The Grumpy Naturalist

Why My White Garden Matters : 5 minute read by Farriz Mashudi 02/08/2020

Photo by Arnab Das

Plans for my white garden were conceived long before the consonants B-L-M and Black Lives Matter came about.

The beauty of the white garden is how lighter hues are made to pop, how they’re enhanced and stand-out amongst shades and textures and splashes of contrast. It’s the botanic artistry that’s challenging, frustrating at times, that also makes it rewarding. Done right, white gardens make for a dramatic vista, subtle yet sublime.

Innocent enough superficially, I had to ask how this prejudiced palette (if only in horticultural terms), measures up in the BLM context.

Laugh, make light of this apparent folly, but I’m not being glib. Seriously. Consider how certain tastes, mores and cultural norms, even ideologies widely accepted in their heyday have struggled, toppled even, under contemporary scrutiny.

Compelling today, might my predisposition for parterre in predominant white someday be seen as perverse?

Would this obsession with white blooms be tainting?

Some might say that white alone, even in shades of, is an abomination, is Nature manipulated.

I prepared for soul-searching, to find its root-cause, so to speak. But unlike beastly moles, dead-set on upsetting my landscaping, I didn’t need to dig very deep. That it came to me so quickly was a surprise. It appears the attraction was obvious:

White perennials, tall and small, some in rounded mounds, others weaving in and out, gently winding their way up stout willow obelisks firmly staked into the ground; Shrubs, spreaders, candelabra-like corymbs carrying blooms in umbels like Agapanthus, Lily of the Nile, for example; Not to mention Alliums, each an elegant sculpture in its own right; The varieties of leaves and bracts each oval, ovate, obovate (like an upside-down egg), oblong, whorled, lobed, lanceted, their different shapes that include the clustered, as well as the deeply divided; And the mind-blowing potential of hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and roses in a range of whites . . . All planted in a backdrop of greens bordered with solid walls and formally laid gravel paths.

Have I mentioned the heavenly scents?

Its simple elegance not an outright assault on the senses, but rather a heady one.

What wasn’t there to moon over and wax lyrical about?

Photo by Karla Lu00f3pez

With potential still for topiary and hedging, it looks upper class. If not that, then rich, or crasser still, just pretty posh.

There’s probably no more proper a white garden to be found than Vita Sackville-West’s at Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent in England, in the United Kingdom. The gold-standard of white gardens, hers is recognised as the fairest of them all. See, it’s part of a castle, a princely abode (read as ridiculously ‘expensive’), which she in fact did herself own. Pointless really, to pretend that white gardens aren’t associated with the elite, property-endowed and affluent. Not that fanning over or being possessed of one these days, renders one as such.

If not in its symbolism for understated abundance, then the attraction may lie in the magnetic power of the gentry itself (noble, or otherwise influential) that white gardens also represent.

Perhaps it’s a pursuit of some special-ness that might rub off?

Would the label ‘classism’ fit? That’s another shoe that’s also seen a fair bit of spit.

Photo by Madison Inouye

I wondered as well whether my white biased landscaping means an aversion for all things black. Hand on heart, for me, personally, it doesn’t.

Labelled ‘yellow’ by mean kids in Canada (incidentally, all white), being Malay in a predominantly Chinese part of Malaysia, accused abroad of personifying the government’s ‘racist’ policies, called ‘Coronavirus’ to my face, and as a modern Muslim living in the West — I struggle to not take to heart any blatant racism I’m prone to receiving myself under certain circumstances, in certain locales.

Working in the Middle East where rampant stereotyping is business-as-usual, neither have resembling a Filipina and being also of Indonesian descent helped. Many from these ASEAN neighbours fill the ranks of housemaids in Arab and expat households. But their over-representation in eateries like McDonalds brought an unexpected perk, and I’ve stopped being surprised to receive larger portions of fries (unsolicited, but welcomed) compared to other patrons.

But no matter the extant of my own experiences, none compare to what BLM seeks to eradicate. Not that my white garden — and what it may or may not represent — doesn’t (also) matter.

But its stone birdbath and rabbit sculpture fill me with happy thoughts, not images of grief and strife. In them I see how to some, statues of white luminaries scream public celebration of these men, with their warts, ignoble and less savoury deeds, and all.

Whilst raising no stink, bushels of white flowers on the other hand — from hyacinths, to jasmine, to honeysuckle, to peonies and gladioli (and a bountiful of other white lilies), to viburnum, to gardenias, to ylang-ylang, and the mighty tuberose and more — the list of the most ambrosial blooms, extends as long as the perpetual lingering of their strong fragrance and makes for the sweetest smelling of environs that nourish pollinators, perfumers and gentle souls alike.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina

Removing the statues of leading lights won’t ever delete them from the annals of history. (What’s done is done.) Yet, as a civil society, might we not relocate them to the inside of museums? Degrees of intolerableness could there be weighed holistically, without necessarily ‘cancelling’ otherwise universally laudable achievements.  

Ages before Colston’s plunge into the depths of Bristol Harbour, yonks ahead of outbursts over Cecil Rhodes’ good standing outside Oriel College, Oxford, and years before sparks from George Floyd’s death in America were flung far and wide — the seeds of my preference for planting with a constraint on colour were sown. And as it turns out, white gardening isn’t entirely as devoid of the tethers of privilege as first thought.

Does this personal insight make me admire white gardens less?

I’d be lying if I said, “Yes.”

Photo by Arantxa Treva

With this invaluable realisation I’m more able to ensure, however, that with people of all hues, as with plants . . . that my dealings and interactions are specifically with individuals in mind, and not any socially contrived colour scheme.

But bottom line, shouldn’t it be that green lives matter most? It’s them after all, that can save us, irrespective of colour, class, creed and culture.

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