Step into the garden at night and, once your eyes have adjusted to the dark, an after hours world teeming with life will slowly emerge from the gloom. The night garden is completely altered from the one experienced during the day. It looks, sounds and smells different. Designed for nocturnal wildlife, and planted with night loving plants, it can be an enchanting place populated by many crepuscular creatures.
Even in the depths of winter, it’s possible to enjoy your garden after dark. Although many species hibernate, there are still good wildlife spotting opportunities at this time of year. With the trees bare of their leaves, the chances of seeing the silhouette of an owl cutting across a moonlit sky are greatly increased. Watching birds feeding in the dim half light of an early winter morning is a joy, and spying a fox foraging through the garden, as frost thickens and glisters in the evening gloom, has a special, chilly charm.
Winter flowering plants that work well in a wild night garden include things like virburnums, witch hazel, winter jasmine and winter flowering honeysuckle. These plants provide colour and fragrance, as well as valuable nectar for any insects that might be tempted out by any milder winter weather. Heathers also inject colour and texture over the colder months and provide important breeding areas for moths.
But it is in spring and summer that the magic of the night garden is at its peak. Amongst your vegetables, it is possible to include plants that come alive after dark, ones that encourage dusk loving wildlife that will in turn help protect your crops. The moth enthusiast in Allan Shepherd’s book ‘Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night-time’ celebrates the joys of moon bathing in a wildlife friendly kitchen garden.
“The moth collector’s garden is tribute to creation and the night. To rod cells and melatonin. To the moon and moths. Every plant in it has some quality brought out by darkness. Whether it is the opening of flower bud, the release of scent, or the illumination of a certain type of bold whiteness only really visible when colour is banished from the eye.”
The garden after dark is a sensual place, where our eyes work differently and our ears and noses are more sensitive than ever. The noises emanating from a wildlife friendly night garden are incredible – the screech of owls and foxes, the snufflings of hedgehogs and badgers, and the love calls of mating frogs.
With the fading light also comes the heady perfume of night flowering plants, and with the sugary fragrances come the insects that are attracted to them. White and silver plants begin to glow in half light and stems and branches become sculptural silhouettes, casting striking shadows. An area designed for the night is not only good for wildlife but a great place for some alfresco relaxation.
So what should you plant in your night patch? Nocturnal species of moths are often attracted by scents and by pale coloured plants, using both to navigate. Species such as night scented stock, honeysuckle, mint, evening primrose, tobacco plant and soapwort are good. Gardens that are rich in invertebrates at night-time will in turn attract nocturnal mammals like hedgehogs and bats.
Bats emerge at dusk to hunt for night-flying insects, with each one eating up to 3000 every night. The rapid decline in night-flying insects (due to pesticide use and other environmental pressures) has led to a decline in bat numbers, so a garden rich with insect life at night could become an attractive feeding ground.
Glorious glow worms
Researching night gardening also seemed the perfect excuse to find out more about the glow worm, which actually isn’t a worm at all but a beetle. Seeing one of these firebugs feels exciting, exotic even. The light from glow worms is a form of bioluminescence. Only females emit light, in a bid to attract males, and their glowing life is just a few weeks long.
Angela Brennan from London Wildlife Trust is a something of a glow worm expert. “Glow worms are becoming a real rarity a nd are now uncommon in gardens, but they have been reported from time to time. They tend to start displaying around an hour after sunset, when the sky is fairly dark. They look like pale green LED lights and are absolutely wonderful. A glow worm friendly garden would be pesticide free and have undisturbed areas away from lights, with long grass, hedgerows and a pond.”
Much have I loved the night
Choosing the right kinds of plants, and creating areas that are attractive to night loving species, will make your green patch an afterhours delight, both for you and for the wildlife that will keep pests under control. Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden at Sissinghurst is one of the most famous gardens designed to be experienced after sunset. “Much have I loved the night,” she wrote, “drinking the deep nocturnal silences… only with nightfall could I stand apart and view the shaping pattern of my way.” It’s a whole new world – enjoy yours!
Full moon diary
The wildlife spotting potential of the garden at night time is vast, and it’s an especially magical place to be when the moon is full and the sky is clear. In the next few months, there’ll be full moons on:
Sunday 11th January 2009
Monday 9th February 2009
Wednesday 11th March 2009
Thursday 9th April 2009
Saturday 9th May 2009
All your glow worm questions answered – www.glowworms.org.uk
Wildlife friendly gardening advice – www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening
RHS night planting tips – www.rhs.org.uk/Learning/research/biodiversity/wildnightout_plants.asp
‘Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night-time: The fantastic story of the disappearing night’ by Allan Shepherd (ISBN 1-90217-525-5)
This article appears in the Feb 2009 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine