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Gardens to enjoy after dark

Extend your experience of your garden by planting night-blooming varieties for their appearance and scent.

By Cathy Wilkinson BarashContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2008

Contrast: Dogwood blooms are striking when viewed against a clear blue sky.

Ben Garvin/ The Christian Science Monitor

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Des Moines, Iowa

Many of us are so busy that we do not have the time to truly enjoy our gardens. For some, the garden is another chore on the "to do" list. If your day is filled with activities and appointments, the best solution may be an evening garden or nightscape – a garden that will delight you from sunset to sunup. Even if you live in the cold North, with a little planning you can enjoy it year-round, from indoors or out.

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A garden planned for night interest is uniquely different at night than it is during the day. It relies heavily on contrast – light against dark and dark against light.

My first memories of an evening garden hark back to childhood. I remember looking out my second-story bedroom window in summer – after I was supposed to be asleep, of course – and being mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and scents. We had a narrow garden that abutted a three-foot-high, white brick wall topped by white trelliswork. I watched the moonflowers (large night-blooming cousins of the morning glory) slowly unfurl along their vines. The contrast of the six-inch-wide flowers against the dark green, heart-shaped leaves was brilliant. Once open, they gave off a wonderfully sweet aroma that wafted up to my window. I also might glimpse a sphinx moth (resembling a brown hummingbird) or a magnificent pale-green luna moth come to drink nectar from the flowers. Even in winter, the bare white trellis stood out against the dark sky.

That garden was pretty in the daytime, too, but took on an otherworldly feel at night. Old-fashioned flowering tobacco bore candelabrum of narrow trumpet-shaped blooms that looked fine in daylight but perked up at night, emitting their sultry sweet smell. The yellow marigold globes appeared to be floating on air as their dark foliage blended with the darkening sky.

'Hardscape,' plants, lighting

In designing a nightscape, you are creating an illusion. The three elements vital to that illusion are the hardscape, plants, and lighting. The hardscape includes all the nonplant material that forms the garden – walls, trellises, paths, borders, water.

A nightscape includes plants with attributes that are appreciated more at night. One thinks primarily of white flowers, which appear to glow in the moonlight. Yet, depending on the primary viewing time of the garden, some colors do amazing things. Shades of pale purple, blue, and mauve seem to fluoresce in the waning light of day. Late-afternoon sun brings a warm glow to red and orange flowers. Dark colors, however, all but disappear with the sun. The true stars of a nightscape are the plants that either bloom or are fragrant only at night.

It isn't necessary to tear up a perfectly satisfactory garden and replace it with a nightscape. Instead, add some plants that shine at night. Plant a few spring- to summer-blooming clematis, such as the pale pink Nelly Moser, along with sweetly scented autumn clematis by the front of the garage to greet you when you arrive home. Anchor them to a dark-colored trellis so they'll stand out. Add a variegated red-twigged dogwood; its leaves are eye-catching from late spring through fall, and the stems glow in the late afternoon winter light.

Depending on where you live, some silver-leafed plants, such as lamb's ears, dusty miller, and artemisias (Silver King and Powis Castle are favorites) keep their leaves year-round. The light color shows up even on the darkest nights.