From dusk til dawn: adventures in the wild night garden

It’s gone midnight and I’m brushing my teeth at my mum’s place in rural south Wales, listening to a group of very noisy frogs.  Peering through the frosted glass of the bathroom window, all I can see is inky darkness but the pond is clearly buzzing with late night life.

Tobacco plantFast forward a couple of weeks – it’s 3am now, I’m at a party in a canal-side central London garden and calling moorhens are swooping over our heads.  By 4am, as the black-blue sky gently begins to lighten, the sound of songbirds starts to swell.  By dawn, the spring chorus is in full swing.  It’s an interesting time to be up wherever you are, especially at this time of year.

There are many adventures to be had in the garden at night.  As dusk rolls in and day colours wash out, other shades become more prominent.  Sculptural shadows stretch across lawns and up walls.  Pale leaved plants and white flowers begin to glow in the twilight.  Heavy scents grow strong and hang thick in the air, drawing in moths to drink night nectar.

Sit quietly and watch as bats dart about in hungry pursuit of insects that have been drawn out by the approaching gloom.  Later, perhaps a hedgehog will wander through and hoover up some slugs.  A garden designed for nocturnal wildlife and planted with night loving flowers is an enchanting, sensual place.

Moth magic by moonlight

Perhaps misunderstood due to a single species’ taste for clothes, moths are fascinating to watch and a vital part of our garden’s ecosystems.  Last summer I went on a very urban moth spotting evening in King’s Cross and discovered how intricately beautiful and Elephant hawk mothvaried they are.  Some of our native species look like tiny birds, with exotic bright feathers and stunning markings.

Moths are precious pollinators and a vital food source for other garden species like bats, hedgehogs and frogs.  Moth caterpillars provide a veritable feast for baby birds – a brood of blue tit chicks can eat up to 15,000 of them.

Long grass, wild areas, nettles and native trees are good for moths and, when it comes to night nectar, there’s a huge range of perfumed plants that bloom after sunset.   Moths are attracted by sugary scents and pale colours, using both to navigate.  Night flowering jasmine and honeysuckle are classic moth traps.

Grow a range of species that flower at different times of year to provide nectar for as long as possible.  In spring, evening primrose and sweet rocket are good, while lavender flowers late into autumn.

Damp and dark

Organic gardeners should welcome frogs and toads into their gardens as they devour that much maligned creature of the night – the slug.  Creating a wildlife friendly pond will provide a home for both of these increasingly threatened amphibians, whose numbers are in serious decline due to habitat loss.  In spring time, the pond at night pulses with mating calls – it’s brilliant to listen to, especially when brushing one’s teeth!   You can download a free guide to building a garden pond from www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening.

A pond will also attract night-flying insects, which in turn will attract bats.  Bat numbers are also in decline, due to pesticide use and other environmental pressures decimating their food supplies, so an invertebrate rich garden can become an important feeding ground.

A single bat can eat up to 3,000 flying insects in one night.  It’s rather fun to watch bats swooping and darting around catching flies in your garden while indulging in an alfresco evening cuppa.

Night talk

I love the language used to describe the beasts that emerge after dark.  Nocturnal means ‘of the night’, while vespertine derives from the Latin vesper meaning ‘evening (star)’ and refers to dusk loving Verbenaspecies.  In botany, a vespertine flower blooms exclusively in the evening, while in zoology a vespertine creature is one that’s active in the evening, like a bat.  My favourite though is crepuscular, which means ‘of twilight’ and is used to refer to species that are active in both the early evening and early morning.

There’s definitely something special about spending time in the garden or any green space at night.  The senses are more alert – smells are stronger, sounds somehow louder and there’s so much to spot, plus as a gardener it’s easier to relax, no jobs that can be done.  So, why not go nocturnal this summer?  Fill your patch with fragrant vespertine plants, sit back and watch the crepuscular creatures arrive.

Project

White night box

Attract moths by creating a low maintenance, sweet smelling mini white night garden in a window box.  White flowers reflect moonlight and the tiny star shaped flowers of jasmine start to shine after dusk.  Jasmine’s fragrance is at its most potent at night, which is why it’s harvested in the early hours when it’s grown commercially.  Tobacco plant also gives off a strong night perfume and its elegant long white trumpet shaped flowers are loved by moths.

Lavender is another great plant to include in your night garden box – its silvery, spiky foliage looks magical in half light.  Or why not try sweet rocket, also known as ‘mother of the evening’, strong smelling and ranging in colour from white to purple.  A container planted with night lovers will smell and look gorgeous by the light of the moon.  It’s definitely possible to be moth friendly in miniature – even the smallest scale gardens can be valuable resources for hungry insects.

Night lovers

Evening primrose

Honeysuckle

Ice plant

Jasmine

Night flowering catchfly

Night scented stock

Soapwort

Sweet rocket

Tobacco plant

White campion

Verbena

Full moon diary summer 2009

Wildlife spotting by the light of the moon

June 22nd

July 22nd

August 20th

September 18th

This article appears in the June issue of Organic Garden and Home magazine

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