Nature’s notebook

Designing your garden for moonshine

The moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba) unfurls its blossoms at dusk, making it a good choice for a moon garden. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

Ever notice how the full moon always rises at sunset and sets at sunrise? This wondrous byproduct of planetary alignment gives us long nights of landscapes silvered by the sun’s reflected light. Even in my urban neighborhood, the moonshine casts strong shadows. In the evenings surrounding the Harvest Moon in September, my garden seemed especially bright. The light wasn’t diffused by a scrim of humidity, and my moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba) was near its peak.

In April, I had planted a handful of seeds at the base of an unsightly guide wire that encroaches into my backyard.  By mid-September, the vine had zoomed upwards of 15 feet. At dusk, dozens of blooms would begin to unfurl, swelling and bursting open within minutes as if they were subjected to time-lapse photography. The stunning white blooms – nearly the size of my outstretched hand – are punctuated with a faint green five-point star radiating from the center. Their fragrance is delicate but intoxicating, with high floral notes and a hint of musk. 

LEARN MORE

About moon gardens:

  • The Moonlit Garden by Scott Ogden
  • The Evening Garden: Flowers and Fragrance from Dusk till Dawn by Peter Loewer.

About hummingbird moths: 

On several evenings, they attracted a large hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), a spectacular moth with a furry tan and maroon body and mostly transparent wings.  It zipped from bloom to bloom, uncurling its long proboscis to drink from the deepest reaches of the flower.  The promise of its visits drew me into the garden each evening, a glass of my own sweet nectar in hand.

As I waited for its arrival, I fantasized about designing a moon garden for this portion of the backyard.  While this concept is open to a wide range of interpretations based on space and location, the guiding principle is to use flowers, foliage and accessories that reflect moonlight. Think shiny, silvery and white. Since sight is limited, fragrance is also desirable. 

In winter, this might mean nothing more than a pea gravel path, a gazing ball, a pool of rippling water and a patch of lavender, lamb’s ear or sage.  Spring is showy with dogwoods, azaleas, pansies and bulbs.  Summer’s abundance includes hydrangeas and roses, coneflowers and phlox, cleome and flowering tobacco.  Even shady areas can shine if impatiens and begonias are interspersed with variegated foliage plants like hostas, heucheras and caladiums. In autumn, there’s a heady mix of fragrant flowers such as tuberose, ginger lily, angel’s trumpet, tea olive and some gardenia species, as well as Japanese anemone and chrysanthemum. 

A moon garden can be enchanting any time of year, but here in the Piedmont they seem especially suited for transitional time when summer gives way to fall. The weather shifts, and nights become longer than days.  Our senses are heightened. The evening air is suddenly fresh and soft against our skin.  Some of our most exotic and fragrant flowers come into bloom. The garden is a romantic jumble of melancholy and promise. 

As the Hunter’s Moon of October approached, the leaves of my moonflower vine were tattered hearts.  Only a handful of blooms opened each night, and they had shrunk to the size of my palm. The vine was heavy with seed pods, clusters of shiny purple orbs. The hummingbird moth didn’t visit anymore.  I hope its progeny are wrapped in loose cocoons and nestled in my abundant supply of leaf litter for the winter.  As the first frost looms, our gardens become a poignant reminder that life is fleeting. What better reason could there possibly be for creating a garden to enjoy not just during the daylight hours, but also at night?

Seed pods of the moonflower vine. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom