Gardens are a peaceful haven after a long day, a place to recharge batteries. But most of us leave home in early morning, return at night exhausted, and don't venture outside until after the dinner dishes are done. By then, the garden's colors are fast disappearing with the waning light. So much for restorative beauty -- unless you have a moonlight garden.
A moonlight garden, filled with white-blooming, silver-foliaged, night-blooming, and night-fragrant plants, is at its magical best at twilight and beyond.
Created most famously in the early 20th century by garden writer and poet Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst in Sussex, England, the white night garden answered a personal yearning.
"She wrote in the evening and at night in a little tower room in the middle of the garden and she wanted something beautiful to look at while she worked," explains Maureen Gilmer, author of 15 garden books, including Rooted in the Spirit (Roman and Littlefield, 1997, $22.95).
A moonlight garden is also a fabulous place to entertain. Twenty years ago, horticulturist and garden designer Helmut Jaehnigen created his first all-white garden at the behest of a Washington, D.C., hostess who entertained only in the evening.
"It was her vision," says Jaehnigen. "I just did it. But it looked magnificent. Once I saw how it looked, I suggested it to others."
One of the key elements in a moonlight garden are white-flowered plants.
"You want things that flower pure white, like large-headed white iris," says landscape architect Fran Huber, president of the Staten Island Botanical Garden and designer of its original moonlight garden. "When the moonlight hits them, they shimmer."
Many annuals and perennials have white-blooming varieties that are perfect for a moonlight garden. White garden phlox (P. paniculata 'David'), hollyhock (Alcea), delphinium, Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), lily, white clematis (larger-bloomed C. 'Henryi' or C. terniflora whose myriad white blooms perfume the end of summer) 'Iceberg' roses, white yarrow (Achillea ptarmica 'Angel's Breath'), Snowdrop windflower (Anemone sylvestris), white bellflower (Campanula), and that seeming oxymoron, white 'pinks' (Dianthus 'Aqua') are only a few of the available choices.
But in addition to the white flowers that could be used in any monochrome garden, a moonlight garden should also contain some plants that bloom and / or release their pollinator-drawing fragrance only at night.
"In night gardens, there are a host of plants that are pollinated by moths and bats that have to attract by color and / or by scent," says Gilmer.
Statuesque white flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) only perfumes the air from dusk to dawn, while the saucer-sized white crepe de Chine blooms of moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba) only begin to swirl open at twilight, drawing fabulous hummingbird moths.
And yucca, whose spears are spangled with luminescent bells, almost comes alive after dark. "While they face downward during the day and are visited by bees," Gilmer says, "at dusk they turn upward to receive the beautiful Tegeticula yuccasella moth that pollinates the plant. There's a whole separate ecosystem connected to night-bloomers."
But in addition to white bloom and night fragrance, moonlight gardens also rely on foliage for effect.
"Silvery foliage like Artemisia and poppies gives you an extra glint in the evening," Huber notes.
Helichrysum, Caryopteris, Russian sage (Perovskia), culinary sage (Salvia argentea), silver-leafed thyme (Thymus vulgaris 'Silver Posie') and a range of ornamental grasses including white-plumed pampas grass (Cortaderia 'Sunningdale Silver') and variegated sedge (Carex variegata) and feather reed grass (Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster') can all add sparkle to the moonlight garden.
White-blooming shrubs and trees can make wonderful bones for year-round moonlight gardens, giving them shape and beauty even on moonlit winter nights. Magnolias, white wisteria, dogwood (Cornus florida), white summersweet (Clethra 'Sixteen Candles') oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia 'Alicia'), Stewartia and fragrant Franklinia can all serve.
Planning for moonlight
While you can create a white garden in your borders, it's helpful to frame a moonlight garden with a partition of some kind. The framing can be shrubbery -- white-bloomed and silver-leafed or evergreen -- a wall or two, or even the side of a building.
"Our garden is encased in a formal trellis," says Huber. "The trellis itself is a pale silvery sage green and at the top are hand-turned gilded finials that add extra lightness."
Huber also suggests adding objects -- gazing balls, glittering mosaics, or a mirror -- that reflect and shine, though the moon alone adds ethereal light.
Huber suggests locating the garden away from ambient light, and Jaehnigen says subtle artificial lighting can supplement a crescent, skinny or dark moon.
"It works well if you have a few lights up in the prominent trees," he says.
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