber, vertical screens could be painted wood, furniture could be powder-coated metal, containers might be dyed fibreglass, and the whole illuminated at night in appropriate shades using LED or fibre-optic lighting.”

To understand how this colour-constrained style fits into the wider spectrum of horticulture get a copy of The Garden: Elements and Styles here.