An all-white garden: serene, simple, sophisticated

Just one of the many views of this amazing garden I get to enjoy every day. All photos: Robert Trachtenberg

By Robert Trachtenberg

Writing this column has been a real thrill for me, as I am now cruising around Berkeley on high alert in search of anything that is spectacular in the world of plants.

I start and end many of days with my camera in hand hoping to come across something special that I can share with my fellow Berkeleysiders. In a world filled with bad news, who could ask for a task any more exhilarating than this?

The front entry arbor to our path is adorned with roses and enveloped by this Philadelphus mexicana (Mock Orange). Easy to grow and quite vigorous, Mock Orange is well known for its fragrance, and it is a great plant to greet guests at any home

As you all know. this has been a prolonged cold spring, and finding plants in bloom has been a real challenge. Amazingly enough, my search for something unique and beautiful kept coming full circle right back to my own front garden.


We have a cottage on a property with a garden that we share and it was designed by Devorah Nussenbaum. Devorah is a florist by trade (her company is called Verdure) but clearly her passion and use of plant material in the garden is truly masterful.

Those arriving by the entry pathway to the garden are greeted with a Cornus florida (Flowering Dogwood 'Cloud Nine') that in spring has a canopy of white flower clusters. These are referred to as bracts with notched tips. For our climate, the dogwood offers year-round interest. In winter, the naked branches have an intricate structure with a very distinct bud. In spring, ours gets white flower bracts but there are other varieties that have flower bracts in a deep pink or rose color. In fall, when we have a good cold snap the leaves turn a brilliant orange-red color

Devorah has created an all-white garden, perhaps inspired by Vita Sackville-West’s famous garden in England, Sissinghurst. But it is no accident that, over the last 15-plus years, this semi-shade, overgrown garden has achieved a mysterious feeling of cultivated neglect, something that can only happen with time.

Most of the plants are quite special, carefully selected by Devorah, and many that we cannot even completely identify. It is with great pleasure that I have the opportunity to share this with all of you.

Halesia diptera (Snowdrop tree or Silver Bell) is an elegant, small scale tree with bell-shaped white flowers. Because the blossoms are pendent, they show off best when you can look up into the tree
Just beginning to flower, this Viburnum plicatum tomentosum (Doublefile Viburnum) is another wonderful four-season plant. This variety, 'Mariessi', grows 6-8' tall and 8-10' wide, and has a stunning horizontal branching habit that is beautiful all year long
Just one week later, the same plant -- (Doublefile viburnum) -- is showing off the lace cap flower heads nearly in full bloom. This viburnum prefers filtered sun and, in the fall, the leaves become a rich seasonal orange-red color. One of my favorites!
Not yet in full bloom, the flower of the Viburnum opulus 'Roseum' (European Cranberry Bush) starts out as a green flower, eventually turning to a brilliant white as seen below
Intermingled with the Doublefile Viburnum, and a great companion plant, we have Viburnum opulus 'Roseum' (European Cranberry Bush). It has an informal, over-arching habit -- 8-15' tall and wide -- and Maple-like leaves with fall color that may be yellow, bright red or reddish purple. Another fun feature of this plant is that the flower clusters can be cut on long stems for a truly stunning flower arrangement
Michelia yunnanensis (Banana Shrub) is often mistaken for a Magnolia. Perfect for a shady spot, and really nice near a front entry or patio, the flower buds before they open are sheathed in a rich rust colored husk-like capsule that has a soft fuzzy texture referred to as pre-pubescent
Delicate like a tiny dancer, this is either Clematis aristata (Goat's beard clematis), Clematis glycinoides, or Clematis erecta, but all are vigorous evergreen climbers that can reach 50' tall. This species is rather uncommon in cultivation as it can only handle a light frost. I am not an expert on Clematis and would welcome any help from Berkeleysiders who might be able to I.D. some of these unusual specimens
Okay, I am stumped on this little beauty, but I couldn't resist showing it anyway so I am going with Clematis petriei x marmoraria ('Perfection'). Again, feel free to help out if you know this species
This is a view of the underside of a Clematis florida 'Alba Plena in an early stage of bloom. It starts out as a green flower, then, with time, opens up into a white flower as seen below
For the budding Clematis enthusiast, this sumptuous Clematis florida 'Alba Plena' has a long-lasting rosette-like flower that is undoubtedly one of the loveliest of all the Clematis species
An exquisite understory flower for any woodland garden, Aquilegia, or Columbine 'Irish Elegance', is a unique variety of Columbine that bears extra white double blooms. Here you see all phases of the flower blossoming, starting out as a tightly compact, greenish flower bud, then opening up in a greenish white color, and eventually in full blossom like a small, camellia-like flower

Robert Trachtenberg, a landscape designer who lives in Berkeley, is the owner of Garden Architecture. This photo essay is part of an occasional series in which Trachtenberg brings an educated eye to the beauty of the nature that surrounds us in Berkeley.