A moon garden consists of plants which flower in the twilight, or at night, usually releasing a rich, fragrant scent, bordering on the intoxicating. Some are simply white, a border in the background as they stand out in the dark. But a moon garden is meant to trigger all your senses, and your imagination
I don’t live in the south, but it’s not far from it. The weather doesn’t recognize the Mason Dixon line, so summers are hot and humid. I live in an old house, built in the 1800s, and to cool it down costs a fortune. I don’t have a fortune, and I hate being refrigerated.
So you learn to let the house cool itself down, and you learn it does it on its own time. Till it does, there’s always the porch.
Something southerners are known for are their gardens. It’s hot down there, and they sit on the porch a lot as well. Many types of flowers love this kind of heat, and show their gratitude with scent.
I’d been watching To Kill A Mockingbird. It helps me remember being a kid. Back then, everyone sat out on their porches at night in the summer time. Or rather, the grownups sat on the porch, and we kids got to go out and play in the dark. Just like the film, we had our ghouls here too. So the night time was a magical, macabre time.
It’s twilight, or early in the evening when you head outside. That’s when the moon garden comes to life, the blossoms open and release their fragrance into the humid air, where they linger.
This isn’t scent out of a bottle, or burned off a stick. This comes from a living, breathing being. Intoxicating scents. I would guess, that if one indulged in intoxicants, that a moon garden would be an ideal place to do it.
Right now I’m in a second floor room, the window opens out on the front garden, and out there by the sidewalks are Lillies in bloom. I can smell them from here. But up close they can make your head swim.
Moon garden plants each have their own scent, though they blend well together. Add to that the smell of old wood coming from the house which has been baking in the sun all day, an almost sandalwood scent, and it’s not far from incense.
You can tell the time of year by your garden’s scent more accurately than you can a calendar. A calendar is arbitrary. Your senses respond to the moment.
That’s the beauty of a moon garden. It’s constantly changing as new plants come into bloom and old plants take their rest. You can see as well as smell the changes. Add to that the sound of the crickets and other night creatures, the muggy heat or a welcome summer breeze, and you’ve created an atmosphere.
A moon garden helps you see the world in a different way. You see things outside at night you’d otherwise miss. We forget that from when we were kids. Try to imagine what our ancestors knew about the world simply from living most of their lives outdoors. Spend a few weeks outside in your moon garden, and you find yourself getting to know nature again.
There are lights in the sky, the figure in the shadows. The black cat that strolls through the yard every night about sundown. You grapple with big questions outside at night, just as Atticus Finch did in Mockingbird.
The porch was closed in when I was a kid, which is a tragedy. There’s a back deck but it’s not the same. So I built a patio just below that. It’s a small space, with room for two or three chairs and a table. Last year I kept a Brugmansia back there, for night scent. I also had some Evening Scented Stock, Datura and Moon Flowers. For much of the summer there were antique scents wafting around the garden. I wanted more of that.
I had dicked around with a moon garden for close to a decade. This year I set out to create a moon garden in earnest.
Know your climate
I live in Zone 6A. You can find yours by clicking here.
This is important information, for it tells you what you can and can’t plant in the ground. Or rather, what you don’t have to dig up at the end of summer and put in your basement.
That trick doesn’t work for certain plants anyway. My largest Brugmansia, if put in the ground would send deep roots out, and it wouldn’t take kindly to me yanking it up. I think it prefers its root bound pot.
That’s the problem with living this far north and trying to grow night scented plants. Whilst the summers might be ideal, the winters are too cold.
You get past that by overwintering. A lot of plants, like the Brugmansia can go dormant inside. Others need to be kept alive through the winter, in a sometimes cold, drafty and very dry environment.
That’s tricky for tropical plants. For those plants, like a Queen of the Night which I’m trying to grow from a cutting, I tend to just let them live inside year round.
