The sun is one of the plants’ required food sources, one of three they need to survive, grow, and reproduce. They also need it for photosynthesis, which is the chemical reaction that converts carbon dioxide and water into the oxygen we need to live and breathe, and the glucose that results in energy-giving carbohydrates for animals and humans. Chlorophyll molecules, located in the chloroplasts, absorb the sunlight and convert it into the energy it needs to make photosynthesizing possible.
The processes are intricate, involved, and beautiful examples of the wonder of complex biological relationships.
This biology also ensures that living things do not live in terms of absolutes. Though the acknowledged norm for many, sun gardening is not the only option. Some plants need no sunlight to survive. Some plants do not synthesize. Some plants even produce oxygen at night. There are even plants pollinated at night by moths, bats, and some species of bees.
Chlorophyll is what gives chloroplasts their green color. Reticulated chloroplast structures. Imaged in 3-D using confocal microscopy of chlorophyll autofluorescence. “Chloroplast 3” by Allisonmlewis / Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
Hence, moon gardening after dark is made possible. And many say a moon garden offers an experience with magic and enchantment that a day garden cannot provide; it is a uniquely sensory-driven alternative to traditional gardening.
Furthermore, they are easily adaptable to new or existing landscapes, large or small, in-ground or above it.
- The Evolution of the Moon Garden
- Required Components of a Moon Garden
- Design and Layout of the Moon Garden
- Moon Garden Plant Palettes for Every Application
- A Place of Healing and Restoring
The Evolution of the Moon Garden
Part of the appeal of having a moon garden is engagement in an activity practiced by our ancient ancestors. The earliest Greek and Roman civilizations participated in it, and in the days before electricity, farmers relied on it. But the concept has changed drastically and is no longer done for the same reasons and with the same methodology.
Cultivating by the Phases
Survival – and the requirement of food to survive – was the motivation that drove the earliest practice. And in the efforts to grow more food and ensure more consistent availability, people looked to the gravitational pull on Earth and the tides.
They believed that that pull also resulted in higher moisture content in the soil, which would mean better germination rates and faster growth. That was the birth of planting by the phases.
The Light of the Harvest Moon
Much later, farmers also needed abundant harvests and looked to the moon for help, but not for its influence on tides. Unable to complete the work of harvesting by the light of day, they worked into the night, guided by the super-bright light of September’s full moon. This practice coined the term harvest moon still heard today.
In the days before electricity, farmers worked into the night and harvested by the bright light of September’s full moon, giving birth to a nickname still used today: “harvest moon.” “Harvest Moon” by SugaShane / CC BY-NC 2.0
Time and invention have morphed today’s modern-era versions into something far more personal. They are enjoyed for their beautiful selection of flowers and plants and the feelings the sensory-focused experience invokes.
Doing so in tandem with the different phases is not required and is not notably applicable to flowers and plants. However, if you are growing fruits or vegetables, either from seed or seedling, the effects of lining up the process with certain phases are potentially huge and something you may want to consider.
Required Components of a Moon Garden
It only takes a few ingredients, but they are specific in a way that leaves little wiggle room. They are:
- a small fraction of real sunlight
- the reflection of that light off of the one-of-a-kind surface of the moon
- the cover of natural, outdoor, unlit darkness; for maximum effect, there should be no other sources of light
- a plant palette that consists of:
- mostly aromatics
- mostly night-bloomers, or plants that retain their blooms at night
- flowers with white or pale-colored blooms (white is better) and plants with silver or variegated foliage
Design and Layout of the Moon Garden
The careful and thoughtful layout of a moon garden is essential for peak enjoyment. A prerequisite to that may be some nightly observation of how the light travels across the planting areas. Achieving the best possible layout is much more likely when working from a predetermined design.
Moon Garden Design
This is the part where you get to start imagining having the moon garden of your dreams. Think of the ways you want it to make you feel, and the parts of you that may need to heal, and let that drive what you design.
But before that, there are some practical tasks to accomplish. Be sure you know the total size of the area(s) in which you will be planting. You should also know if your garden will be in the ground, above ground in containers or hanging baskets, or a combined mix. Both of these things dictate the appropriate number of plants and flowers to install, along with size and species.
A large cluster of Hydrangea, the white of which is accentuated by the light of night.
Gardeners with more experience will often skip taking measurements and determine the plants needed just by “eyeballing” the area. If you are not comfortable with your ability to do that, you will need to get actual measurements.
Quick Method to Determine Square Footage
- Measure one of the lengths (long section) in feet
- Measure one of the widths (short section) in feet
- Multiply the two numbers to get the total square footage
- 25′ length
- 10′ width
- (25×10)= 250 SF
This easy method works well if your planting area is either square or rectangular, or at least a rough approximation of either. Irregularly shaped areas require a more involved process of taking multiple measurements of smaller shapes that, together, can be added up for a total.
The square footage number can tell you the number of plants you need IF:
- You know the plants’ spacing requirements, for example, 12″ or 24″ on center, which refers to the amount of space recommended between plants
- You want to fill in the entire area, evenly and uniformly, with the same distance between each plant, like a grid.
There is nothing wrong with a total fill-in if that’s the look you like, but it does preclude using clusters or groups of plants, which many feel looks more natural.
If you’re using the natural-style design, there’s no formula for determining the number of plants. You will need to look at the area and visualize the new plants in your mind’s eye to get your totals.
It’s totally subjective and based entirely on your preferred aesthetic.
A lunar landscape is bright and lovely during the day as well. You can imagine how the white flowers and light colored foliage will glow at night.
Have a pad and paper and take notes as you do the visualization exercise. Decide if your clusters will include plants of varying species and sizes/heights, and be sure to note the sizes and quantities of the plant material needed for each group of plants.
Typical sizes of plant material:
- flowers/annuals: 6-packs or 4” pots; usually do not exceed 1-gallon
- plants/shrubs/vines: 1-gallon or 5-gallon
- small, ornamental trees: 15-gallon
- Standard to larger size trees: 24” box, up to 36”*
*Be aware: it may be the “next size” up, but a 36” box tree, compared to a 24”, is much more difficult to install and can be substantially more expensive. Unless an immediate “wow” factor is needed, I would stick to 4” pots for annuals, 1-gallon for shrubs if available (5’s if not), and 15-gallon for all trees.
Again, if you are unsure of your ability to determine quantities and sizes based on your SF, give it your best shot and then ask a friend who has more experience gardening what they think of your numbers. A nursery professional will likely be more than happy to provide some feedback as well.
Tip: Don’t overthink it. It’s not as hard as you may think. Go with what feels right and looks practical for the space and you will likely have a solid number.
Additional Design Details
Other design considerations, depending on your situation, could be:
- Irrigation – are you going to hand-water or irrigate? Are you tying into an existing system, or is a new one needed?
- Hardscape and site features – will you be adding anything to the design that needs building, like a retaining wall or arbor? Are you adding ready-made pieces like pots or trellises?
- Demo or retrofitting – Do you have existing elements with which the new ones need to blend seamlessly? Is there anything existing that will not be in the new moon garden that requires demolition and removal?
Lastly, don’t forget why you’re doing this! Your design should include a chair or bench, perhaps a swing or even a hammock. It is the spot from where you will enjoy the beauty of your moon garden. Most people choose areas that are in the center or along a perimeter. Wherever you choose, keep it in mind as you come up with your design and during the installation process, and make the necessary tweaks to ensure it is the best seat in the house.
A moon garden is meant to be enjoyed from within, so don’t forget to pick the best vantage point and include a relaxing area for sitting.
Measurements and spacing aside, the design should come from your heart. Feel your way through it, and include elements that have meaning to you. Remember the healing aspect it’s meant to have, and allow it to stir up emotions that never have a chance to be felt. It is your breath that gives it life, and when you have built it, it should in turn speak to you.
Moon Garden Layout
Where design can factor in intangibles like how something makes you feel, the layout makes it all practical and buildable. It is the arrangement of the individual plants and the resulting overall appearance and does not consider the emotional or metaphysical aspects the way design does.
If you draw a design or have a planting plan that creates a natural flow and makes smart use of the available space, the resulting layout will be everything you envisioned.
Use Completed Layouts to Inspire Design
But if you’re not quite there yet, it’s OK. Gardeners of all skill levels struggle in the design phase at one time or another. When that happens to me, I think about the project in terms of the layout. Don’t focus too heavily on one or two square feet of space and the two plants that you might put there; think instead of the finished product. Visualize it.
Looking at pictures of other evening landscapes can help you narrow down what you do – and just as helpful, what you don’t – want to include.
If you have no idea where to start or even what you may or may not want or like, start by looking at pictures of completed moon gardens in magazines or online. Pay attention to the layouts that not only grab but hold your attention for an extended time. When we see something beautiful to us, we have a natural physiological desire to stare. Note which layouts elicit this reaction. Let the images marinade in your brain for several hours, or better yet, a day or two.
Next, stand outside in the designated space. Close your eyes and imagine you’re sitting in your swing or laying in your hammock, looking out over your moon garden. What do you want to see? Where do you want to see it? Is it tall or short? Is it solo or part of a group? Picture it in your mind and picture only things that you find lovely to see.
