Down To Earth: Planting a Moonlight Garden

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I sometimes stroll through my garden enjoying how different it is at night. Not only do the white flowers glow with unexpected light, the pinks and lighter yellows seem to have a vibrancy absent in daylight. When my friend, the late educator and herbalist Betty Wold, visited my garden one summer morning years ago, she asked me why there were no pink and white flowers in my garden. I replied that I really didn’t like those colors.
“But if you have only darker colors, none of those show up in the moonlight,” she chided me with a laugh.

Night Scents

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the more subtle floral colors, not for their daytime hues, but for how magical they become after sunset, even in simple starlight. A moonlit garden has a different set of fragrances–some subtle, some pronounced. In the heat of the day, many essences are lost to our senses because the heat evaporates them so quickly. At night, they are considerably more noticeable. Dianthus, which has a lovely, clove-scented fragrance by day, is absolutely delicious at night.

A moonlight garden should have lots of fragrant things to smell, including plants to walk on along the pathways. Creeping thymes, such as caraway and lemon thyme, are good additions. You might not even notice their scents in the daylight, but at night, when your senses are more attuned, you will be aware of the fragrances as you walk.

Seeing By Night

I have light-colored gravel pathways in my garden–unremarkable by day; lighted walks by moonlight. In the background, I have a little fish-pond fountain, and the trickling water adds a peaceful backdrop to the allure of the garden.

Plants such as the often-overlooked yucca even change shape after dark. In the daytime, the waxy, cream-colored blossoms hang down like bells. But at night, when the air has cooled, the flowers turn somewhat upward, releasing their scent to attract the moths that pollinate them.

Simpler elements of my garden, such as a light-gray limestone bench, look most inviting by the full moon. During the day, there are often so many interruptions, noises and responsibilities that I seldom get to sit and enjoy my garden. But at night, when the world is quiet and others’ demands on my time have ceased, I like to retreat to my nighttime garden. Many times I’ve sat on the bench with a midnight snack, enjoying the serenity.

Let the Sun Go Down on Me

There are myriad plants to choose from that magically transform themselves from almost invisible in sunlight to glowing performers at night. Any plant you choose with the name ‘Alba’ after it will be white, such as rose campion (Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’), for example, or Dianthus deltoides ‘Alba’. White, yellow and pink hollyhocks shine like subtle beacons, even in starlight. Glowing additions such as the white echinaceas, like ‘White Swan’ and ‘Fragrant Angel’, seem to pop into heightened reality at night. Angel’s trumpets (Datura inoxia), white salvia (Salvia coccinea ‘Snow Nymph’) and Shasta daisies all show up like little walkway lights.

Even the gray plants, like gray santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) or curlicue wormwood (Artemisia versicolor ‘Seafoam’), awaken at night, as does dusty miller (Senecio cineraria) and curry plant (Helichrysum italicum). Plants with fuzzy, gray leaves like my favorite, silver sage (Salvia argentea), seem more alive under the moon. All of the clary sages look fanciful at night, as well. Don’t despair if you can’t locate or grow this variety, as even silver-leaf creeping thyme and dwarf ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Dwarf Garters’) glow subtly at night.

Any plant with “silver” in its name, like silver southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum ‘Silver’), is a good choice. Vines, such as moonflower (Ipomoea alba), add additional charm. Moonflower’s 6-inch-diameter blossoms are open only at night when they release a rich fragrance and attract fascinating large moths. The flowers themselves, on a moonlit evening, are so deliciously bright they appear to be lit from inside.

Other plants to add for moonlight viewing and fragrance include white spider flower (Cleome hassleriana ‘Helen Campbell’), white peonies, white roses and night phlox (Zaluzianskya capensis), also called “midnight candy” (which is a clue to its charming appeal). Any of the evening primroses (Oenothera spp.), including our Missouri native, O. macrocarpa, send forth their fragrance in the evening.

Planting a Moonlight Garden

There are special considerations to making a moonlight garden. First, you need full sun for most plants, and giving them full sun generally equals full moonlight. You don’t want big shadows cast by neighboring plants to block out the moonlight, so choose accordingly. I like to bunch the brighter whites together rather than scatter them about. The duller whites and yellows can be clustered, as well. With the plants grouped this way, the white and yellow flowers will come into their own at night. 

Contributing Editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm, Long Creek Herbs, in the Ozark Mountains. 

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