Plant a Moonlight Garden

Shimmering, fragrant, evocative.

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On strolls through my garden in the evening, I’m drawn to one bed in particular. As night falls, this bed of herbs and flow­­­ers glimmers, glows, catches the moonlight, and tosses it back. A breeze stirs, and I’m enveloped by scent. The fragrances of the evening seem sweeter­ and stronger than those of the day, ­or perhaps the surrounding darkness dims other ­senses and makes the night ­garden more ­intensely fragrant and evocative. This bed where I linger is my moonlight ­garden.

• Moonlight Garden Plants 

One of my favorite herb gardens, this one came about almost by chance. After my original circular herb garden grew to fullness, I decided to expand it further by adding crescent-shaped beds on opposite sides of the circle.

I dug out two crescents of lawn to the north and south of my main garden and surrounded them with rocks to match the original design. After turning over the soil, I sat down on a nearby bench with a cup of tea, pondering the possibilities and waiting for inspiration. I had already decided that one crescent should contain the herbs mentioned by Shakespeare. I’m originally from England, and a Shakespeare garden would give me the opportunity to plant many English flowers that I feel nostalgic about—cowslips, primroses, violets, columbine, and daisies. The second garden, however, presented so many possibilities that I wallowed in indecision. Already flourishing in my yard were a medicinal garden, a scented garden, a bee garden, and a garden of kitchen herbs. Did I want to add a tea garden, a dyer’s garden, or perhaps a witch’s garden just for fun?

The inspiration finally came from the shapes before me: the crescents framing the round bed resembled phases of the moon. A moonlight garden of silver and white would combine beauty and practicality. Not only would pale gray leaves show up wonderfully in the moonlight and light the way for evening strolls, but they would furnish me with a fine supply of material for herbal wreaths. I already had a number of gray and silver plants in other parts of the garden, so I could begin by transplanting rather than buying, a gentle beginning for my budget. The idea of a ­restful, pretty garden bed that comes alive at the end of the day was appealing to me, and I dug in.

I had many plants in mind for this garden bed, but only later was I able to articulate the essential requirements for their inclusion: silver foliage, white blooms, or evening fragrance. (Using the same criteria, Carolee Snyder of Carolee’s Herb Farm in Hartford City, Indiana, has planted a larger moonlight garden in the same shape. Her plant list that accompanies the illustration is a wonderful starting point for any would-be moonlight gardener.)

The Silvers

Shades of silver and gray play an important but subordinate role in most gardens, where they act to both brighten and tone down other colors and blend areas together smoothly and ­har­mo­niously. They are lovely colors to work with, com­plementing pastel shades and making peace between brighter, even clashing tones. In the moonlight garden, however, these subdued colors take on more significance. Not only are they a source of reflected light, but, massed together, they become a dramatic contribution to the ­tapestry of texture created by foliage, flowers, and seed heads.

Many moon-garden possibilities exist among the artemisias, and that was a natural starting point for me because I already had, elsewhere in the yard, several large and handsome ones. I am especially fond of mugwort (I grow Silver King) because it furnishes a beautiful, well-nigh-indestructible base for wreaths. It is an ancient, magical plant with very deeply cut leaves that are silver on top and darker on the bottom. Wormwood is an attractive, tall, graceful plant with pretty, intricately cut leaves. Those who have the space might try the vigorous Silver Mound, Valerie Finnis, Roman wormwood, or Silver Brocade.

When I moved in silver herbs with a variety of leaf textures, such as silver horehound, curry plant, lavenders, silver sage, silver tansy, and lavender cotton, the garden became even more inviting. Every moon garden should have lamb’s-ears, whose furry leaves seem to illuminate any pathway even when the moon is only a sliver. A visiting friend brought me a plant of silver thyme, whose tiny pale leaves edged with white introduced striking contrasts in both texture and scale. A trip to a nearby field yielded a large mullein. Its large, soft silver ears of woolly down and its robust spire of a flower stalk carry the eye upward, above lower-growing plants like silver speedwell, whose smaller, more delicate leaves also find a place here.

Many of the downy, gray-leaved plants are of Mediterranean origin. Mine thrive in a sunny location and well-drained, light soil. Most are fairly drought tolerant; too much moisture, especially poor drainage, is likely to kill them. The silver thyme and the lavender cotton are the only plants that I’ve had trouble wintering over. I have to mulch them to protect them from our cold winters in northern New Hampshire. An easy way I’ve found to incorporate more tender plants into the garden is to put them in pots that I can move inside for the winter.

The soft blue grays and interesting foliage of rue, Russian sage, a potted cardoon with its large blue thistle heads, and a variety of sea hollies are other candidates that will add a soft sheen to a moon garden.