Why Beauty is so Important For a Moon Garden
You will likely start to see the individual elements most appealing to you from the images you saw a day or two earlier. You may even be able to see how those individual parts come together to create a design that you start to feel on an emotional level because it is full of the things most beautiful to you.
That connection is the goal – that is how it should make you feel. That’s your design.
Don’t skimp on beauty. Create a space that you crave being in, for when you are, it will be truly restorative.
Additional Layout Details
From a less emotional frame of mind, it may be beneficial to have the following considerations on your layout radar:
- If you have a lot of space from which to choose, pick a site easily accessible at nighttime.
- Consider if there will be foot traffic and how it will flow.
- As aromatherapy is a large part of the experience, place fragrant elements close to windows or doors that stay open for any time.
- Common locations are just off patios, decks, or porches.
- Flowers with white petals and silver foliage are not the only options. Don’t hesitate to include trees, grasses, bushes, cacti, succulents, white or pale-colored hardscapes, or any other elements that both reflect the light and speak to your aesthetic. Remember you can use black or very darkly colored elements to create blackout pockets.
- Your design can follow specific styles and themes – such as xeriscape, tropical, formal, cottage, and Zen – just as sun gardens do
- For nights with little to no natural light, supplement with low voltage or solar powered ornamental lighting; metal fixtures, hanging globes, and silver wire fairy lights all add soft, ambient lighting.
- Think in “big picture” terms and imagine what your moon garden will look like one, two, or five years from now. Take care to avoid planting in locations that may cause damage, interfere with overhead or underground lines, block needed visibility, or cause an issue with your neighbors.
- Be aware of plant toxicity, especially if pets or children will be in the vicinity.
Moon Garden Plant Palettes for Every Application
Following are recommendations for trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, and cacti. Not all plants are appropriate for and therefore available in all areas. The planting zone you are in, along with climate, weather patterns, and other environmental factors, determine what will be available to you from a nursery or wholesale grower.
If you like the plants listed but are unable to find or grow them, someone from your local nursery should be able to recommend appropriate substitutions. They can also advise if any plants have special needs or requirements at installation. If not, proceed with either species-specific or general best practices for planting any species.
Sound and actionable how-to planting guide that can be applied to virtually any species of tree or shrub.
Ornamental Pear – This is included on this list because they have a nice long bloom that is stunning, with virtually every square inch of canopy covered in white. Full disclosure: you have to get past a notoriously conspicuous smell. Some are bothered by it, some are not.
If the smell doesn’t bother you, Ornamental Pear trees are picture perfect additions to a moon garden.
Cherry Blossom – This tree is technically not a night-bloomer. It blooms once per year for one to two weeks, and the blooms remain open for the duration. The one exception is the autumnalis species, which blooms twice per year. Though they do catch light in an eye-catching way, they are stunning when lit, so much so that their short bloom cycle more than makes them a worthy addition. On nights without natural light, light up a cherry blossom instead. They are truly spectacular.
A full moon is just visible between the arching canopies of two Cherry Blossom trees. Many Asian countries celebrate this tree and its bloom with weeks-long annual events.
White Wisteria – Speaking of spectacular, this one is a stunner. They smell good, look amazing, are architecturally interesting, and usually live well over 50 years. They are known as a vine but can be trained to grow as trees. Cons: they can take two, three or more years to bloom, and overall they are fairly high maintenance.
Nighttime view of a cluster of white Japanese Wisteria trees (Wisteria floribunda). There is a 144-year-old specimen in Japan widely regarded as the most beautiful tree in the world.
White Bleeding Heart – Beautiful heart-shaped flowers in stark white; does well in-ground or in a container.
The hanging, heart-shaped blooms of the Bleeding Heart plant, at night.
Gardenia Augusta – The blooms of this plant are even more fragrant at night than they are during the day.
Mexican Evening Primrose – This plant comes in white and pale pink, both of which show up nicely at night.
Pampas Grass – Not a night bloomer or with any fragrance to offer, but their white feathery plumes catch the light in a way that – combined with their architecture, movement, and gentle rustle – makes them a must-have. Maiden Grass produces a similar effect.
On left: Pampas Grass. On right: Lamb’s Ear.
Lamb’s Ear Plant – The light, silvery foliage is perfect for a moon garden. The plant also combines well with other plants in either containers or hanging baskets.
- Night-blooming Jasmine – This plant is well known for its strong fragrance, which can waft up to 20 feet. It features small, bright white flowers against dark green waxy foliage.
- Climbing Hydrangeas (vine) – This is the species’ only vine, one of the few fragrant options, and a rare shade-tolerant variety of Hydrangea. It requires patience as first blooms could take three or four seasons. It also requires a sturdy frame for climbing.
