Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
The idea behind this garden is to grow plants that can be experienced at night both through sight and smell. A moonlight or night garden contains primarily white or silver plants, as these colors reflect the most light and will glow in the light of the moon. Fragrant plants add to the allure, mystery, and enjoyment of these romantic gardens. Moonlight gardens are excellent ideas if you entertain in evenings, if you work by day so have little time then in the garden, or just want a space for meditation or relaxation.
Although this may be a recent trend, the concept is not. Centuries ago, white sand and pond moonlight meditation gardens were common in China. In 1639 the “Mahtab Bagh” (which means moonlight garden) was created for Shah Jahan in India. Moonlight or moon gardens became popular in America in nineteenth century New England.
When designing a moonlight garden, one of the first and perhaps most important considerations is location. Your garden needs to be placed where the moonlight will strike it. Walk around on a moonlit night to scout out possible sites. You need to avoid places where the trees will cast moon shadows. Think about where you plan to sit to enjoy your garden, whether it’s outdoors on the patio, or from your favorite armchair indoors, and choose a location where you can view it comfortably.
Something else to consider is indirect lighting for the nights when there is no moon. You might want to pick a spot where light from a house window or porch light will shine. Also you can install night lighting to illuminate your yard on cloudy nights. Inexpensive kits are readily available in many home and hardware stores, or you can find decorative ones in lighting stores.
Your garden spot also must get adequate sun, as most flowering plants require at least six hours of direct sunlight. For beds that will get less than five hours of sun, select shade-loving plants such as white impatiens, variegated hostas, white bleeding heart, and lungwort.
Many gardeners like to design their beds in the shape of a full moon or crescent–even a star–though any shape that is pleasing to you is fine. As an all-white garden can be overwhelming, however, keep your moon garden small. Another means to give your moonlight garden some variety is to include light yellow, cream, pale lavender, light pink, or other soft colors. These enhance the garden’s appeal in the daylight hours too. Avoid strong colors like orange and red, as they will dominate the garden.
As a rule, only plants in the same shade of white should be combined. An off-white flower next to a bright-white flower will look dingy. You can get around this by separating the whites with another color like green. The whites will appear to be the same, even if they are different shades.
Avoid putting all the scented plants in one location. Keep in mind, too, that not all scents blend well, or you may not like certain scents, so you may need to remove or move some scented plants. Many scents are faint, so place these plants near patios, walks, and windows.
The choices of plants with white or silver blooms and foliage are plentiful. Since many plants you’ll find listed come in colors other than white, check the description in catalogs, books, or with the experts at your local garden center to make sure you are buying the right variety. Look for selections that are “self-cleaning”, their flowers falling off on their own. Otherwise you’ll need to “deadhead”, removing spent blossoms to keep plants attractive and prolong bloom.
For annuals with white blooms consider pansies, violas, white ageratum, ‘Helen Campbell’ spider flower, cosmos, white marigolds, white impatiens, white begonias (both the latter are good for shade), Marguerite daisies, dianthus, and white zinnias. Try new, low varieties of zinnias like ‘Crystal Star’, ‘Profusion White’, and ‘Zahara Starlight Rose’. White-scented annuals include white alyssum, white-scented petunias, tall flowering tobacco, night phlox (Zaluzianskya), and stocks.
There are many white perennials to choose from. These include certain species and cultivars (cultivated varieties) of violets, bellflowers, candytuft (Iberis), creeping phlox, Shasta daisies, daylilies, irises, dahlias (these are tender and will need to be dug up for winter), garden phlox ‘David’, peonies, foamflower, gooseneck loosestrife (site carefully as this one spreads aggressively), bugbane (Actaea), soapwort, foxglove, mums (these are grown as annuals in cold regions), and fall asters. White-scented perennials include roses and sweet rocket (Hesperis).
Then there are vines such as selections of moonflowers, ‘Milkmaid’ nasturtium, clematis, climbing roses, morning glories, and climbing hydrangea. Hibiscus, lilacs, crabapples, and viburnums are some trees and shrubs that have white flowers, depending on selection. The Korean spice viburnum is very fragrant.
Don’t forget spring-flowering bulbs such as white selections of daffodils, tulips, crocus, and hyacinths. Snowdrops and summer snowflake (Leucojum) begin and end, respectively, the spring bulb season with their white flowers. Hyacinths and some daffodils are fragrant.
Several tender perennials or tropical plants you’ll find for summer garden use include the huge bell-shaped hanging flowers of the angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) or upright flowers of the thorn apple (Datura), calla lilies (also good in water gardens), tuberose (a tender summer-flowering bulb, quite fragrant), and the Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes).
For interest, add some plants with interesting silver or white foliage such as the annual dusty miller or ‘Longwood Silver’ mintleaf (Plectranthus). The annual licorice plants have small leaves, hugging the ground. Perennials for their foliage include lamb’s ear (Stachys), lungwort, variegated hostas (both the latter grow in shade), artemisia, and silver-leaved creeping thymes.
For a fully sensual experience, add a water feature with a gently quiet trickle (a loud fountain isn’t very relaxing). If you’re enjoying your moonlight garden outdoors, without the protection of a screened porch, mosquito repellent may be needed in many areas! Try and find a scentless one if you have some fragrant plants in your moonlight garden.