Jasmine is a scent I dearly love. I’d killed three already by leaving them outside in winter, then bought one, put it in a container, built a ratty trellis and let it live outside that summer. I brought it in for winter and kept it alive. The next spring I went through the room where it lives late at night, on the way to the kitchen. There were only a handful of blooms, but the room was full of scent. Now, a couple years later, for a couple weeks each spring, I dally before bed, as the best time to catch the fragrance is the middle of the night.
Other moon garden plants self seed, like Datura or Jimson Weed as it’s commonly called. I’ve never needed to plant Datura after the first year, unless it was a new variety I wanted to try. You just never know where they’re going to pop up.
Woodland Tobacco, another fragrant night flower reseeds itself too, but not as prodigiously, or reliably as Datura. I’ve yet to have one grow back in the same spot as the previous year, except once in a container. I found one growing the following year in a hanging basket.
One issue with plants coming back after self seeding, is moon garden plants, and witch’s garden plants tend to become active in the late spring or early summer around here. By that time I’ve already gone through a couple crops of weeds. It’s easy to mistake a good seedling with a weed, and no doubt many get pulled up.
So in a climate like ours, containers become if not your friend, the only real option, unless you have an educated weeding crew.
Where to put your moon garden
Darkness is a plus. The darker the better, because there’s nothing like the sight of gleaming white flowers painted blue in the moonlight. If there are streetlights, are there angles you can sit and avoid seeing them?
I had a bit of a moon garden a few years back, combined with the witch’s garden. Then came Trump and it seemed like a good idea to grow more poisons, so I expanded the witch’s garden, and the moon garden plants were scattered.
A tree that overhangs that garden now shades it too much for a moon garden. There’s just not enough light. Nor space. And though it’s sheltered from storms, it’s also sheltered from the summer night breeze. I need my breeze.
Storms and wind can be an issue. Brugmansia in particular seems to take a nasty beating from the wind. Off the side of the house, in the back there’s a space where the original building and a later addition meet. That provides shelter from the winds that blow in from the southwest, where the nastiest storms tend to come from, as well as the south and west.
There’s a wide sidewalk, and last year I added a few rows of paving stone adjacent to it, for a sitting area. Then built a fire pit, ringed with smaller stones. It’s adjacent to an herb garden, and an eight foot by four foot bed, growing tomatoes and peppers. All that keeps the butterflies and bees fluttering about.
So the patio there is a good location. Trees and bushes on the lawn block most of the view of the street and houses beyond. Where the chairs face, you look into a huge bush and a small tree. There’s a tunnel through the leaves that unfortunately exposes the ass end of my out of commission VW Bug. But at night that disappears.
And don’t forget the night sounds. We still had an above ground pool behind the house last summer, and the frogs beat us to opening it up. For days they engaged in deviant behavior. Quite loudly. I never knew they actually made a different sound when copulating. Now I can’t unhear it when I hear frogs.
The pool is gone, so now I hear coyotes yipping and howling, the occasional cow lowing, and only a bit of night barking from the neighborhood dogs. Traffic after ten o’clock is almost non existent.
You need that silence from civilization to hear nature. So mind you don’t put your moon garden near your air conditioner.
Sun requirements are important. These plants typically want a lot of light. So you need a location that can provide at least six hours sunlight. A little more is likely better, though here you have to weigh that benefit against the damage of too much during the heat of summer.
A moon garden and container gardening
Small spaces are actually good for a moon garden. To get a lot of scent from Datura, you either need to be close, or you need a lot of them. A lot of them takes a lot of space, which for a lot of plants means a lot of work. Datura is great in a container, and you can bring it close enough that you can get lost in the scent of a handful of blooms.
Some of these plants, like Woodland Tobacco do much better in the ground. I don’t have space for a few plants, as they can hit five foot tall. But I do have space for two or three in containers, which can be moved closer to the seating area when they’re in bloom.
That’s certainly an advantage over in ground planting. But that doesn’t take away the power of the heirlooms. These are showstopper plants when it comes to scent. I have a honeysuckle bush about thirty feet away, which fills the patio sweetly. But it’s likely ten or twenty years old. Mature plants like that are in a different league than the newer, smaller ones.