- White Lady Banks Rose – More commonly seen in yellow, or a mix of both, the white variety is a bit harder to find on its own. The yellow variety is light enough in hue that it too has its place in a moon garden. It’s a fast-growing lover of warm weather and looks especially appealing crawling over and covering arbors and pergolas. Its bloom behavior is often called “explosive,” for good reason.
- Moonflower – What moon garden is complete without one?
On left: White Tulips. On right: Ornamental Onion.
- White Tulips – A swath of these flowers make a striking border along paths and walkways. There are several varieties from which to choose, all of which are well-suited to a moon garden. Try ‘White Prince,’ ‘Ivory Floradale Hybrid,’ or the Sapporo Lily Tulip, which features pointed tips and makes a striking, bright silhouette against the night.
- Shasta Daisy ‘Snowcap’ – This variety is a bit smaller and more compact than other daisies, and they sparkle at night.
- Mount Everest Allium – This uniquely structured flower looks like a lollipop and appealingly rises above others. Also known as an Ornamental Onion, it has a fragrance you might not expect. It is subtle and sweet.
- Stock – Also called ‘Night-scented Stock’ or ‘Annual Stock’, this flower is known for its fragrance. It looks beautiful tucked into a pot or hanging basket, especially with any succulent.
*Other flowers/annuals to consider: Alyssum, white Snapdragon, white Angelonia, and Dusty Miller.
- Aloe Vera ‘White Beauty’ – This plant also produces oxygen at night.
- Night-blooming Cereus – The name is a catch-all for seven different genera of cacti with night-blooming species. There is one species that only blooms one night per year, so be careful which variety you choose. It will take several years for any cereus species to bloom, but when it does, the blooms are bright white, over 6″ across, and wonderfully fragrant. They prefer darkness from dusk to dawn and require manicuring to keep from looking unkempt. Dragon Fruit Plant is another option.
Both images are of the blooms of different night-blooming Cereus. On left: Dutchman’s Pipe. On right: Peruvian cereus (Cereus peruvianus or Cereus repandus).
- Century Plant v. mediopicta (Alba) – The Century Plant has two variegated options: marginata has light stripes down the sides, and mediopicta has the light stripe down the middle. I prefer the mediopicta with the center stripe. Look for the bright white of the ‘Alba’ cultivar of this variety, as the standard cultivar is more yellow.
*Other cacti/succulents to consider: Any other white or light-colored Aloe Vera hybrid, White Agave, White Hair Agave, White Rhino Agave (Victoria reginae), Arizona Snowcap (small cactus with white spikes), and White Sprite (succulent).
Container and Hanging Basket Recommendations
- Variegated Sansevieria – This plant is also known as Mother-in-Law Tongue or Snake Plant and produces oxygen at night. Sansevieria is right at home in containers.
- Tuberose – Exceptionally fragrant and thrives in a container.
- Gypsophila spp. – Commonly known as Baby’s Breath and for being a bouquet-filler, they make great moon garden additions thanks to generous sprays of white blooms. They are a perfect companion plant and enhance the appearance of literally every type of plant or flower. Species range from mere inches tall to a few feet. Recommended for either a container or hanging basket.
Both species shown are beautiful additions to a container moon garden, though they do well in the ground too. On left: variegated Hosta. On right: Gypsophila spp. (Baby’s Breath Plant).
- Variegated Hosta – There are some plants with bright white variegations that create such a striking contrast they add visual interest wherever they are, day or night. Hosta thrives in the ground, but the variegated variety complements a container or hanging basket so well.
*Other hanging basket and container options to consider: any hybrid of white Calibrachoa, silver Artemisia, white Phlox, and any of the Caladium hybrids with ‘white’ in their name.
All species recommended for containers or hanging baskets also do well in the ground, but in my personal opinion, have an aesthetic well-suited to a grouped container garden.
Every plant on this list in every category can be companion-planted with any other. Whether pairing off or grouping in three or four, you’ll find a beautiful result with any combination you devise.
Note regarding water features: The Lotus flower is a popular choice, but impossible considering its growing habits. White water lilies are a nice substitution, and have showy, fragrant blooms that grow and spread over the surface.
A Place of Healing and Restoring
Have you always felt a connection with the moon? There is no better place to express and enjoy that than in a moon garden you designed and built.
What you have at the end of all this is a respite. Everything in it symbolizes what you find most beautiful, and that connects every element to you in a personal, emotional way. In that beauty, there is healing. This should be a place where you can shed the weight of anything distressing, and in that weightless state, peel away what closes you up.
Let yourself be open. Be vulnerable. Just breathe and inhale the oxygen these lovely plants have made for you. Let the moon pull you in, and feel your strength rise with the tides.