Moonlight gardens: Make your outdoor space a nighttime getaway

Melissa Erickson More Content Now

If you like to make the most of the moonlight, why not create a garden that is even more delightful when the sun goes down?

To extend the usefulness of an outdoor space and make your garden an evening retreat, experts from around the country offered some easy-to-follow tips.

“Adding features out in the gardens for an evening experience makes sense for many reasons,” said Mark Dwyer, horticultural director at Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville, Wisconsin.

“With work obligations, busy schedules and myriad other daily tasks, some people can only enjoy the gardens at dusk or in the evening based on their schedule. ... An evening garden can extend the window of enjoyment out in that space and offer a contemplative, relaxing and perhaps even romantic experience.”

While some may consider a garden in the evening “enchanting” or “romantic,” Jan Johnsen, designer with Johnsen Landscapes and Pools in Greenwich, Connecticut, said, “I think of an evening garden as being serene. It is a little more quiet and peaceful at this time of day, and we are ready to relax.”

Plants that glow

While a moonlight garden can include a number of creative features, it always includes plantings.

“With white plantings, moonlight gardens absolutely glow. The white jumps out at you. While other colors fade away or disappear, white practically screams,” said Kirk R. Brown, executive committee member for the Garden Writers Association as well as a character actor who portrays John Bartram, an early American horticulturist.

Brown’s favorite moonlight plant is a climbing hydrangea that now winds its way up about 40 feet to the top of his chimney with gorgeous white blooms in early summer that fade but still stand out as summer comes to a close.

In her new book, “Heaven is a Garden,” Johnsen details some of the best flowers for night gardens: Montauk daisy (Chrysanthemum nipponicum), variegated red-twig Dogwood, white lantana, white Angelonia, white begonias, and variegated green and white hostas such as White Christmas.

Other plants to consider are Moonvine or Devils Trumpet (Datura), which bloom at night and are pollinated by moths — always a conversation starter, said Brienne Gluvna Arthur, propagator and grower at Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“We have also incorporated large white glass flowers (my husband repurposes bowls from TJ Maxx) that reflect the moonlight and draw your eye. Plants with light colored foliage, like blueberries, are also good as they are brighter in the darkness,” she said.

In addition to plantings with white blooms and/or silver foliage, “adding scent in the evening garden is also a must,” Dwyer said.

”There are a wide range of fragrant plants (trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals) that have fragrant blooms the become evening more pronounced in the evening. Many of these sweet fragrances are intended to attract evening pollinators like moths but gardeners will enjoy the scents as well. Some fragrant annuals (moonflower, night phlox, sweet four o’clocks) only bloom at night and are delightful when placed near your evening sitting area,” he said.

Light and heat

Because safety is a necessary feature — you don’t want garden guests tripping over a step or walking into something, lighting is a necessity. Most people opt for LED lights.

“They last longer, are available in different colors. Using different layouts and designs and operating on switches, timers and dimmers, lighting creates distinct and dramatic effects,” said Nick Williams, owner and designer of Nick Williams Designs, Woodland Hills, California.

The options are incredibly diverse: tiny strings of LED lights, solar-powered globes, thousands of LEDs lasers in the trees, uplighting LED candles, downlighting chandeliers, spires, lanterns and glass-blown bulbs in frosted white, amber hues or other colors all cast soft light or a pop of color on a garden space.

If you’re looking to draw in friends and neighbors (and keep away bugs), turn up the heat.

“My go-to nighttime interest feature is always a fire pit,” said Gluvna Arthur. “This simple and useable feature draws people in, particularly at night. It also lends itself for having permanent furniture placed that can be accented with pillows, flower arrangements and potted plants that change seasonally.

“Everyone has a romantic/nostalgic notion of a fire in the fall, roasting marshmallows, telling stories. It is an easy feature to include in a garden, with a lot of different styles from hardscape to moveable bins,” she said.

Water features like ponds, waterfalls, small creeks and fountains provide soothing sound and are a welcome addition to an evening garden.