In the night garden

Posted on: 25 August 2010 by Mark O'haire

Many people tend to focus on using gardens during daylight hours, but this misses out on one of the most delightful times to be outdoors, particularly during those frequently balmy August and September nights when we want to prolong the season as long as possible.

Garden lightingAnd since dark skies are hardly conducive to weeding, pruning and planting, the night garden forces workaholic gardeners to relax and enjoy their plots without a trowel in hand.

Building a night-time dimension into a garden is not difficult and sits easily alongside what we want from our plots during brighter hours.  I’ll talk about plants in a moment, but in the night garden, a lot of non-living factors can make a big difference to creating an enticing atmosphere.  Investing in a few chains of solar fairy lights can turn a simple arch into a romantic retreat after dusk. 

Of course, temperatures often plummet after dusk in the UK, especially towards the end of summer.  Heating is a tricky one, and it’s difficult to find an economic solution that is also environmentally friendly.  Fire-pits, barbecues, chimineas and good old fashioned bonfires at least have the benefit that you can also cook your evening meal on them.

If you are relaxing or entertaining outside, then chances are you might appreciate some music.  These days, the choice of speakers and sound systems for outdoor use has increased and in many cases, doesn’t cost much and requires little or no installation.  Aqsound and IPX3 both sell affordable waterproof outdoor wireless speakers via Amazon.co.uk.  To be very green and listen to the Archers outside, the Gelart retro-design radio combines both wind-up and solar power technologies to provides 40 minutes of outdoor use for less than £20.   Try www.completeoutdoors.co.uk for more information.  Personally,  I cannot be parted from my Pure Wifi portable radio (ideal for areas like ours where the FM signal is weak).  Want to listen to your own selection of music?  Gear4 sells battery-powered iPod docks for under £50. 

Why not add the sound of moving water to the ambience? Apart from providing a handy place to cool a bottle of wine, the sound of gently trickling water definitely adds another dimension to the relaxing atmosphere. After all, at night-time our other senses come to the fore – particularly sound and smell – and we rely less on our eyes.  

This brings me to scented plants, many of which come into their own at the end of the day.  Night-scented stocks (matthiola) have scruffy and pretty unimpressive flowers, so I tend to plant them in pots alongside other annuals.  Come dusk, their rich aroma starts to waft across the garden.  Put them near your seating area, to make the most of this short-lived but very easy to grow plant.

Another favourite of mine is that good old standby jasmine (jasmine officinale).  It can take a few years to establish, but once it gets into its stride, the elusive scent has to be one of the most magical of all.  Although it will still tolerate some shade (mine is hindered by my neighbour’s giant ash tree yet still seems to flower), jasmine is at its most rewarding when planted by a sunny wall. 

For something that provides faster results – and which will impress your guests - try ipomoea alba, also known as the moonflower.  This is a half-hardy quick-growing climber that is best treated as an annual in the UK.  Germination requires some love and attention, but the reward is a speedy ascent up a fence or set of canes, topped by flattish white flowers the circumference (if you are lucky) of a small teacup saucer.   Seed suppliers include Thompson & Morgan.

But what about the rest of the garden at night?  A few strategically placed solar lights, wind-up lanterns or candles in jars will help to emphasise the areas of the garden of which you are most proud.  Be creative with your lighting: a light point upwards into a tree or backlighting an architectural plant like a cordyline can create dramatic effects.

And of course, that old trick of planting white flowers really does work:  while they can look bleached during the daytime, they shine out like stars during the night garden.  I particularly love the milk-white rose, Blanche Double De Coubert.  It’s a fairly hefty shrub so it needs a bit of space but unlike other rugosa roses, it seems to tolerate alkaline soil fairly well and rewards its owner with delicately scented flowers from early summer onwards. 

One plant that provides the double whammy of luminescent white blooms and scent is the tobacco plant, nicotiana sylvestris.  Don’t be deterred by the name: this easy annual has sweet trumpet flowers that are at their very best after nightfall.  Seed-grown ones seem to have a better smell than the ones sold as seedlings in plastic trays.  With a little bottom heat in spring, this is not a difficult annual to grow from seed, so give it a try.

This outdoor life all sounds well and good when we have sunny evenings.  I totally agree, which is why during the summer months, my little greenhouse is temporarily converted from nurturer of baby plants into a little conservatory.  By squeezing all the pots and tools into corners, I can just about get a deckchair in between the wooden staging.  So who cares if there is a gentle summer shower outside:  I can still sit there, glass of wine in hand, and look out onto my night garden.

For further inspiration, why not visit one of the various gardens around the UK that have special evening openings?  It is probably too late to find any locally this year, but next year, the National Gardens Scheme Yellow Book will contain details of those that do.  Some gardens – including stately homes and other public venues – not only have evening openings but the added bonus of refreshments and music.   What a great way to spend a summer evening, especially as someone else will have done all the weeding!

In the meantime, even if it’s too late to invest in some night-scented plants, do put down the secateurs, the spade and the fork and – whether armed with a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a beer or just a good book - reward yourself with a few evenings of relaxing in the night garden, making the most of all your months of hard work, before it’s too late.  You deserve it!

By Maxine Farmer

Garden writer and consultant Maxine Farmer writes specialises in writing about garden challenges and people who have fascinating plots.  She has written for The Daily Telegraph, Housebuilder & Renovation, and the RHS’ members magazine, The Garden.  Maxine has also published ‘Wet and Dry’, a book of advice about helping gardens to  survive the extremes of hot summers and wet winters. 

For more information please visit www.thefloodedgarden.com or contact maxine@thehenleygardener.com.

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