University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer Article


By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
When John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf penned the ballad, "Moonlight in Vermont," more than five decades ago, they had romance on their minds. Today, those three little words could just as easily refer to one of the hottest new trends in horticulture here, and everywhere,--moonlight gardening.

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. Night-fragrant plants add to the allure, mystery, and enjoyment of these romantic gardens. Some of the latter, such as tuberose and sweet rocket, open during the day but don't release their scent until evening.

Although this may be a new trend for the millennium, 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, things to consider is location. Essentially, your garden needs to be placed where the moonlight will strike it. Walk around on a moonlit night to scout out possible sites. Ideally, you also need to avoid places where the trees will cast moon shadows.

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. In addition, 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. You also can install night lighting to illuminate your yard on cloudy nights.

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, and lungwort.

During the summer months, the moon will be low in the sky and to the south. So the moonlight will come from this direction. This means you should place the shorter plants on the south side of the garden, taller plants to the north, east, or west.

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.

Folklore dictates that you plant seeds in the first quarter of the moon, when it is waxing. As the moon gets fuller, the seed will absorb its energy and grow. But when you plant is really up to you.

What you plant is also your decision, and the choices of plants with white or silver blooms and foliage are plentiful. That's also what makes designing a moonlight garden so challenging. 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. But 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.

One downside to an all-white garden is that when the flowers fade, many turn brown. You will need to be vigilant about deadheading (removing) the spent blossoms. Many gardeners also include light yellow, cream, pale lavender, light pink, and other soft, almost-white colors in their garden.

Here are some suggestions for plants for your moonlight garden:

Annuals with white blooms: pansies, violas, cosmos, white marigolds, daisies, dianthus, white zinnias (Try new, low varieties like "Crystal Star" and "Profusion White.")

White-scented annuals (do the sniff test, as not all white varieties will have a scent or you may find some scents unappealing): white alyssum, white-scented petunias, snapdragons, candytuft.

White perennials: white violets, creeping phlox, oxeye daisies, Marguerite daisies, irises, dahlias (these are tender and will need to be dug up for winter), garden phlox "David", white gooseneck loosestrife, white bellflowers, snow-in-summer, foxglove, Shasta daisies, white mums, asters.

Vines: moonflowers, clematis, climbing roses, morning glories, climbing hydrangea, honeysuckle.

Trees or shrubs: rose-of-sharon, Korean spice bush, white lilac, hydrangea, crabapples, viburnums.

Fragrant flowers: evening primrose, nicotiana, moonflowers, night phlox "Midnight Candy," angel's trumpet, evening stock, soapwort, August lily, vesper iris, various daylilies.

Night-fragrant plants (those that open during the day but release their scent only at night):
perfumed fairy lily, night gladiolus, tuberose. Many of these are tender bulbs that need to be dug up over winter.

Plants with interesting silver, white, or blue foliage: lamb's ear, dusty miller, lungwort, artemisia, variegated hostas, silver-leaved creeping thymes, ribbon grass (root-invasive, so use in contained areas), some coralbells.

Many of the above come in colors other than white, so check the description in the seed catalog or with the experts at your local garden center to make sure you are buying the right variety.

To enhance the garden's appeal in the daylight hours, include a hint of color. Add a warm glow to the garden by mixing in subtle shades of pale yellow, light blue, or light pink. Avoid strong colors like orange and red as they will dominate the garden.

Then, as the sun slowly sinks in the west, pull up your lawn chair or climb into your favorite armchair, breathe in the fragrant air, and relax by the light of the silvery moon as you enjoy your moonlight garden. And as this is Vermont, don't forget the mosquito repellent!

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