Learning to Grow: Enjoying the garden by moonlight

Published: Friday, July 12, 2013 5:13 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Provided photo)
The nicotiana alata is a good choice for a nighttime garden.

As midsummer arrives, days are longer, and the mercury finally soars, the hours we spend in the garden while the sun beats down tend to get shorter, and beg to be punctuated a bit more frequently by tall, icy libations in the shade.

It’s simply too hot for weeding, hoeing, and transplanting, and even reclining on a chaise longue can be taxing when temperatures rise. But if I know you gardeners, and I think I do, all that work you’ve done planning pleasing vistas and vignettes mustn’t be for naught. ’Tis the season to revel in our gardens – and not just from the kitchen window. Enter the moon garden. The addition of a few fragrant, night blooming specimens will help you reclaim your yard, and delight in a landscape that comes to life as the sunshine fades. And on warm summer nights, when the moon bathes everything in its silvery light, a cool drink on a porch swing will suddenly seem an elegant affair.

Probably my favorite of the night bloomers is the aptly named moonflower, or Ipomoea alba. Unfurling at dusk, the large white trumpet shaped blossoms remain open until sunrise against a lush backdrop of heart-shaped leaves, with some giving off an enchanting fragrance as well.

Like their relative the morning glory (both are members of the genus Ipomoea), moonflower vines can be started easily from seeds, and once they are established, growth is rapid.

Site them together near an arbor or trellis, and enjoy the colorful morning glories by day, and as they fade by late afternoon, the moonflowers open up just in time to take their place.

Nicotiana alata is another perfect choice for the nighttime garden. Grown as an annual in our cool climate, this plant can reach 3-5 feet tall, and blooms until frost. Its scent is barely noticeable during daylight hours, but few blossoms can match the powerful fragrance Nicotiana emits as evening falls, and its pale, nearly white flowers almost appear to shimmer or glow in the moonlight.

As their name would suggest, the flowers on four o’clocks, or Mirabilis jalapa, open in late afternoon and bloom until morning. Sweetly fragrant, like many other night bloomers, they are attractive to hummingbirds and moths, and their range of colors – purple, yellow, red – can present a pleasing contrast to the primarily light colored palette of the evening flower garden.

Angel’s Trumpet Datura (Datura meteloides) is another richly scented selection for the moon garden. Its shrublike growth habit, elegant petals, and intoxicating fragrance make it a good choice for displaying in pots on the patio or as a focal point in the garden. 

But beware – this plant’s exotic mystery isn’t just for show. The leaves, flowers, and seeds of Datura meteloides are all highly toxic, and should never be ingested by humans or animals.

After planning and planting your moon garden, pull up a bench, a swing, or a tattered old blanket, and enjoy it. Drink in the perfume that drifts on the evening breeze and marvel at those pale ephemeral blossoms that will seem to float, unmoored in the landscape, while their darker foliage fades into the background as night falls.

In March of 1915, Midwestern girl Ginny King, wrote to her boyfriend F. Scott Fitzgerald, likely lamenting another long, cold Chicago winter.

“Oh Scott why aren’t we somewhere else tonight? Why aren’t we at a dance in summer now with a full moon, a big lovely garden and soft music in the distance?”

Nearly one hundred years have passed since that night, and even over the course of a century, I think we have found little to contend with the magic of a pretty garden, in the summer, in the moonlight.

• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166.

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