MANY TIMES I have seen small green gardens, no bigger than a living room, and planted just with boxwood and ivy. It is thought there is no room for flowers, or that flowers would be distracting in a tiny garden meant only to be restful and handsome all the year.
Such a garden will bore you quickly. I yield to nobody my admiration of box and, for that matter, ordinary ivy (as well as the scores of varieties of it) but a town garden of just box or yew has a fatal defect:
Winter turns to spring and spring to summer, but here is little change in a garden of box and ivy. Not a great deal needs to be done, but something does, and I shall suggest what it is.
Let us say the garden is paved with brick or cobbles or fieldstone, and the box is planted against the perimeter. All that is necessary is to have a strip of earth between the box and pavement or (for some people are lost without green grass, even if the lawn is able to be no larger than a rug) grass.
It is such a personal thing that I will not say how wide this strip should be or exactly how it should be laid out, but be very sure that strip two feet wide, thoroughly planted, can make a world of difference in a green garden.
Let me also suggest a pool, or water basin. Depending on the size of the garden and the style of the house, it could be a metal tank or a stone trough or an old lead cistern or a three-foot concrete square raised dipping basin.
It could even (if the center space is large enough) be set into the lawn or the central pavement. It could be faced with tile, or covered with ivy or other delicate creepers or left plain. If it is in the sun and is four feet wide or so, I would personally choose a night-blooming white tropical water lily for it, such as "Juno" or "Janice Ruth." This would be planted out in a tub in the pool in late May and it would bloom until November, then be discarded or wintered over indoors.
If the pool or basin were small, it might have no plants at all, though I would myself always insist on something, if nothing more than a varigated sweet flag (Acorus calamus) and some water-weed below the surface and some goldfishes.
But back to the flowers I am so bravely suggesting in what had formerly been a garden of boxwood and ivy:
The idea would be to have just enough plants to remind the gardener of the changing seasons. It is wrong, dead wrong, to live unnecessarily without a change of seasons, and it is merely stupid for anybody to design a garden without creatures of the spring, creatures of the autumn and so forth.
At the moment such a garden could be brightened with a large clump of the Japanese anemone. It abides a good bit of shade, and never looks better than against a background of box and ivy. The delicate looking (but tough as leather) flowers are like white half-dollars set on a branching stem about four feet high, with a yellow boss of stamens in the middle. Its leaves all spring from the ground, like large green polished hands, so it looks good from spring to fall, and in winter you tidy it up and the earth is bare (sprigs of the native red cedar or holly can be stuck in, if even this small bare spot offends the view. And this may be the place to remind you what you will soon enough discover, that the smaller the garden, the more nearly perfect and polished you want it to be at all seasons).
A much neglected fall-blooming perennial is the bugbane, named for its supposed baneful effect on bugs. Since I have never yet paid any attention to bugs in the garden, apart from butterflies, moths, dragonflies, ladybugs and lightning bugs, all of which I value highly, I cannot say whether the bugbane chases them off or not. Its botanical name is cimicifuga and I notice that as November begins, it is nearing the end of its flowering period of several weeks. Its foliage is as good as or better than that of the anemone, and in October it opens its foxtail flowers (a quite thin fox, admittedly) on firm thin stems waist to chest high. The flowers are made of hundreds of tiny white florets, somewhat like an eremurus or a buddleis, only more gracefully curving than either. Against a green wall it is very handsome; gardeners who sometimes wonder what is wrong with marigolds and zinnias, reproached for their weedy coarseness, need only consult the bugbane to see the difference in elegance.
Also for the fall there might be a patch or two of white fall-blooming crocuses, C. speciosus alba.
Next, as the year disintegrates into nearly total darkness and despair, there might be a Christmas rose, or any pale or white hellebore, with the understanding that while the leaves are fresh in the winter, still the flowers cannot be expected before March. As far as that goes, I am not averse to some green hellebores, especially H. foetidus, which does not smell bad or smell at all, despite its insulting name, and H. corsicus; both of which start forming bloom stalks and buds in winter and bloom sometimes as early as February, sometimes not.
There should be plenty of snowdrops, in fat clumps at least eight inches across. The plain unimproved single white cannot be argued with for beauty, and if you feel giddy you might try one from the Crimea (Galanthus elwesii, say) which is much larger and which for me has never proved permanent as the single wild G. nivalis has.
