Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Night Gardening

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture

Those first few spring days in the garden are deceiving-- we happily work all day in the garden, grateful for the warmth of the sun after a long cold winter. Fast forward a few months, and the thought of working in the sun all day in August seems like cruel and unusual punishment.

That's where the idea of night, or moonlight gardening comes in. During the dog days of summer, many of us prefer to stay inside during the heat of the day, venturing outdoors only late in the day when the temperature finally begins to cool off a bit. Some of us spend our days working, and our only chance to really enjoy our gardens during the work week is in the evening.

A "night" or "moonlight" garden is filled with plants that don't bloom until late afternoon or early evening, and/or whose colors stand out in the twilight. A night garden may also include flowers whose scent isn't produced until the evening.

A very common recommendation for night gardening is to choose white or silver plants, which reflect the most light in low light situations. But before you choose plants for your night garden, take time to consider the location of your night garden.

Think very carefully about how you use your landscape as the sun sets and evening begins. Most of the time, as the sunlight fades, yard work ceases. That said, my husband and I have been known to work by flashlight when we just want to get "a little more" done. I'm sure the neighbors think we're nuts.

Where does your family sit and relax when the work day, whether in the yard or in the office, is done? For a lot of us this spot is on a patio or deck, but it may be by a water feature or other focal point in the landscape. Plan to place your night garden within easy view of where you like to relax in the evening.

Another point to consider is lighting. If you want a garden that glows in the moonlight, you must locate the garden in a space where moonlight will reach it. So this may limit your choices.

If you place your night garden in a location that requires you walk any distance across an unlit area, consider some sort of pathway lighting to safely guide you to your night garden. I can attest that even the most familiar area can be a hazard in the dark. I twisted my ankle last weekend in my own backyard in the dark. All it takes is one misstep.

Once you have settled on a location for your night garden, the fun of choosing plants begins. Plants with white or light-colored flowers and foliage are perfect for a night garden. But I think some of the more interesting plants are those which flower or produce scent only at night.

It may seem odd that there are flowers that only bloom and/or produce scent at night, but it all has to do with pollination. We commonly think of insects like bees and butterflies as pollinators, since we notice them flying around in the daylight. What most of us never think about is the pollinators that fly at night. Moths are very important pollinators that only work the night shift. As insects congregate in your night garden, bats will be drawn in to prey on the insects.

Now before you scrap the whole night garden idea because you don't want to attract bats to your yard, I urge you to consider the following: one insect eating bat can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour. I think my yard must have at least ten times that on any given summer night. As far as I'm concerned, all bats are welcome to dine in my yard.

Some examples of night blooming plants:

  • Moonflower (Ipomoea alba) relative of morning glory
  • Moonflower (Datura innoxia) all parts of this plant are toxic
  • Four O'Clock (Mirabilis jalapa) flowers open in late afternoon with jasmine-like scent
  • Night Blooming Cereus (Selenicerus sp.) Cactus known for large, fragrant, night blooming white flowers. Not hardy, so bring it inside each winter.
  • Nottingham Catchfly (Silene nutans) Produces hyacinth-like scent.

Some examples of night fragrant plants:

  • Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia sp.) Tubular flowers hang downward, produce scent in early evening. All parts of this plant are toxic (close relative of Datura)
  • Night Gladiolus (Gladiolus tristus) Yellow flowers with spicy night fragrance
  • Pinks (Dianthus plumarius) Clove-like scent
  • Fragrant Columbine (Aquilegia fragrans) Honeysuckle-like scent
  • Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala)Beautiful lacy flowers

Not every plant in a night garden needs to only bloom at night. Light or white flowers and foliage will work well in a night garden. Consider adding some splashes of at least a few pastel colors to your night garden, so that it is not a blinding patch of white during daylight hours. Also remember that white flowers usually turn brown as they age, so deadheading can be very important in the night garden.

Most of all, have fun designing your night garden. We hear a lot about planning gardens with four seasons of interest, but planning a garden to be enjoyed in particular hours of the day is fairly new but gaining in popularity. There are so many possibilities with night gardening. How you define it for your yard is up to you.

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