When you’re lucky, you move into a garden with plants like that already thriving. Mine are doubly precious, as they were usually planted by mother, or came from my Granny Bert’s garden. The Peonies I grow now came from the same ones I used to chop the heads off of with my yardstick sword as a child.
But containers provide versatility. There is a back deck, and we spend a lot of time on that. At the base is concrete, not exactly conducive for growing plants. But ideal for placing a couple of containers, one with Woodland Tobacco for scent, and another for climbing up the porch structure. Moon Flowers are good for this, as they are prodigious bloomers, particularly in late summer and fall, and put out a powerful scent.
A package of Moonflower seeds will usually be enough for two locations. There’s a front awning and a couple steps leading to the front door, and one side of that I cover with Moonflowers. The advantage there is the scent comes in the front door, livening the front parlor. Plus it provides a bit of shade, making the room cooler.
There’s a wooden trellis along one side of the patio where the new moon garden goes, and it fills with Moon Flowers as well. They are usually the last blooms of the year, and often survive a few light frosts. I’ve tried them both in containers and planting in the ground. In ground planting does make for a more robust plant. But if that’s not an option, then containers work just fine as well, but makes sure you keep them watered.
That’s perhaps the biggest drawback to container gardening for a Moon Garden. They do require more water, and for us, in the summer watering is usually a daily event. Unless it rains.
I usually use containers ranging from 12-18”. Last year I filled an 18” container with Evening Scented Stock, which did great and filled the patio with fragrance. As it was dying off, a Datura plant popped up. It was an unusual Datura, more purple than white. This year, both grew back simultaneously. I’ve kept the Datura thinned out, but with enough to make a show of itself. A bit too much, as it’s crowding out the Evening Scented Stock. But it’s all an experiment you know?
Choosing your Moon Garden plants
It was a spur of the moment decision. I got an email from Select Seeds, who I’d ordered from in the past. A half hour later I have my moon garden ordered.
And now it’s July. I’m going over the list and wondering how everything is doing?
Here are the plants …
I started with a couple of Heliotropes – Amaretto and White. These put off an almond scent at sunset, and attract moths. Nice, but I think you’d need more to make a show of it.
Night Phlox ‘Midnight Candy’. I likely have it in too small a pot as it’s scrawny, but it was the first to greet me with its scent … Honey, Marzipan and Vanilla. A few of these in a larger pot would be a great start to the season.
There’s a reason people think of your grandmother when you say Petunia. They’re old fashion, but also damned pretty. And some of the older varieties are pretty fragrant.
I started with an Old Fashioned Climbing Petunia. This is an old variety, actually passed on to Select Seeds from a customer, whose grandmother grew them on the porch. Most Petunias I’ve grown had no scent, but these are supposed to be sweet at twilight. It’s not an overpowering scent, but it strikes a chord.
I also got a Petunia Rainmaster, which weathers rain well, unlike some of the other varieties, hence the name. It was found by an explorer in South America in 1823, and also is a scented Petunia.
I’ve grown Woodland Tobacco for years, both in the ground in containers. They grew taller, stronger in the ground, but do pretty well in containers too. I’m hoping containers might help with self seeding as well, as Woodland Tobacco is known for that.
Also for their long, skinny trumpet shaped flowers with a sweetly exotic fragrance that doesn’t try to hide it’s poisonous nature. The sticky blooms get covered with dead bugs in the summer, which is particularly gruesome.
And I opted for variety, picking up both a Cranberry Isles and Jasmine variety. All three are doing well. Not as thick stemmed or prolific as if they were in the ground, but very strong scented.
Evening Scented Stock. I planted these seeds last year in an eighteen inch container. They grew wild, leggy and fell over, but that container put off a fragrance I could smell the instant I walked out the back door, twenty foot away. As I said, they’re being crowded out by the Datura there.
We have a bed which is notoriously bad for plants. But last year a couple managed to survive and even come back. So we scatted a second packet of Night Scented Stock there, along with three other seed packets to see what, if anything comes from it.
