When planning a garden, don’t neglect the things you can do to make it a twilight delight.
By Lia Leendertz
After dark, your garden could be a magical place. It could be a secret hideaway, a place to relax on your own with your senses fully attuned as you smell the sultry fragrances of night-blooming flowers and listen to the scuttling of nocturnal creatures and the trickle of water.
Or you might prefer it as a venue for throwing memorable candlelit parties warmed by wafts of gentle breezes, with the only decoration needed being the pale blooms of borders filled with plants chosen for their ability to glow in low light.
Or maybe you’d like your garden to be a softly lit outdoor dining room.
My own garden in the evening is a place of refuge. Throughout the day, it is filled with activity and brightly colored plastic children’s toys. It rings to the sound of laughter and tears and demands for drinks and snacks. But as dusk falls and children are ushered into baths and pajamas, it becomes quiet, calm—mine.
My after-dark garden is where I get to stretch my wings and be myself, so I want it to be exciting and welcoming when I am free to spend some time in it. That’s my reason for wanting to make my garden as special as possible in the twilight hours, but there are many others. Lots of people don’t even see their gardens in the daytime. If you work 9 to 5 away from home, the twilight hours may be the only time you have to spend in your garden.
However you spend your evening time in the garden, whether it’s gardening, kicking back, with friends or entirely alone, it can make you feel that you are grabbing the moment, experiencing something special, and really living life. No matter how chilly or windblown you get, you feel slightly more alive at the end of an evening out of doors, so it really pays to make your garden into a place where you want to be when darkness falls.
A Step at a Time
The first step is to look at the plants and hard landscaping features that are already in your garden and think about what you want to keep and what you really can’t live with. It is always simpler to work around existing features. The next step is to measure out the available space and make a scale plan of your garden on paper. Include all the features you intend to keep, and note whether the garden is north-facing, west-facing and so forth, as this will affect your plant choices.
Now you’re ready to put any new hard landscaping in place—paths, patios, pergolas and arbors. There are many night-scented climbing plants to choose from, so try to include as many structures for them to clamber over as you possibly can.
Finally comes the new planting. As a quick rule of thumb, put any structural planting in first—hedges, topiary, trees and shrubs—and fill in with other, more ephemeral plants. Structural planting is really an autumn and winter job, as these plants need masses of soil preparation to get their roots into the soil during cool and wet times of the year. More ephemeral planting can be done at other times of the year, but you will find yourself doing a huge amount of watering if you plant at the height of summer, so try to avoid this.
Before you put in a single plant, think about how you are going to use your garden and how much time you have to garden. Is yours a front garden or a back garden? Is it going to be a family garden or a party garden? Is it going to be a calm, relaxing, solitary space?
If it’s a family garden, you might want to include a lawn, a sandbox or other play equipment. If it’s a party garden, you’ll need a decent-sized deck or patio. If you’re more of a gourmand, then it might make sense to invest in a good, solid table and chairs, and to make your table setting the focus of the garden. If it’s a quiet-time garden, think about comfortable seating and large screening plants to make you feel tucked away and private.
Another consideration is whether you want to spend lots of time tending plants or whether a low-maintenance garden, filled with shrubs and other plants that require little care once established, would suit you and your lifestyle better.
Once you’ve answered all these questions, here are things to consider to make a garden come alive at twilight.
All the finest moonlit gardens are filled with white, silver and palest yellow plants. Silver-leafed plants are effective reflectors of low light, and paler versions of blues and purples also tend to leap out of the dark. But consider how much you use the garden during the day. Lots of white can be overpowering on a bright sunny day.
If you need your garden to work well in the daytime, too, mix white among other colors or concentrate on white-flowered climbers used at the back of borders containing other colors.
Bear in mind that white shows up best against a dark background. That can often best be provided by foliage, so mix plenty of foliage plants in with your whites and consider backing your evening borders with a dense, deep-green hedge like yew or box or privet. Mix purples, blues and pinks (like liatris, echinacea and small globe thistle) with paler colors, grasses and seed heads to catch the dusk light.
So many of the plants that look good at night also have delicious nighttime fragrances. The fragrance of evening primrose, lily, honeysuckle and many other plants moves up a gear as evening falls. Some plants, like night-scented stock (Matthiola bicornis), only emit their scent at night.
Surround your evening seating area with pots of scented plants so you are guaranteed a big hit of fragrance. Lilies and dianthus grow well in containers, but don’t forget to put some fragrant plants, like climbing roses and honeysuckle, in the farther reaches of the garden. Fragrant lavender and shrub roses work well as borders along pathways.
Night gardens should be about mystery and intrigue, and having too much in the way of electric lighting makes all intrigue go out the window. Flameless candles, storm lamps, votives, solar-powered lights, lanterns and ropes of tea lights wrapped around pergolas, bannisters or railings all create a beautifully soothing effect. Electric lighting is best used to create effects, like accenting a particular shrub, or a feature like a large urn in a border, or a textured wall or other surface.
A small fountain trickling away in the darkness creates a wonderful atmosphere, and subtly masks noises coming from outside the garden. Another feature to consider is a “moon-gazing pond.” Create one by placing a basin with a dark interior somewhere in a fairly open spot so the pool will reflect the moon and stars unimpeded. You’ll need to change the water frequently, so it doesn’t stagnate.
Your garden will be a more interesting place if you encourage wildlife to visit it. Good nectar sources for moths are nicotiana, evening primrose, honeysuckle and sweet rocket. Planting native wildflowers and simple, cottage-style perennials, as opposed to highly bred bedding plants, does a better job of attracting insects that bats can feed on at night. And a water source, like a birdbath, is attractive to all types of wildlife.
As mentioned, a trickling water feature is a wonderful addition to any garden. But if you want something less expensive and easier to set up, hang wind chimes. Plants can join in, too. Nandina domestica is commonly known as “heavenly bamboo,” despite not actually being a bamboo at all. Its leaves make a particularly papery, rustling sound.
An open, airy garden can be a lovely thing, but it doesn’t make for the ideal night garden. If you want to make the most of night-scented plants, you have to close off the outside world and create a still pool of air where the fragrances will be trapped and linger and mingle for as long as possible. A sense of enclosure also helps you to feel safe and hidden away after dark. Tall, dense hedges and taller trees should be your first line of defense. They will also filter much of the wind that attempts to blow away your nighttime fragrances.
Dramatic silhouette plants also have their place in the nighttime garden. Position a few spiky, craggy plants on your garden’s boundaries and enjoy the impressive shapes they make against the failing light of the evening sky.
Lia Leendertz is a gardening columnist for The Guardian and a regular contributor to The Garden magazine, published by the Royal Horticultural Society. This article is excerpted and adapted from her book, The Twilight Garden (Ball Publishing/Independent Publishers Group).