A quite valuable small bulbous flower for late February is the mild-white Scilla tubergeniana, which lasts in bloom several weeks. There are several white crocuses to be thought of, white forms of the wild C. chrysanthus, though in the small garden we are considering, I would go so far as to grow "Jeanne d'Arc," a large white Dutch garden variety. You will notice I am suggesting chiefly white flowers for the green garden, since I know the main reason such gardens do not have flowers at all is simply that the designer is afraid of ruining their serenity and peace with coarse or gaudy things, or with screaming color.
If there is space, the white Japanese quince called "Nivalis" is handsome in late March with white flowers on its naked stems. White grape hyacinths, white Roman hyacinths, white chionodoxas are all easily grown and none of them takes up much space -- a patch one foot by two feet will hold several dozen, which will make a brave show indeed against the boxwood. I would certainly have a few white daffodils, preferably on the small side, or at least refined in appearance. They need not be novelties; quite familiar sorts would do well, including "Jenny," "Little Beauty," "Shot Silk," "Tresamble," "Thalia," "Dawn," (one of the loveliest of all daffodils, and possibly some of those old small nodding white trumpet and short-cup daffodils you see here and there in the country. I would avoid large flamboyant sorts, but if I had any large ones they would be of the flawless sort such as "Wedding Bell" and "Rashee" and "Cushendall" and "Fairmile" and "Jewel Song."
There could be a few white and rose lady tulips (Tulipa clusiana) and the surprisingly agreeable and easy white and yellow T. tarda. If you did not think them too large and heavy looking, the white fosteriana tulip, "Purissima" would be handsome, and it has a way of lasting some years without replanting or replacing.
There might be a few white pansies or violas. There might be (we are now into mid-May) the wild white Iris tectorum, and if it seems right (depending on the particular garden) a large garden iris such as "Celestial Snow."
If there is sun, there could be some white geraniums, white nicotiana, white verbenas, etc., for summer, and in the shade there could be a clump of white-leaved caladiums. I am much tempted to suggest a white Siberian iris like "White Swirl" and a white Japanese iris. Even the white and yellow I. ochraleuca. These last three keep good foliage during the summer if kept damp; otherwise they look ratty by mid-July.
I would not want white dahlias, but you might. There is no way in God's world to disguise the basic weediness of a dahlia, though the flowers are lovely enough. It's up to you.
Maybe a small clump of galtonias would be all right, maybe one of those very pale daylilies that looks white, maybe a few off-white small petunias that smell good. I do not think the great bouncing white petunias widely planted are quite the thing for a box and ivy garden.
As fall comes, you might indulge in a white cushion chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemums in my opinion cannot be made to look very grand or elegant, so I would not overdo them. Of course they are fine for specialists who like to grow hundreds of different sorts, but I am speaking of just a green garden with a touch of white. Then you come again to the white Japanese anemones and bugbanes.
If there is a call for strongly contrasting foliage here and there, I might try some white hostas -- I have rather a weakness for "Thomas Hogg" with lance-shaped green leaves neatly edged with white and pale lavender blooms. White lily-turf (Liriope) is beautiful and, in such a garden, useful as well.
I have said nothing of wild flowers such as white phlox or bloodroot or trilliums or spring beauties. Depending on the feel of the garden, you might like these.
And of course if you preferred, you could have everything scarlet and gold, instead of white, but I have been thinking of gardeners who have denied themselves any flowers at all because they can't think (apparently) of any that would seem right with just box and ivy; flowers that would enhance and be enhanced by the evergreens, and not look coarse.
A superb weed, by the way, which is extremely elegant in flower is the boneset or white eupatorium, which is handsome for several weeks before its attractive seed heads shatter late in October. Equally fine is the climbing wild Japanese clematis, though both these two plants are indeed weeds and you need to keep an eye on them or they will take over. But although weeds, they are not weedy looking, as white zinnias (for instance) are.
There are also white hybrid clematis, which are not too rambunctious for such a garden if kept to walls or poles, but you would not want to let the white clematis "Henryi" to smother a box bush. Also I have not said anything about white lilies, of which there are many. I myself have never succeeded in growing the white martagons, but I would if I could.
Also the plain wild regal lily is superb. It often upsets lily fanciers to be reminded of this, since they are far gone in their latest fantasies. Some of the white or pale Aurelian hybrid lilies are admirable, though some of them make too much foliage to ignore when they have finished blooming. If I could find space, I would try to work in a few white auratums and white speciosums, preferably at the far end of the small garden where their unattractive stems following their blooming would not be a daily reproach.
This could all be endlessly varied, but it would have the tremendous virtue of giving the gardener little goals to reach, so to speak, as the year advances. And the box and ivy would look all the handsomer from the occasional contrast of the flowers.