How to Create a Moonlight Garden

Learn how to choose plants that will shine at night. They're not all white!

Low Angle View Of Flowering Tree Against Sky At Night with large moon

Jakkapan Jabjainai / Getty Images

Do you know how to make your garden light up at night, without relying on actual lights? The answer is to create a moonlight garden. But what is a moonlight garden, and what type of plants shine at night?

"Moonlight gardening relates to plants that show off their textures, colors and sometimes their silhouettes from dusk into the moonlight hours," said Irene Barber, who coordinates the Adult Horticulture Education Program for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine.

Flowers in a moonlight garden can also be open during the day, she notes. It's a common myth that flowers that bloom at night never bloom during the day.

Another myth is that the flowers in a moonlight garden are only white. "The colors that show off well at night are the cool colors," Barber said. "In addition to white, those include light blues, lavenders, chartreuse and even buttery yellow." Gardenista explains that using grays and silvers can make nearby whites appear whiter and thus brighter, creating a more luminous effect.

Cool colors are often seen best at dusk and at night because in the soft evening light and under the light of the moon, they don't have to compete with flowers that sport warm colors. Vibrant tropical colors such as reds, purples, pinks, oranges, and bright yellows stand out so strongly in the brilliant light of the summer sun that they overpower cooler colors, and we can actually overlook cool colors during the day, Barber said.

Choosing the Plants

Athyrium niponicum pictum Japanese painted fern
Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum pictum) come to life in the evening, making them a good choice for your moonlight garden. Ryan Somma/Flickr

Moonlight gardens start to shine at dusk because that’s the time of day when the texture and form of foliage with white and silver tones will contrast with and show up well against companion plants, Barber said. Dusk is also when these types of plants begin casting subtle shadows that add interest to the garden.

Brunnera macrophylla, or "Jack Frost," is example of a plant that does that. To highlight its broad, heart-shaped leaves with their white and silver patterns, Barber suggested planting it with Euphorbia "Diamond Frost," a spreading and mounding plant with lacy white flowers, or any of the toad lilies, which have the added attraction of being fragrant in the evening.

Other plants with variegated foliage that Barber said would start to shine beginning at dusk include Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum pictum—"Ghost" has the most amount of white on its foliage), variegated Jacob's ladder, spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum), grasses and sedges such as Carex "silver scepter" and Carex morrowii "Ice Dance," variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum variegata), and ground covers such as Dichondra argentea "Silver Falls" and Stachys byzantinia "Silver Carpet."

As the moon rises and dusk fades into night, the larger and more prominent plants in the garden begin putting on a show. Lobelia siphilitica, the blue form of lobelia, is one of those plants. In late summer, it produces an upright three-foot stem encircled with light blue flowers with a white throat that twinkle in the moonlight because of both their color and texture, Barber said. The hard-to-find alba, or white form of Lobelia siphilitica, also works well in a moonlight garden.

An article in Boulder Home & Garden points out that white shows up best against a dark background: "That can often best be provided by foliage, so mix plenty of foliage plants in with your whites and consider backing your evening borders with a dense, deep-green hedge like yew or box or privet. Mix purples, blues and pinks (like liatris, echinacea and small globe thistle) with paler colors, grasses and seed heads to catch the dusk light." See this piece on how to let foliage flourish in your garden for more ideas.

Planning the Garden

The Nymphaea Red Flare water lily
The Nymphaea 'Red Flare' water lily gives a burst of color to your moonlight garden. pzAxe/Shutterstock

When people think about plants for a moonlight garden, they should think more than just the low-growing foliage plants and flowers. They should also think about adding trees with white or light-colored bark. River birch (Betula nigra) is an example of a tree with light bark that will show up well at night. Its exfoliating bark would add an extra element of interest.

If you want to add moonlight interest to your garden, don't attempt to establish one part of the garden as the "moonlit" section. Instead, spread your "moonlight" plants throughout the planted area. This is not only necessary because plants for moonlight gardens have widely differing daytime light requirements, but this planting method increases the effectiveness of your nighttime display by spreading moonlight interest throughout the garden, thus illuminating more of it.

Besides the aesthetic interest, there's also a functional reason to create a moonlight garden. Some of these flowers—such as those of campions, flowers in the Datura genus, four o'clocks, and morning glories—attract night pollinators. These pollinators themselves add visual interest, particularly if they're silvery-white moths.

If you're lucky enough to have a pond, you can even add water lilies to the nighttime display, said Amanda Bennett, manager of Display Gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. "Red Flare" and "Charles Tricker" are two examples of excellent night-blooming water lilies, especially for people who work during the day and would miss seeing their day-blooming water lilies.

The flowers on "Red Flare" begin opening in the early evening and remain open until as late as 11 a.m. the next day. The plants are extremely prolific and can produce up to seven blooms at a time. The lily pads are large, so you will need a medium or large pond to accommodate the plants. "Charles Tricker" is an old-time favorite among water lily enthusiasts. Developed in 1893, it also produces large magenta red flowers in great profusion. The red pads add great beauty to this lily.

Consider using pale-colored planters to add brightness to a moonlight garden, as well as trellises, pergolas, and lattices to lift blooms above ground level for visual effect. Plant white-flowered climbers atop these structures. You could paint the wood white, as well, for added effect. Using light-colored stone or gravel on pathways or hardscaping will add nighttime illumination to a garden.

5 Annuals for a Moonlight Garden Anywhere

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)
The moonflower grows as a vine with an eye-catching white blossom. Jebulon/Wikimedia Commons

Moon flower is of tropical origin and is grown in most places as an annual vine. (Note that it's listed as a perennial in the southwestern United States.)

White summer snapdragons (Angelonia "Serena White")

Angelonia Serena White
White summer snapdragons, as its name suggests, stays in bloom all summer. Skyprayer2005/Shutterstock

This variety of Angelonia forms a mounding plant that grows to about a foot tall, is covered in white flowers, and stays in bloom all summer.

New Guinea impatiens

White New Guinea impatiens
White New Guinea impatiens produce large switches of white flowers during the summer. Zed66/Flickr

The "Infinity White" variety of impatiens can be easily grown in garden beds or containers and produces large, brilliant white flowers throughout the summer.

Dichondra argentea "Silver Falls"

Dichondra argentea 'Silver falls'
Dichondra argentea, or Silver falls, offer a potted but flowing opportunity for your moonlight garden. Derek Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons

As its name implies, this plant has silver foliage and can be grown as a ground cover or in a pot or hanging baskets from which its quarter-inch silver leaves will spill over the sides.

Euphorbia "Diamond Frost"

Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost'
The lacy look of the Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' will add an elegant touch to your garden. Serres Fortier/Flickr

This spreading and mounding plant has lace-like white flowers and blooms continuously all summer.

If you need more ideas, check out 15 flowers that bloom at night.