I sat back down on my bench and saw that the garden was filling in quite nicely.

Bursts of White

Finding plants with white blooms that would rise above and punctuate the silver grays with light and brightness was fun. Many common herbs and flowers have white-flowering cultivars, and the possibilities far exceeded the available space in my bed. Some of my favorites are the clear white flowers of White Nancy dead nettle, white-flowering yarrows, a white agastache, white wood betony, and White Perfection viola. The tiny flowers of white baby’s-breath add airy puffs.

Annuals self-seed randomly around the garden, filling in the spaces and helping to tie everything together. I can count on Purity cosmos, Miss Jekyll White nigella, Woodland nicotiana, white larkspur, and the annual white foxglove Excelsior to return every year. Bulbs scattered through the bed between the clumps of established perennials and in spots to be filled later with summer annuals extend the season in the moonlight garden to early spring. They include white-flowering crocuses, tulips, and narcissuses.

It’s difficult to imagine a moonlight garden without old-fashioned white shrub roses. There are so many to choose from! Mme. Legras de St. Germain, White Rose of York, Blanc Double de Coubert, and Mme. Hardy are just a few of them. All contribute not only their delicate white blooms and sturdy structure but also their heavenly perfume, another of my requirements for this garden.

Fragrance in the Night

Returning home late at night as a teenager, I used to have a rather dark and lonely journey down our lane. A huge mock orange stood near our gate, and when I saw its glow and smelled its fragrance, I knew I was safe. Now, so many years later, I realized that the addition of sweet-scented flowers to my garden would enhance the sense of peace that descends after a hectic day. A mock orange was among the first of the plants that I would add for their scent alone. Their various fragrances alert my senses and evoke memories.

While some flowers send out their scent only during daylight hours, others deign to grace only the air of evening. I have two favorite silver-leaved plants that perfume the night: night-scented stock and evening primrose.

Night-scented stock is a Cinderella of a plant. This hardy annual is so frail and scraggly during the day that I plant it behind more focal plants or discreetly along the edges of the bed. As soon as twilight seeps across the sky, however, a fairy godmother waves a wand and the little plants become more erect, open their tiny pale mauve flowers, and give off a perfume that travels on the evening air in sweet waves. It is not a cloying scent but rather one that causes you to take deeper breaths to drink it in more fully.

The evening primrose that I grow, Oenothera caespitosa, is a low-growing, white-flowered perennial native to western North America. It has gray-green leaves and blooms all summer. Just before sunset, the buds open and release a lovely citrus-jasmine scent to the evening. I remember vividly first smelling that scent in the Grand Can­yon. The scent led me to the discovery of O. caverna, a white-flowered evening primrose found only in the canyon. It looked delicate and fragile, a pale, glowing beauty, and it attracted many night-flying insects as well. The plant blooms at night to reduce water loss through the flowers during the day, as the flowering season is the hottest and driest time of year. Although the evening primroses in my garden don’t have such a spectacular setting, the fragrance is very similar. Before a dinner party, I sometimes place some buds with floating candles in a shallow bowl of water; during the course of the party, they open and perfume the room. Many other species of evening primrose would also be suitable for a moonlight garden.

I also planted an abundance of pinks; these smell sweet enough during the day but take on an even richer, deeper fragrance at night. The close mats of gray spiky leaves and their small, pretty flowers are a delight. Last year, I discovered the double white Mrs. Sin­kins, which is wonderful as it catches the moonlight. I’m also fond of the larger gillyflower, also called clove carnation, whose rich scent the Elizabethans used to dispel melancholy. It is taller than the pinks, and the night seems to draw out its deepest perfume.

The moonlight gardener has an abundance of fragrant plants to choose from. Night-blooming jasmine can be planted in large pots and placed close to paths or benches, the better to experience its intoxicating scent when it’s in bloom. The pots can be tucked into any empty spots in the garden as filler before and after flowering. Many nicotianas have a sweet jasmine scent that is strongest at night, and varieties are available that grow as tall as 5 feet. However, some of the modern dwarf cultivars lack any fragrance at all. Phlox’s tall stems bear masses of flowers whose sweet scent also seems to intensify at night. I find that night-blooming daylilies have a cleaner, fresher, lighter scent than either that of phlox or nicotianas.

My moonlight garden grows and changes as I find new plants for it. It is pretty by day, but its true enjoyment is reserved for the evening hours, a reward at day’s end. As I walk through it in the evening, the dark green foliage disappears, the silver-leaved plants come forward, showing the way, and the many white flowers seem to float and bob against the blackness. I can look at the moon, breathe in the fragrance, and enjoy the flicker of fireflies.


Ingrid Graff is a New Hampshire writer, gardener, and mother of two.