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June 19, 2018

Moon gardens come alive, blooming quickly after dark

Photos/Mary Ann Krehbiel
A sphinx moth on Evening Primrose.
The writer with her grandchildren Phoenix and Ariia.
By Mary Ann Krehbiel
Master Gardener

Just before dusk, the grandkids and I are almost giddy with excitement as we grab our cameras and run to the east side of the house.

There, as we watch in amazement, the evening entertainment unfolds right before our eyes. We count: One, two, three. It happens just that quickly.

The evening primroses pop open their big, yellow blooms in seconds as we watch. Every evening before dusk in midsummer, we are blessed with this magical show.

The evening primrose I grow is a cultivar of the wild ones we see along the highways, and as such, it blooms are 4 inches across and quite spectacular to watch opening. The sepals slowly peal back from the 2-inch-long flower buds, and the flowers suddenly spring open, so fast that I have a hard time catching it on film. By dark, the 3-foot-tall bushes have all sprung open their blooms for this night.

A new show with all new blooms will happen the following night.

The grandkids and I go inside to get refortified with drinks and more supplies. This time, we will need our flashlights as well as the cameras. With nighttime now upon us, we gleefully run out to the front of the house. We all take our positions in front of the Four O’clocks and count: One, two, three, “turn on your flashlights.”

The air above the plants quivers with moths! Huge sphinx moths, all hovering above the flowers and lowering their 3-inch proboscises into the white flowers to collect nectar. Again, my camera and I fight to get pictures of these creatures that dart from flower to flower. They are so fast. The show repeats itself over at the primroses and lasts until about 10 o’clock.

This is the best part of summer: grandkids, weekends and a nature show.

If you are like me, evenings on the deck are what I live for, because the night brings many delights. Time to just sit, relax and take in all the benefits of my Moon Garden.

Moon gardens impart this almost ethereal feeling in the late evenings, with white flowers that almost luminesce in the moonlight, heavenly scents from some of our most fragrant flowers and, of course, the moths. Mine is next to my deck, making it easy to enjoy. It is shaded at one end and gradually becomes sunny at the other. So I’m listing some of the plants that do well for me and some you may wish to try.

In the sunny section, try the vine Moonflower (Ipomoea alba), Clematis “Henryi” or Clematis paniculata “Sweet Autumn.” Moonflowers have huge white morning glory-like flowers and a wonderful scent. “Sweet Autumn” Clematis covers itself in pure white star-shaped fragrant blossoms, while Clematis “Henryi” has larger but non-fragrant blooms.

These plants do well to climb up a railing or lattice and bloom all summer. Two of the taller plants close to back edge of my garden are oriental lilies and a white bearded iris. “Casa Blanca” lily is a pure white old gardeners’ favorite with a wonderful fragrance. The bearded iris “Immortality” blooms in June and again in late summer, an added bonus as most irises are not rebloomers.

Mixed among these are one of my favorite plants Nicotiana. Known as Jasmine Tobacco and Flowering Tobacco, Nicotiana alata and Nicotiana sylvestri both emit a heavenly fragrance from trumpet–shaped blossoms that peak at dusk. There is even a new lime green variety.

But if this sounds too one color, let us now add some intrigue. The other component of a moon garden is to include not just white flowers, but plants with silvery foliage that glow in the dwindling light. Plants that are fun to mix in are Lambs’ Ear (Stachys byzantine) and two of the Artemisias, Dusty Miller and “Silver Mound.’ Dusty Miller has fuzzy white leaves and “Silver Mound” has a feathery silver mound habit. Both are deer resistant.

Lavenders are good plants to mix in, with their grey-green foliage and familiar scent, and are also deer resistant. Deer do not like flowers with strong scents; so, many of these plants and herbs in general are great for us who have a deer problem. It is not unusual for me to have a dozen deer in my yard any time of the day, but they stay away from my moon garden.

To edge the front, I have moss phlox and lots of varieties of thyme. I use thyme in cooking, bath teas and potpourri; so this is very useful as well as fragrant plant to grow. Most of these plants are summer bloomers, and I get itchy to go outside when early spring arrives. Daffodils are my fix for early spring color. Daffodil “Mount Hood,” a large white old favorite, and the smaller double bloomer “Thalia” are two that have done well in my garden. Both are also fragrant. Other plants you may wish to try in your moon garden are cranesbill, muhly grass and candytuft.

As we stroll down the garden to the shady end, I have a beautiful light pink astilbe, Astilbe x rosea “Peach Blossom” and pink meadowsweet Filipendula rubra. I couldn’t help it, I just had to add a little pink color. Both these plants have beautiful feathery plumes and I grow them for their flowers as they are not fragrant. The heucheras, known as coral bells, come in many shades of pale colors but also leaves with vibrant colors, so the flowers dance at night, but you have some vibrant color in the day.

And if you don’t have deer, there are endless possibilities of hostas. I don’t dare grow them unless I put little cages around them. I have some in a fenced off area under my Redbud tree. I call it the plant prison. To get fragrance into my shady side, I chose Lily-of-the-Valley. If you have ever sniffed this ground cover, you know why it is cherished by the perfume industry. I like sweet woodruff for the airy flowers and spotted deadnettles for the variegated leaves. So, I hope I have given you some ideas for your own moon garden.

I must confess, I have yet a small surprise if you just want a small, fragrant corner. Nothing smells as wonderful as tuberoses. Polianthes tuberosa is a small bulb that does well as a container plant, only growing 18 inches tall. “The Pearl: is the variety I grow and it has an incredible fragrance. This plant is also used in the perfume industry. Pineapple lilies are just stunning with their conical flower heads topped with a tuft of green leaves resembling a pineapple. Add a pot of nicotiana and you have a spectacular white, fragrant Moon Garden in a sunny corner of your porch or deck. My husband especially likes to sit out in the evenings just to take in the scents.

Oh, one more thing. When the kids are over, don’t forget to check out the tiny white moth that lives in the yucca plant. She sleeps there in the daytime, but the show begins at night. You won’t believe what she does! I’ll save that for next time. Or, you can check out the internet, using the search terms “yucca plant and white moth.”

Check out the Fauquier County Master Gardener website for more ideas, events and classes. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener helpline at 540-341-7950.
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