Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Work All Day? Plant a Night Garden to Welcome You Home

By Ron Sullivan
Friday August 18, 2006

Being a night person gives you a different look at things. Strolling at night or commuting to a night shift, especially when the moon’s out, you get to see gardens that no one else sees, even their owners. Silver leaves glow at night, and reshape a garden’s contours. White-flowered groundcovers make a garden float, changing perspectives and lifting a viewer off her own feet. Noises are damped, and what you hear is framed and given significance. There’s a feeling of privilege, of witnessing what mortals routinely miss. I can see where the stories of fairies in the bottom of the garden come from.  

We don’t usually get to visit nurseries at night, so choosing a night garden’s plants takes some thought. There are useful books, including Barbara Damrosch’s Theme Gardens which includes the lovely conceit of a crescent-shaped “moon garden.” Check out restaurant courtyards and take evening walks; quick photos or sketches help remember the plants you like.  

In our climate, a night garden needs shelter from cold fog and wind. You might be able to locate it in a convenient nook east or south of your house, or of the house next door. Otherwise, a planted or constructed screen of some sort is practically essential. If you can’t shelter your whole garden, give yourself a warm place in which to sit and watch it.  

You don’t want day-bright lighting; shadows and inference and leaving lots to the imagination give you a second garden, entirely different from the day’s scene. Most of us already have plenty of light, from streetlights and security lights and tall neighboring buildings. You might even want to plant a trellised vine or set up a bamboo screen to fend off the light from next door.  

You’ll need to light steps and hazards. Strings of tiny white bulbs, a couple of candles, luminaria, or a tiki torch can illuminate garden parties. Uplighting a dramatic tree is a common strategy because it works in any season, and might be the only light you need.  

Plants that are drought-adapted often have gray or silvery leaves. With good drainage, our native artemisia sages and their relatives like wormwood are tough and handsome. A cluster of these, with an echo of white blossoms at another strategic point, can be enough to reshape the perception of a small garden entirely.  

White flowers look good as a mass, or salted among other plants. An entirely white-blooming garden is automatically night-friendly. (If you use flowers for highlights, research your species to be sure they don’t, like white varieties of California poppy, close up after sunset.) Silver proteas are striking by day, otherworldly by night, and so are brugmansias. Clematis’ moplike seedheads catch light shining behind them; don’t overlook seedheads in general, especially the fluffy windborne kind, for late-season interest.  

Brugmansia, nicotiana, and other bat- and moth-pollinated flowers also reserve their fragrance for night, and so does night jessamine. Give that last some space; it can be overwhelming. It has white berries, too, and so does native snowberry bush; mockingbirds love both, and a bachelor mockingbird might sing all night in your garden. 



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in East Bay Home & Real Estate. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.