By Elinor Bennett Markle
We are in the midst of simmer now. Did I say simmer? I meant to say “summer” of course. The weather is hot, and yet I love being outdoors. I have never quite understood how the first day of summer coincides with the shortening length of the day, but there it is, and there’s no denying it. The impact on me is subtle, yet sure. Regardless of the heat, I want to stay outside as long as possible, and I have found a cool garden style that extends my leisure time. I have joined the night shift.
My garden and patio offer the usual amenities of a contemporary outdoor room. We have the group seating, grill station, fire pit and outdoor speakers, so entertaining several people is easy on the weekends. During the week, we are left to ourselves. However, the outdoor room used for entertaining groups of friends seems too big for “just us.” We light a candle or two at the patio, but move past it, out beyond the fire pit, to the moon garden.
The moon garden is a garden space designed with varying shades of green, silver and blue foliage and white flowers. Sunlight reflected from the moon illuminates the space. Lounging in a moon garden is as different from group grilling at the fire pit, as well, night from day. The moon mood is quiet, romantic and mystical. The tempo slows as we walk on the bright white limestone steppers leading away from the house. For some unspoken reason, it feels best not to step into the grass; it is a dark and unknowable void. Better to place each step carefully on the center of each stone.
We turn the corner along the hedge and instantly all the house lights and patio candles are masked in shadow. Our eyes slowly focus on the sudden silver shapes of the white Adirondack chairs. Our hands and legs feel the smooth cold wood as we sit. Good thing we brought our beach towels to pad the seats because we will probably spend an hour sitting here, soaking up the secrete atmosphere of the shy night things. It is better to sit and take it all in, although in a large garden with light-colored paths strolling could be an option; some people say a moon garden should have artificial lighting, but I am a purist. I like moon gardens to rely on the moon.
In the moon garden, “smelling” is elevated to entertainment. While our eyes are adjusting to the pale lunar light, we breathe deeply and savor the scent of the night-blooming __________. Fill in the blank: it could be nicotiana, datura, jasmine, sweet autumn clematis, ipomoeas or some other white-petaled, fragrant bloom. The point is to maximize the sense of smell. In a successful moon garden there should be one major scent noticeable at a time. In the same way that several conflicting scents of soap, perfume and shampoo can combine to produce a sort of “yuck” smell on people, too many conflicting scents in the garden can repulse rather than refresh. Another option for entertainment provided by the moon garden is moth watching (for those that tend the fragrant night blooming flowers).
Something about the dark of night causes us to lower our voices, and that is a good thing, because it opens our ears to the sounds of the moon garden. There are the insects, of course, and the occasional night bird song, but there is also the rustle of the breeze in the leaves of grasses, pines and the taller trees. If we are quiet enough, we can hear the faint clinking of the small wind chime and the steady burble of the waterfall. The feeling is one of calm, and yet the unexpected seems just about to happen.
As we become accustomed to the cool glow, we see how the blooms of the white flowers around us seem to float in space. That is because the darker stems and leaves recede into the dark background. Our depth perception seems out of whack, another delight caused by the lunar light. The mottled trunks of the sycamore trees at the far end of the lawn sometimes seem too close for comfort. I have used several sizes and shapes of bloom, as well as foliage plants with silvery and variegated leaves. The differing sizes of blooms mess with our perception of the space, sometimes making the smaller blooms seem far away. Shadows and light on the variegated leaves of hosta and liriope give the illusion of movement in our peripheral vision. The silvery lamb’s ears and Artemisia take on the look of cold stone. Finally, the peacefulness of it overtakes me and it’s off to bed. Another day is done.
The night shift isn’t for everyone, that’s true. The ghostly allure that I find soothing may be too dramatic for some. The good news is that during the day a moon garden will look like a white garden — an elegant retreat that anyone seeking a relaxed atmosphere can enjoy. It will still be a space that cools the senses, giving us visual relief from the sun’s simmer.
Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org