Moonlight Garden

While many lucky gardeners have ample time to enjoy their gardens during daylight hours, there are others who on most days get home from work just as twilight is coming on. The weekends are often filled with catching up on garden maintenance, with little time to simply sit back and savor the fruits of their labors. And then there are those who love nothing more than to host outdoor evening soirees.

Either way, consider creating a garden that’s just as fascinating at night as it is from dawn to dusk. This can be a separate area devoted specifically to an evening garden, or simply the inclusion of evening elements in your existing landscape. Pick an open location that is washed by moonlight when the moon is out, and avoid areas with deep shadows from big trees or structures like the house or garage.

Then comes plant selection. You’ll notice that as the sun disappears over the horizon, a garden vibrant with rich colors like red and purple during the day can become a muddy mix of grays. To transform the garden into its evening look, choose light-colored flowers in white, yellow, pink, and lavender, which seem to glow by the light of the moon, and silvery, gray, and variegated foliage.

A short list of flower options includes Cleome ‘Helen Campbell’, Cosmos ‘Sonata White’, ‘Snowdrift’ and ‘French Vanilla’ marigolds, dianthus, astilbe, Zinnia ‘Profusion White’, daisies, ‘Casablanca’ lily, petunias, impatiens, alyssum, phlox, peonies, foxgloves, light-blue asters, iris, dahlias, gladiolas, clematis, and bellflower. There are even nocturnal daylilies. A few shrubs with light-colored flowers are lilacs, viburnums, mock orange, spirea, deutzia, abelia, hydrangeas, roses, and althea.

Some plants have light-colored flowers or release their fragrances after dark specifically to attract night-active pollinators like moths or bats. A few examples are flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata and N. sylvestris), angel’s trumpet, yucca, evening-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala), night jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), four-o’clocks, and night phlox (Zaluzianskya capensis). And a night garden is not complete without moonflower, whose big flower buds snap open as evening comes on, releasing a delicious lemony fragrance into the night air to draw large sphinx months from blocks away.

For silvery and variegated foliage, try artemisia, lamb’s ears, Cuban oregano (Plectranthus), Santolina, dusty miller, Russian sage, yarrow, hostas, and thyme. Even bright green or yellow leaves will show up in the dark, like sweet potato vine ‘Margarita’ and coleus ‘Fishnet Stockings’ or ‘Life Lime’.

Plants are only part of the picture. You can also highlight the landscape at night using light-colored hardscaping elements like paving, fencing, arbors, benches, and garden ornaments such as a white obelisk. Reflective surfaces like glass objects, mirrored tiles, or water in a birdbath can catch and amplify ambient light and make the space really sparkle. And for those times when the moon is on the wane, add outdoor lighting to fill in. But avoid really bright lights (no floodlights – that will kill the magic) in favor of soft lighting such as tiny white Christmas lights or candles and luminaries.

To give the garden balance during both night and day, integrate the moonlight elements carefully. Use a variety of colors rather than just white and spread them throughout the space (in other words, don’t put all the pink flowers in one spot). And be careful when putting different white flowers near each other. As anyone who’s been shopping for white paint knows, white isn’t just white. A really white flower planted too close to a sort-of-white flower can make the latter look dingy.

Just as when designing any garden, for the moonlit landscape include different flower shapes and sizes, foliage textures, and plant heights. Keep in mind focal points and repetition. And don’t overdo the addition of ornaments, which can make the space seem cluttered. Even a small-space garden can display just enough nighttime elements to make it worthy of an evening gathering to revel in the light of the silvery moon.

©2023 W.Atlee Burpee & Co