Under the Spell of the Moon Garden

Friday, October 1, 2010 - by Bonnie Baranowski, Crabtree Volunteer and Master Gardener

"Oh, the summer night,
Has a smile of light,
And she sits on a sapphire throne."
- Barry Cornwall

As summer slowly draws to a close and evening temperatures moderate, it’s a great time to survey your garden as it cools at dusk, and to listen to crickets and frogs sing after night falls. But what is there to enjoy in the garden once the sun goes down? Plenty, if you have a moon garden! A moon garden is planted specifically to be viewed in the low light of the evening, and also appeals to the senses of smell and touch.

Moon gardens date as far back as Medieval Japan, where pale rocks, sand, white chrysanthemums and pools of water were the main features. In 1639, Mogul Emperor Jahan of Red Fort, Delhi, India expanded the palette by using jasmine, narcissus, tuberoses and lilies for his garden. This type of garden reached the apex of its expression in the 19th century Massachusetts garden of Alice Morse Earle, which featured 700 feet of borders with white flowers and foliage, in addition to white livestock.

In the 21st century, there are a variety of reasons to plant a moon garden. If you are an outdoor lover or avid gardener, how can you say no to another reason to go outside? Having a garden to enjoy at night is a good way to become aware of the undiscovered world in our own backyards. For night owls and working professionals, evening may be the only time they have available to connect with nature. Advantages abound; as fans of moon gardens are fond of saying, weeds do not show at night!

Carefully choosing the location for your moon garden will enhance your enjoyment of its beauty. Since moon garden design relies on the play of moonlight on lighter-colored plants against dark backgrounds, it’s a good idea to seek out areas in your yard that are illuminated by the moon as you begin to design. A place that receives lots of sun is also exposed to the moonlight, and makes an excellent choice.

Shady sites can also work, but the contrast will be a bit lower because the moonlight will be partially obscured by trees or buildings. Including some kind of soft lighting can help to boost this contrast. Most solar lights are just bright enough to provide subtle illumination. Candles are a low-tech, if not romantic, alternative; in addition, their smoke can help repel mosquitoes.

Site your garden in a secluded nook or a cozy corner close to your home, away from the harsh glare of floodlights and streetlights. This should be a place where you can feel surrounded and enveloped as you enjoy the beauty of your garden. If it is available, use an existing fence or hedge as a simple and inexpensive backdrop to establish the garden’s structure. Remember to reserve space in your site for a seating area where you can relax and enjoy your creation!

Because a moon garden is intended to be enjoyed in low light, the main design elements include color contrast, fragrance, and sound. The background for the garden should combine evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs with dark leaves. Options like pieris, azalea, and rhododendron prefer shade. Lorapetalum, flowering dogwood, summersweet, hydrangea, gardenia, deutzia, and snowball viburnum will tolerate a mix of sun and shade; star magnolia, crabapple and white baptisia, prefer sunny areas.

The mainstay plants of any moon garden are the night-bloomers; these plants have evolved with this characteristic to avoid competing with those that bloom by day. The fragrant flowers of some night-bloomers attract pollinators like sphinx moths, and even bats. A word of caution, however: many night-bloomers are poisonous, and should not be planted in areas where young children play.

Moonflower vine, boasting white or blue flowers up to six inches in diameter, serves as a centerpiece for many moon gardens. Since it must be supported by a trellis and climb to bloom fully, this vine can provide one of the vertical elements of the garden’s structure. Other night-bloomers include evening primrose, night-scented stock, four o’clocks, night-blooming jasmine, night phlox, night-blooming cereus, and night-blooming water lilies.

Blooms tinged with white, silver, pale yellow provide a striking contrast to the dark background foliage, and reflect the moonlight. Cosmos, delphinium, perennial candytuft, petunias, daffodils, “Silver Queen” columbine, “Tennessee White” Dwarf crested iris form a spring tapestry. As summer arrives, look to phlox, nicotiana, baby’s breath, sweet alyssum, “Casa Blanca” datura, and “Snowball Hybrid” marigold to continue the show. Fall bloomers like anemones, mums, tuberoses, and asters round out the season.

Don’t forget to include foliage plants to expand your design palette: artemisia, dusty miller, lamb’s ear, snow-in-summer, variegated hosta and Japanese painted fern all fit the bill. Plants with chartreuse coloring such as coleus and sweet potato vine are also reported to glow by the light of the moon. For a truly unique twist, include edibles: white pumpkins (“Moonshine”, “Baby Boo”, or “Lumina” varieties), “Alba” white eggplant, cauliflower, “Delicata” winter squash, silver sage, silver thyme, woolly thyme, chamomile and dill. The herbs do triple duty, providing color, taste and fragrance.

While many of the night-blooming plants boast intoxicating fragrances, you can also turn to sweet pea, autumn clematis, scented geraniums, hyacinths and passionflower vine if you need more options.

Since most birds don’t sing at night, your garden may seem eerily quiet unless you take the element of sound into account in your design. Native or pampas grasses, bamboo (in containers, please!) and pines with longer needles rustle gently as they are caught by the evening breeze. The soft trickle of a water feature or the tinkling of wind chimes can also be a welcome addition.

These design ideas and principles can also be applied to screen porches, decks, and sunrooms for apartment and townhouse dwellers, or those who prefer to take in nature from a more enclosed vantage point. The design options for moon gardens are seemingly endless, and an enthusiastic community of moon gardeners exists in print and online. Check the upcoming plant sales in Chattanooga to stock up on your favorite moon garden plants!

Helpful Links: (Special thanks to Ann Brown for sharing resources)

A great list of books on moon gardens:

Garden Web’s moon garden forum:

Caring for moonflower vine:

Local Fall Plant Sales:
Chattanooga Area Food Bank: http://chattfoodbank.org/?page_id=295

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