Creating a Moonlight Garden

Creating a Moonlight Garden

Our gardens are an extension of our living space — a place to relax, entertain, and escape from the stressors of everyday life. Living in a climate where it rains for several months out of the year, you can't blame Portlanders for wanting to spend as many of our sunny summer days outside as possible. But we know firsthand that our gardens can feel less like an escape when the baking sun is beating down on us. So what if we designed our gardens to be enjoyed not just during the day, but once things start to cool off at night, too? That's where a "moonlight garden" comes into play!

What is a Moonlight Garden?

A moonlight garden is a carefully curated outdoor space designed to be enjoyed during the evening hours. These gardens feature plants that— as you can no doubt guess — reflect the moonlight, bringing light into the garden and making it an inviting space even after dark. A moonlight garden serves as the perfect backdrop for whatever kind of evening you have in mind, from a quiet nighttime stroll to a lively summer soirée in the cool air.

One of the easiest, most effective ways to create a cohesive moonlight garden is to simply limit your color palette! Look for plants with white flowers or silver foliage, which are physically brighter at the night than their more colorful counterparts. This is because these blooms — like all objects that our eyes perceive as white — reflect light at every wavelength along the visible spectrum, making better use of the limited ambient light at night than blooms of a particular hue, which reflect only that one narrow spectrum of light. We can use this science to create gardens that seem to glow in the moonlight!

Interestingly, the same qualities that make it easier for our eyes to see white flowers also make it easier for nocturnal moths to find them, which is why many moth-pollinated plants — including several in this blog post — have evolved white blooms that open during the night. To help moths even more, a few are also highly fragrant after dusk, which opens up an invisible dimension of scent that we can incorporate into our plans for a moonlight garden!

Although an all-white garden might not seem like the most exciting idea up front, there is so many exciting possibilities within a design constraint like this. (Don't believe us? Google images of the White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle designed by Vita Sackville-West.) A monochrome design allows the structure and texture of plants to really shine. And let's not forget foliage! In addition to silver foliage plants and plants with stunning creamy variegation that shows up at night, in the absence of louder colors, different hues of green really get to stand out during the day. All of these dimensions are opened up to you when you create a moonlight garden. (And you could, of course, incorporate color into a design if you so choose; we're not stopping you!)

Choosing plants from one color family also creates instant cohesion, and when that color just so happens to be white, there's no color matching required! From a design perspective, it's incredibly convenient that most flowering plants can be found in white. It turns out that it is much easier to remove the color from a plant's blooms through artificial selection than to introduce other color traits, and white-flowered variants of many plants have even cropped up in nature on their own. All that is to say, there's probably a white version of your favorite flower, so there's no need to make any sacrifices in the name of color coordination, which can't be said for all color schemes.

Designing Your Moonlight Garden

When designing your moonlight garden, keep these tips in mind:

  • Choose an open location that receives ample moonlight, but try to avoid areas with excessive artificial lighting. Although a set of string lights or other landscape lighting can help create a fitting ambience for a garden party, the enchanting glow of a moonlight garden is best enjoyed with limited artificial lighting, as our eyes will adjust to these brighter light sources rather than the subtle glow of moonlit flowers. For maximum enjoyment of your moonlight garden, cut the lights and watch what happens.
  • Use white flowers and plants with silver leaves or brightly variegated foliage to weave a tapestry of plants that will glow at night.
  • For added structure and height, consider incorporating trees with white bark along the edges of your moonlight garden. Their trunks will reflect added light, creating a pleasing backdrop for the plants in front.
  • For added drama and visual interest, consider creating a focal point using a white statue or a birdbath.
  • Incorporate light-colored hardscaping to create paths that invite you to examine flowers up close.
  • Similarly, reflective surfaces, such as mirrors or metallic accents, can be incorporated into your design to maximize the moonlight's effect.
  • Include comfortable seating areas where you can relax and enjoy the beauty of your garden — perhaps a set from Fermob!
  • Remember, a moonlight garden is meant to be experienced at night, so consider incorporating elements that engage the senses after dark. Add wind chimes or a fountain for soothing sounds, and choose fragrant flowers that release their scent in the evening.

Plants for Your Moonlight Garden

Plants with White Flowers:

* = Blooms at night
= Fragrant

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
  • Japanese Anemone (Anemone x hybrida 'Honorine Jobert')
  • Setsugekka Camellia (Camellia sasanqua 'Setsugekka'— and many others!
  • Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum)
  • Mexican Orange (Choisya ternata)†
  • White Perfume Princess Daphne (Daphne x 'Perfume Princess White')
  • Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii)*†
  • Dwarf Nikko Deutzia (Deutzia gracilis 'Nikko')
  • White Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba')
  • Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
  • Frost Proof Gardenias (Gardenia jasminoides 'Frostproof')†
  • Whirling Butterflies Gaura (Oenothera lindheimeri 'Whirling Butterflies')
  • Blue-Leaved Hebe (Hebe glaucophylla)
  • Diva Hellebore (Helleborus niger 'Diva')
  • Diana Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus 'Diana')
  • Panicle Hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata cvs.)
  • Oakleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia cvs.)
  • Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
  • Moonflower Vine (Ipomoea alba)*†
  • Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum)
  • Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
  • Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)†
  • Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)†
  • Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris and others)† 
  • Tea Olive (Osmanthus delavayii and others)†
  • Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)†
  • Icecap Rose (Rosa x 'Meiradena') — plus so many other white roses!
  • Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)
  • Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonica)†
  • Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata)†
  • Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)* — pictured above
  • Snowball Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum)

Silver Foliage Plants:

  • Artemisias (Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound' and others)
  • Silverbush (Convolvulus cneorum)
  • Key Lime Pie Dianthus (Dianthus 'Key Lime Pie')
  • Silver Falls Dichondra (Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls')
  • Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus cvs.)
  • Dusty Miller (Jacobaea maritima)
  • Lavender (Lavandula cvs. — look for white-flowered varieties!)
  • Silver Sage (Salvia argentea)
  • Angel Wings (Senecio candicans 'Angel Wings'— pictured above
  • Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina)

Variegated Foliage Plants:

  • Feather Falls Sedge (Carex oshimensis 'Feather Falls')
  • Ivory Halo Dogwood (Cornus alba 'Bailhalo'— pictured above
  • Summer Fun Dogwood (Cornus kousa 'Summer Fun')
  • Harlequin Wintercreeper (Euonymous fortunei 'Harlequin')
  • Silver Queen Euonymous (Euonymous japonicus 'Silver Queen')
  • Spider's Web Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web')
  • Patriot Hosta (Hosta 'Patriot') — and many others!
  • Morning Light Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light')
  • Dappled Willow (Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki')
  • Instant Karma Elderberry (Sambucus 'Instant Karma')

Creating a moonlight garden is a wonderful way to bring a touch of magic to your outdoor space and escape the summer heat. At Cornell Farm, we carry a wide variety of plants within this limited color palette, as well as thoughtful design elements, garden decor, and furniture to help you transform your garden into a captivating oasis.