Generations ago, spending summer nights in cool, leafy places was the universal antidote to the heat of day. Today, when we hide inside air-conditioned rooms, planted in front of the television or computer, we have grown less familiar with the scents and sounds of nature after dark.
Take back the night, and you may come to see your own back yard as an undiscovered country. Moon gardens are those meant to be enjoyed after dark.
“It’s ironic that gardening books are full of pictures taken in bright sunshine, when most gardeners are ordinarily away at work during the day,” says Peter Loewer, author of “The Evening Garden” (Timber Press). “Most people don’t really have time to relax until the day’s responsibilities have been met and the sun has sunk below the horizon.”
So why not plan a portion of your garden for maximum enjoyment at twilight and on through the evening? Whether entertaining al fresco or just relaxing, a nocturnal garden can surround you with the beauty of the night. White flowers, silvery foliage and intoxicating fragrance can define a space that pleases the senses but owes nothing to the sun for its appeal.
Catering to the dark side in garden planning is hardly a new idea. More than 20 years ago, Barbara Damroach discussed the history of moonlit gardens in her book “Theme Gardens” (Workman Publishing). Included are plans for a crescent-shaped moon garden.
The most famous white garden of all is the one designed and planted by Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, in 1949 and 1950. Composed entirely of flowers in shades of white, it is elegant by day, magical by night. There is a white garden inspired by Sissinghurst at the Staten Island Botanical Garden, site of an annual “Fête Blanche Soirée” (White Evening Festival) scheduled near the summer solstice.
“You wouldn’t necessarily want to plant your whole property in white flowers,” says Damroach. “You’d probably want an evening garden concentrated in one area, perhaps a jewel-like enclosure on a small scale, and close to the house.”
To plan effectively, it’s helpful to understand the changing quality of light as the sun dips below the horizon. Red and green are the first colors to fade as the light goes, since the cones in the center of the eye responsible for color vision lose their ability to distinguish these hues. Blue and yellow linger a bit longer, but ultimately we can only perceive black, white and shades of gray.
The light of a full moon is just one 600,000th of the sun’s brilliance, and although it can be strong enough to cast shadows, it is rarely dazzling except when reflected by a blanket of fresh snow. In siting a moon garden, remember that the moon — just like the sun — rises in the east and sets in the west, describing an arc across the southern sky. To take maximum advantage of moonlight, your garden should be open to the south.
Artificial lights can help illuminate the garden, and may be necessary for safety, especially along paths. But these fixtures should be inconspicuous and quite dim, or you will lose the calming effect of a nighttime scene, and destroy your night vision, as well.
Perhaps the best place for a night garden is immediately adjacent to your home. Such a garden, just steps from your doorway or porch, or surrounding a terrace or deck, could be viewed from indoors, as well. A more remote location requiring a brief walk could serve too, particularly if it can be viewed from second-floor windows.
What won’t work very well is a smattering of white flowers and pale foliage among other plantings. You need a certain critical mass to achieve the ethereal effect, and it is best if your moon garden is set apart from the rest of the landscape, or even enclosed by trellises or dark-colored hedges.
Choosing an array of white-flowered annuals, perennials and shrubs is probably the next challenge. As in any garden, you must be sure to match plants and site conditions. Many favorite garden species include white cultivars, but combining your candidates in a pleasing arrangement can be challenging.
One issue has to do with the many variations on the white theme. If you have ever decided to beg the interior design issue by painting your walls “white,” you may already know that there are a hundred shades from creamy ivory to snow white, from eggshell to pink-tinged blush. White comes in a bewildering array of tints and shades, some subtle, some stark, some wispy, some substantial, and not all of them are compatible.
“The process of working with white flowers themselves can prove surprisingly tricky,” writes garden author Michael Weishan in an article for Country Living magazine. “To see what I mean, assemble a few varieties of white flowers in a vase; immediately it becomes clear that, as with green, there are infinite shades of white in nature, and the brilliant whites of an Oriental lily can make the creamy white of an obedient plant or foxglove, for instance, look dirty. You have to be willing to play with a white garden.”
Sackville-West referred to her own often-imitated model as a “gray, green and white garden.” Enclosed within strongly architectural hedges, it emphasized the textural contrast of foliage and used gray and silvery foliage to bridge the contrast between pools of darkness and brilliant white flowers.
Perhaps no evening garden adventure is more compelling than actually witnessing the unfurling of a moon flower. This vine, a relative of the common morning glory, bears large, twisted buds the shape of an ice cream cone that unwind into pristine white trumpets after dark. Astonishing things they are, large as an amaryllis bloom and perfumed with a delicate scent.
Unless you have no nose at all for fragrance, consider working in this and other species that have flowers especially well scented in the evening.
Consider sweet-smelling four o’clocks and acidenthera (a type of hardy gladiolus), the tropical plants jasmine and brugmansia, or the simple wildflower known as night phlox. Flowering tobacco, night-scented stock, the old-fashioned mignonette (Reseeda odorata) and datura, a kind of angel’s trumpet are other choices.
“Fragrance just seems so much more powerful at night, when our vision is limited,” says Damroach. "It’s that final, magical touch.”
Summer-blooming white flowers
Acidanthera bicolor (F)
Calla lily, Zantedeschia albomaculata
Dahlia 'Fleurel, 'Eveline, 'Crazy Love'
Gladioli 'Sophie,' 'Ice Cream,' 'Home Coming'
Lilies, Asiatic and Oriental
Summer snowflake, Leucojum aestivum
Tuberose 'The Pearl' (F)
Angel's trumpet, Brugmansia (F)
Cosmos 'Sonata,' 'Purity'
Evening stock, Matthiola longipetala (F)
Four o'clocks, Mirabilis jalapa (F)
Moonflower, Ipomea alba (F)
Night phlox, Zaluzianskya capensis
Spider plant, Cleome 'Alba'
Sweet potato vine 'Margarita'
Astilbe 'Bridal Veil,' 'Deutchland'
Balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflora 'Album'
Campanula 'Wedding Bells,' 'Clustered White'
Clematis 'Guernsey Cream,' 'Snow Queen'
Daylilies, Hemerocallis species
Echinacea 'White Swan'
Evening primrose, Oenothera species(F)
Gas plant, Dictamnus albus (F)
Obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana 'Miss Manners'
Phlox 'David,' 'Miss Lingard'
Butterfly bush, Buddleia 'White Profusion'
Hydrangea, many species
Roses 'Iceberg,' 'Snow Owl,' 'Winchester Cathedral'
Rose of Sharon 'Diana'
Summersweet, Clethra (F)
Chinese dogwood, Cornus kousa
Dove tree, Davidia involucrata
Fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus
(F) = Fragrant flowers