The three packets were:
Four O’Clock ‘Fairy Trumpets’. One of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites with an evening released orange blossom fragrance.
Pink – Fringed ‘Ambrosia’. Truly creepy looking for a pink and white flower, with a scent rumored to be intoxicating.
Sweet Scabious ‘Black Knight’. Honey scented with large, dark red heads, easily confused for black at night. Dates back to the 1600s.
As expected, the results have been dismal. An Anise Hyssop plant has self seeded a few more of its kin, which is good as I use it for cooking, and the butterflies and bees love it. A bit of Night Scented Stock came up, enough to perfume a few nights. The rest is either weeds, or perhaps a few stands of some of those seeds, yet to bloom.
Then you need your star moon garden plants, which usually turn out to be a pain in the ass, but you’re more than rewarded for your work. These are the ones that take your breath away.
For that we have two Brugmansia, or Angel Trumpets. One is about five years old now, root bound and looking more like a small tree than a bush. It’s in dire need of work. So far this years there hasn’t been a single bloom. But it’s early for that.
The other Brugmansia is a Purple People Eater. It’s not nearly as large, grows sideways but has been putting out purple blooms ever since we got it last summer, including all winter inside. Curiously, it doesn’t have the scent the other one does, but it makes up for it in bold, purple and white blooms.
That past week or so though, it’s not been adding blooms. It could be getting tired.
The Jasmine plant has come outside for summer, and the first few weeks you still get blooms and fragrance. It’s growing wild and reaching off its trellis which is almost six foot tall, so it makes for nicely vining greenery. It’s going into a bigger pot this year. But for now it’s on the porch, reaching for anything it can find, and still putting off a bit of fragrance in the evenings.
Datura pops up in the damndest places once you’ve had it a couple years. It’s growing in the same container as the Evening Scented Stock, and crowding it out pretty fierce. But Datura, or Devil’s Trumpet is a prodigious bloomer, and with four or five plants the scent should carry.
And of course, Moonflowers which I always grow from seed. I’ve learned there’s no reason to hurry in planting them, as until the soil is nice and warm, and perhaps a bit hot, they don’t pop their heads up. Once they do they pour over a six foot trellis, and bloom all through summer, and last year almost till winter, with prodigious white blooms nearly as big as your head.
There are a couple vines already going up the trellis at the side of the garden. I planted them next to the porch in the front, for shade and scent, and they’ve popped up, but so far are getting eaten before grabbing on and climbing.
Summer begins in the moon garden
It’s the beginning of summer. Late spring smelled wonderful. The tobacco plants have been the showy ones so far. They’re a bit spindly in containers, not as many blooms and smaller ones at that. But having the ability to move the containers close to the seating area makes up for all that.
The Heliotropes and Night Flox added new scents to the garden. As I said, I need more of those to really have an impact, but their scent reminds me of old fashioned candy. Which stirs memories in the night air. .
The Lillies in front are in bloom, sweetening the air out there. Each year we had one really huge one, but this year there are four or five, all larger than usual, but none quite as large as that one. Perhaps it’s reached the end of its cycle, but left its children to take its place.
The Datura, Brugmansia and Moon Flowers are likely right around the corner. With those it’s not just the scent, but the big, bold, bright white blooms standing out in the dark that brings your Moon Garden fully into focus.
With all the containers we’ve been watering almost every day. But we put in a dehumidifier in the house, and we’re capturing about three or four gallons of water a day. Almost enough to water the garden.
We finally had a break in the temperatures, down into the sixties at night. It’s welcome to be able to breath again. But the scent lightens up, and I’m already missing the humidity, where the air is so thick you could carve it with a scalpel, and colored with the scent of poisons.
For like many beauties, the plants of a Moon Garden are often fatal when ingested. Several of these species have been used for that very purpose over the centuries. It’s the nature of beauty to be deadly, to be powerful. The feelings stirred up by a Moon Garden are ancient, and powerful as well.
Anyway, the night has always belonged to darkness.