By Judy Ferring
If you’re looking for an oasis of calm in these tumultuous times, look no further than a moon garden. Best enjoyed at twilight and into the evening, these gardens will inspire you to take a deep breath of fragrant blooms, watch the quiet activity of night-time pollinators, and reassure yourself that life does indeed go on.
Moon gardens are collections of plants with white leaves or white flowers that open in a succession of bloom times through the seasons. These gardens don’t have to be built in a single year. Indeed, they probably shouldn’t be if you are using perennials since they typically become larger over two or three years. Instead, fill in with annuals as you develop your plan.
Your own calm will not be the only benefit of a moon garden. Night-time pollinators will be drawn first by the blooms’ fragrance and then by white or pale colors flowers and leaves that reflect moonlight and guide them into your garden.
There may be more night-time pollinators than you think. Some hummingbirds and butterflies are drawn as dusk settles in; bats to be sure; beetles and even some species of bees. But most are moths. Never thought of moths as pollinators? Consider this: their fuzzy wings, bodies and antennas are pollen magnets.
Moreover, each particular pollinator species is adapted to extract pollen and nectar from a particular species of plants no matter the time of day. For instance, entomologist Douglas Tallamy has counted 70 species of moths using the viburnums in his yard “for life support” (that is, both food and shelter).
Moon gardens are not really new and their histories showcase a variety of styles. One of the earliest is associated with India’s Taj Mahal, built in the 1630s and now under restoration. Its geometric design features water pools, tree-lined walkways and traditional Mughal plants, including fruit trees, evergreens, oleander and hibiscus. The overall effect is somewhat open, capitalizing on the moonlight and guiding the eye to the ultimate focal point, the Taj Mahal itself.
In the United States, the earliest recorded moon garden (1833) was at Indian Hill, near West Newbury, MA. Credited to journalist Benjamin Perley Poore, the design featured two 700-foot-long borders along a pathway, each 14 feet wide and filled with white-flowered perennials including candytuft, daffodils, lilacs, flowering almonds, foxgloves and lilies. A herd of white cattle, white pigeons and a white dog added visual interest.
Probably the most famous is credited to Vita Sackville-West, an English writer who lived at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. She purchased the run-down Kent estate in 1930, and began developing several themed gardens. Her moon garden, completed around 1950, contained white roses, peonies, irises, hydrangeas and Japanese anemones.
The first step in designing your own moon garden is selecting a location that will catch the moonlight and can be viewed from a nearby chair or two. Consider the backdrop – a large tree, a retaining wall, the side of a building, etc. – and the focal point. Sometimes the backdrop and focal point will be the same thing. One collection of moon garden photographs shows a curving swath of dusty miller narrowing in the distance, providing both depth and a focal point to an otherwise small and flat garden.
If you’re not sure, don’t worry. This is a process, with ample opportunity to change the details.
Nor should you be deterred if you don’t have a lot of room for your garden. A collection of plants in pots of various sizes offers the extra advantage of mobility as you chase those moonbeams. And one of the most attractive displays at modern-day Sissinghurst Castle are a pair of flower boxes.
Choose plants that will carry on the white theme through the year in Patrick County’s zone 7. Here is a potential pitfall. Moon garden enthusiasts often recommend plants not likely to thrive in our area or, if that matters to you, able to find their unique pollinators. Others do too well and become hard to control if not downright invasive. Still others have toxic qualities that may rule them out for your household.
A by-no-means-complete menu of suggested plants for this area will be available from the Patrick County Master Gardeners at the Stuart Farmers Market on May 28. The list is divided into season of color interest and listed by height to help ease the choice of what fits your plan most easily.