Gardening by Moonlight!
Written for the Davis Enterprise, August 22, 2002
The Garden in Moonlight....
Perhaps it's a hot summer evening that brings us outside.
As we sit in the dark our eyes adjust, and we notice
certain plants stand out. Grey foliage, white flowers, or the shiny foliage of a tropical plant reflected in the
moonlight or our garden lighting. We notice certain fragrances, and the rustling in the bushes piques our
interest. A huge sphinx moth hovers at a nearby blossom. Maybe you've taken a flashlight to try to find out
what's causing the holes in leaves and petals that you see during the day. Or maybe you're just a teenager and
you don't know yet that you're supposed to be in bed. ("What are you doing out there at this hour?!" "Um,
checking the snail damage?"--try it kids, it worked for me!).
Your garden is a whole different world at night.
Snails and slugs are feeding, darkling beetles are foraging.
Leatherwing beetles are feasting on aphids, and lacewings are fluttering about--both can be found clustered
around porch lights in the evening. Nighttime birds and animals are active. In my first garden in coastal San
Diego I used to recline late in the evening, listening to the muffled sound of the distant waves. Once I sat up,
and then froze, to watch a large skunk just a few feet away walk nonchalantly by, attracted to the escargot on
nearby lilies. Another time my heart jumped to my throat as a Shriek owl let out its characteristic bloodcurdling
cry as it passed just over me. The garden at night is full of unexpected things.
Moon gardens were popular in the Victorian era,
and white gardens have enjoyed resurgent interest in recent
years. The Carolee Shields garden at the west end of the UC Davis Arboretum is a great example, and it is
always open for nighttime viewing.
While a garden composed entirely of white flowers can seem dull, repeating
white in your garden can provide order to your design and the white flowers stand out at night.'Sister Agnes'
oleander, the white version of our common freeway shrub, can be a dramatic focal point at night. On a summer
evening a bed of white Petunias, annual Vinca, or Impatiens will be especially vivid.
A few simple elements will make your garden more night-friendly.
A clear path or level lawn is important to
prevent stumbling. Mirrored or translucent gazing globes can provide a point of interest. The sound of moving
water enhances the experience, and the surface reflects light. A small, subtle (please!) wind chime can strike
just the right note (pun intended).
A still night with a full moon provides the best nighttime garden experience,
but with landscape lighting you
can illuminate and enhance featured parts of the garden. A gradual transition from bright indoor lighting
through softer outdoor lighting makes the night garden more inviting (in other words, flood lights have their
place for security, but night lighting should be more subtle!). Both of our local hardware stores sell appropriate
outdoor lighting suitable for installation by homeowners--i.e., low-voltage--, and can provide expert assistance.
Firelight is especially effective, whether from an outdoor fireplace, tiki lamps, or luminarias (outdoor
candles)--all properly monitored, of course.
A chair or swing is important so you can sit still
and pick out the
different night sounds (allowing a little rust on the swing can provide a more gothic atmosphere if that is your
Plants selected for luminous colors, night fragrance, and light-colored foliage are the backbone
of a night or
moonlight garden. Some of these are common landscape plants, such as the oleander mentioned above.
Lavenders are classics for the fragrance and the gray foliage. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) has
flowers which are both fragrant and white. Snow-in-summer (Cerastium) and Lamb's ears (Stachys) have fuzzy
gray leaves, and both will spread freely. Old-fashioned Nicotiana (not the modern hybrids) has a sweet,
haunting fragrance at night. Hybrid musk roses seem to volatilize their scent in the evening, as does
Some plants are selected especially for their nighttime bloom.
Evening primrose and Four o'clock are examples
of flowers that open in the late afternoon and bloom in the evening, as they are pollinated by moths (the latter
flowers look especially interesting under a black light--try that too, kids!). Night-blooming jessamine
(Cestrum) is tender here but will usually recover from winter damage. It has a powerful scent at night--with no
fragrance at all during the daytime! The white, yellow, or pink flowers of Brugmansia (formerly Datura),
another subtropical, are especially fragrant at night.
Many desert flowers have adapted to the cool of the evening,
attracting pollinators that wouldn't venture out
during the midday heat. My grandfather dragged us out of bed to admire his two-story Night-blooming Cereus
cactus, the glorious, fragrant blossoms of which fade shortly after dawn--and the memory is vivid 40 years
later. Other cactus species bloom at night as well.
Some plants provide unusual features at night.
Crape myrtle, Arbutus species, and certain Eucalyptus species
such as E. nicholii have attractive light-colored bark that stands out, especially if illuminated with a spotlight.
A. unedo and 'Marina' are the most readily available forms of Arbutus that grow well here. Many forms of
bamboo will rustle in the slightest breeze, muting other sounds.
The night garden in winter can be quite beautiful.
Frost will provide light and sparkle. You're less likely to sit,
so a comfortable path is more important. Deciduous plants with interesting branching patterns provide
silhouettes: Corokia cotoneaster; Morus alba 'Chaparral', and Corylus avellana 'Contorta' are plants with
unusual branch structure. A wall or fence painted gray or white will make a great backdrop for these plants.
Conifers with silver foliage can be especially effective.
Although we have fewer choices in this category than in
climates with less summer heat, some Junipers ('Grey Gleam','Wichita Blue') and Blue spruce (Picea pungens
'Glauca') have glaucous (a word that means "covered with powdery gray stuff") foliage that reflects light at
night. The weeping form of the Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca') is very dramatic in the winter. Large
conifers such as Deodar cedar and Coast redwood can make a dark, imposing background presence in the night
garden in any season.
Planning to enjoy the night garden can be as simple as adding outdoor lighting or planting a bed of white
flowers--or just remembering to take a walk and sit for a few minutes in a part of the world we normally close
off after dark. Plus, it's a good way to keep an eye on the teens--or share an unusual interest.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
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