Do you know how to make your garden light up at night? The answer (and this is not a trick question!) is to create a moonlight garden.
But what is a moonlight garden, and what type of plants shine at night?
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"Moonlight gardening relates to plants that show off their textures, colors and sometimes their silhouettes from dusk into the moonlight hours," said Irene Barber, who coordinates the Adult Horticulture Education Program for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine.
Flowers in a moonlight garden can also be open during the day, she notes. It's a common myth that flowers that bloom at night never bloom in the day.
Another myth is that the flowers in a moonlight garden are only white. "The colors that show off well at night are the cool colors," Barber said. "In addition to white, those include light blues, lavenders, chartreuse and even buttery yellow."
Cool colors are often seen best at dusk and at night because in the soft evening light and under the light of the moon, they don't have to compete with flowers of warm colors. Vibrant tropical colors such as reds, purples, pinks, oranges, and bright yellows stand out so strongly in the brilliant light of the summer sun that they overpower cooler colors, and we can actually overlook cool colors during the day, Barber said.
Choosing the plants
Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum pictum) come to life in the evening, making them a good choice for your moonlight garden. (Photo: Ryan Somma/flickr)
Moonlight gardens begin at dusk because that’s the time of day when the texture and form of foliage with white and silver tones will contrast with and show up well against companion plants, Barber said. Dusk is also when these types of plants begin casting subtle shadows that add interest to the garden, Barber said. Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' is example of a plant that does that, she said. To highlight its broad heart-shaped leaves with their white and silver patterns, she suggested planting it with Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost,' a spreading and mounding plant with lacy white flowers, or any of the toad lilies, which have an added attraction of being fragrant in the evening.
Other plants with variegated foliage that Barber said would start to shine beginning at dusk include Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum pictum – 'Ghost' has the most amount of white on its foliage), variegated Jacob's ladder, deadnettle (Lamium maculatum), grasses and sedges such as Carex 'silver' and Carex morrowii 'Ice Dance,' variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum variegata) and ground covers such as Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls' and Stachys byzantinia 'Silver Carpet.'
As the moon rises and dusk fades into night, the larger and more prominent plants in the garden begin putting on a show. Lobelia siphilitica, the blue form of lobelia, is one of those plants. In late summer, it produces an upright three-foot stem encircled with light blue flowers with a white throat that twinkle in the moonlight because of both their color and texture, Barber said. The hard-to-find alba, or white, form of Lobelia siphilitica also works well in a moonlight garden
Planning the garden
When people think about plants for a moonlight garden, they should think more than just the low-growing foliage plants and flowers, Barber emphasized. They should also think about adding trees with white or light-colored bark. River birch (Betula nigra) is an example of a tree with light bark that would show up well at night. Its exfoliating bark would add an extra element of interest.
If you want to add moonlight interest to your garden, don't attempt to establish one part of the garden as the "moonlit" section. That doesn't work because the groups of plants that are ideal for moonlight gardens have different daylight requirements, such as shade, part shade and full sun.
Instead, spread your "moonlight" plants throughout the planted area, advised Barber. This is not only necessary because plants for moonlight gardens have widely differing daytime light requirements, but this planting method increases the effectiveness of your nighttime display by spreading moonlight interest throughout the garden.
Besides the aesthetic interest, there's also a functional reason to create a moonlight garden. Some of these flowers — such as those of Campions, flowers in the Datura genus, four o'clocks and morning glories — attract night pollinators.
And, if you're lucky enough to have a pond, you can even add water lilies to the nighttime display, said Amanda Bennett, manager of Display Gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. 'Red Flare' and 'Charles Tricker' are two examples of excellent night-blooming water lilies, especially for people who work during the day and would miss seeing their day-blooming water lilies.
The flowers on 'Red Flare' begin opening in the early evening and remain open until as late as 11 a.m. the next day. The plants are extremely prolific and can produce up to seven blooms at a time. The lily pads are large, so you will need a medium or large pond to accommodate the plants.
'Charles Tricker' is an old-time favorite among water lily enthusiasts. Developed in 1893, it also produces large magenta red flowers in great profusion. The red pads also help to add beauty to this lily.
5 annuals for a moonlight garden anywhere
The moonflower grows as a vine with an eye-catching white blossom. (Photo: Jebulon/Wikimedia Commons)
1. Moonflower (Ipomoea alba) – Moon flower is of tropical original and in most places is grown as an annual vine (note that it is listed as a perennial in the Southwestern United States).
2. White summer snapdragons such as Angelonia 'Serena White' – This variety of Angelonia forms a mounding plant that grows to about a foot tall, is covered in white flowers and stays in bloom all summer.
White New Guinea impatiens will produce large switches of white flowers during the summer. (Photo: Zed66/flickr)
3. New Guinea impatiens such as Infinity White – This variety of impatiens can be easily grown in garden beds or containers and produces large, brilliant white flowers throughout the summer.
Dichondra argentea, or Silver falls, offer a potted but flowing opportunity for your moonlight garden. (Photo: Derek Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons)
4. Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls' – As its name implies, has silver foliage and can be grown as a ground cover or in a pot or hanging baskets from which its quarter-inch silver leaves will spill over the sides.
The lacy look of the Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' will add an elegant touch to your garden. (Photo: Serres Fortier/flickr)
5. Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' – This spreading and mounding plant has lace-like white flowers and blooms continuously all summer.
And if you need more ideas, check out 28 native plants to consider for your moonlight garden.