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Create a Garden That Glows at Night

Fragrance and foliage stand out after dark

By Kathy LaLiberte
Arlington Bench

A comfortable bench provides a destination for taking in the subtle beauty of the evening garden.

Dragonfly Solar Light

Add a touch of whimsy or beauty with garden accents that glow or light up. This glowing dragonfly is powered by a solar panel.

When evening falls and it's too dark to weed, deadhead or start a new project, it's time to turn off your busy mind and turn on your senses. The garden becomes a whole new place after dark, filled with maysterious sounds, fragrances and luminous colors.

There are lots of easy ways to make your garden a more compelling destination in the magical light of evening. Incorporating just a few of them will keep you outdoors as long as possible, and hopefully add a whole new dimension of enjoyment.

1. Places to sit

If you want to tune into your garden in the evening, you need to slow down. Way down. In fact, the best way to tune in is to just sit down. If you don't already have a bench or two in your garden, get yourself something to sit on. Though a pretty bench can be an attractive garden feature as well as a practical one, your garden seating can be as simple as an old kitchen chair or a plank of wood balanced on two stumps. Having a destination is important— especially after dark.

Casablanca lilies

Casa Blanca Lilies are especially fragrant.

2. Evening-scented flowers

There are many flowers that become more heavily scented after dark because they use their fragrance to attract moths and other nighttime pollinators. In the calm, moist air of evening, the fragrance of these flowers can seem to hover over the entire garden. Add a few of the plants listed below (or add them all!) and enjoy an olfactory adventure as you follow your nose to seek out the source of each scent. Here are some favorites:

  • Nicotianas (alata and sylvestris, which are both white, are the most fragrant)
  • Brugmansia and datura (scentless in the daytime, they turn it on after dark)
  • Moonflower (a vine that thrives in heat— more than we get in northern New England)
  • Trumpet and Oriental lilies (plant as many different varieties as you can justify)
  • Acidanthera (peacock orchids need to be dug like glads, but are totally worth it).
  • White flowers, silver-gray foliage

    White flowers and silvery-gray foliage begin to glow as daylight fades.

  • Night phlox or Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis is an easy annual to grow from seed)
  • Stock (a terrible name for a beautiful annual with a carnation-like fragrance).
  • Dianthus (not all are fragrant, but many of them are)
  • Tuberose (a tender bulb that needs to be dug and stored indoors)
  • Mockorange (Philadelphus coronarius has fleeting but fabulous white flowers)
  • Alyssum (more fragrant in the sun, but still quite fragrant after dark)
  • Hostas (some varieties have very fragrant flowers in late summer)
  • Petunias (seek out fragrant varieties— use your own nose to evaluate them)
  • Heliotrope (both the purple and the white varieties have a vanilla fragrance)
3. White flowers

At dusk, and especially when there's moonlight in the garden, white flowers become luminous and can be seen from quite a distance. Most of the evening-scented flowers described above are white as well as fragrant. Other flowers to consider adding to your garden include white varieties of the following: clematis, roses, foxgloves, daisies, cosmos, impatiens and cleome. Sprinkle them around the garden to create little patches of moonlight.

Solar Path Lights

Solar Path Lights

Solar String Lights

Solar String Lights

4. Silver foliage

Pale gray foliage, especially if the leaves are slightly fuzzy, really seems to glow in the evening light. The best plants for this effect are: lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina), Artemesia, Lamium maculatum, lavender, garden sage (Salvia officinalis), Plectranthus argentatus 'Silver Shield', Licorice mint (Helichrysum petiolare), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia).

5. Lighting

If you want to add lighting to your evening garden, keep it subtle. In order to appreciate the white and silver plants, you'll need to let your eyes adjust to the fading light. If there are bright lights scattered through the garden, that effect would be lost. Low-voltage or solar-powered lights can add a soft glow, as will candle-powered lanterns. You might even use some white twinkle lights to accent a special tree or garden structure.

6. Special Features

A white or pale-colored fence really glows at dusk, and can serve as a wonderful backdrop. I have a 20-ft length of picket fence painted a very pale sage green. On summer evenings you can still make it out at 10:30 p.m. Moving water catches moonlight in a magical way, and a little pond or self-contained water feature can take on a whole new life after dark.

As winds calm and ambient noise levels drop, you can really start appreciating the sound of leaves that rustle (think about bamboo or an ornamental grass) or the soft tinkling of wind chimes. A solar garden accent can also be a fun feature.

Whether you enjoy your evening garden in the company of friends and family, or on a silent stroll by yourself, you'll find it's a soothing, soulful way to put the day to rest.