Take my hand
We’re off to the night-time garden.
—Adapted from, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica (1991)
Composers: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett
An Anna’s hummingbird treads air, studying you at eye level before shooting to the top of the lemon tree to sing its frantically beating heart out. Has the passionflower vined farther along the fence over the past couple hours? Did you catch the buttercups turning their orange bobbleheads toward the sun as it moseyed across the sky? Eventually, the sun tucks below the horizon and the moon rises opposite in that cyclical cosmic trade-off between day work and graveyard shift: Exit light. Enter night.
It’s easy to forget the garden still exists beyond the four walls of your home once night falls. While many of us are making dinner, helping the kids with homework, prepping for tomorrow, and winding down to finally take refuge in that coveted rectangle called bed, many of the plants and their associated animal consorts remain busy in the garden, doing their thing in their adjacent kingdoms undeterred by the absence of sunshine. We may bail for the indoors come evening, but much of the world is just getting started, albeit darkly.
As we fall our clocks back an hour in November and the night creeps ever longer through December’s winter solstice, gardeners are presented with an opportunity to connect to the dark. After a nine-to-five workday and sundry obligations, it is often evening or later by the time one can make it into the garden. Introverts may thrive in the peace and stillness that descends once most of their loud fellow humans head indoors. In our relentlessly optimistic culture, it can be a relief for some of us to get in touch with our dark side, appreciating the free, subtle gifts of the twilight.
Let’s consider both ecologically relevant advice—purposefully designing a garden as robust habitat for nocturnal species; as well as garden tips for entertaining—inviting that daytime party into the lush darkness by creating a meaningful space for beauty and merriment.
Take my hand: We’re off to the night-time garden.
The Remarkable Moths
This relatively unpeopled realm presents the opportunity for interspecies relationship-building, a time to become better acquainted with, as John Muir put it, our “horizontal brothers and sisters.”
According to Johan Eklöf, Swedish bat scientist and author of The Darkness Manifesto (2023), no less than a third of all vertebrates and almost two-thirds of all invertebrates are nocturnal. This means most of the activities integral to life beyond the human sphere—ecological interactions like predation, pollination, and mating—are going down when we’re snoozing. So while the daytime garden provides habitat for the bees, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, and squirrels, once the sun sets, a different crew takes their turn: the owls, foxes, and raccoons, as well as the superstars of nocturnal pollination, the bats and moths.
Here in the Pacific West we are graced with a superior pollinator: the moths—easy to spot flitting around gardens, resting on trailside wildflowers, and congregating in the glow of our bright porch lights like holy rollers worshiping an electric god. But with their mostly drab colors, nocturnal rhythms, and occasional pesty behavior nibbling on our crops and sweaters, they tend to be relegated to second-class status as the less glamorous cousins of the beloved butterfly. Not to make it a numbers game, but there are about 11,000 moth species in the United States alone, almost 15 times more than the 750 kinds of butterflies. These overlooked insects are attracted to plants with smaller, daintier flowers, sometimes tubular in shape and with sweet, strong scents. The blooms are often pale in color and without nectar guides. Think evening primroses (Oenothera spp.), California aster (Symphyotrichum chilense), white jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), and nightshades (Solanaceae).
Though moths are not nearly as popular a subject for tattoos as their symbolic lepidopteran counterparts, they are the unsung heroes of the pollination show. Honey, bumble, and hundreds of species of native bees are indeed essential
workers, but moths visit a wider variety of blossoms than do the busy buzzers of the bee family (Apidae). Aided by their exceptional sense of smell, they use their antennae to discern separate scent molecules to find a mate or a flower many miles away. A 2020 study by British researchers indicated moths are better at pollinating than previously assumed, providing “highly complex pollen transport links” in agricultural settings, and emphasized they have been significantly understudied due to their nocturnal nature (Walton et. al 2020). Another study found these nighttime insects pollinating at a faster rate than those pollinators on the day shift (Anderson, Rotheray, and Matthews 2023). These are only two of the dozens of studies extolling the forgotten moth.
To attract nocturnal moths to your dark garden, think about planting flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.), evening primrose (Oenothera spp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), four o’clocks (Mirabilis spp.), yuccas (Yucca spp.), daturas (Datura spp.), and sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) to call out just a few. Northern California moth-loving gardeners should check out the “California Native Moon Garden Plant List,” an inventory of species favored by moths compiled by Meghan Ashley Peterman of Hallberg Butterfly Gardens in Sebastopol.
If you are a super generous gardener and don’t mind some nibbles, you can encourage moths beyond providing pollen and nectar by planting trees and hedges their caterpillars can eat. If you have grass, let it grow long enough so that it flowers (very anti-“mowed lawn,” we know), and remember that native species and cottage-garden perennials are better for attracting insects than highly bred cultivars, bedding plants, and double-flowered varieties. Those “messy garden” elements—the brush piles, downed wood, and leaf litter—serve as beneficial habitat, so if you’re able to ditch that dominant paradigm around a perfectly maintained garden, all the better for the moths and other organisms.
These super-pollinators are especially sensitive to light pollution. Whether streetlamps, headlights, or buildings aglow 24/7, the shine from artificial sources keeps them hypnotized and inactive when they would naturally be navigating their course by the moonlight as they have for at least 200 million years, guiding them to nectar and ensuring plants get pollinated. And if affecting their ability to feed themselves isn’t injury enough, light pollution can kill a moth’s libido. When it appears to be dawn all night, their production of pheromones can be thwarted because darkness is the signal for their hormonal system to turn on. As part of the broader population crashes known as the insect apocalypse, the majority of moth species are already in decline, and one-third is severely endangered. Moths can’t afford to not be in the mood.
As night owls and artists have understood well throughout history, the hours from dusk to dawn have a unique vibe. “There’s just a different energy and creativity that come on sometime right after you’ve forgotten you need dinner,” said Mary Frances Bender, owner of thicket, a Portland-based design company and garden shop.
An abundance of bright electric lighting tends to not be copacetic with an atmosphere of intrigue and tranquility, should that sense of mystery be what you’re aiming for. The ecologically conscientious nighttime garden is designed around a mindfulness of light pollution. Most spaces will need to incorporate at least some illumination, however, so what are the smarter options? Try fairy lights, low-intensity solar-powered lanterns, or motion-activated bulbs. Using candlelight offers an inexpensive, low-impact, and romantic touch. Soft downlighting mimics moonlight, while an area for fire evokes a connection to our primal past, sense of camaraderie, and warmth (check local regulations on recreational backyard fires first). It is also valid, I think, to assess whether your garden lighting might have a big impact or not in the context of how much light pollution already exists in your neighborhood—significantly different in an urban location versus a rural or even suburban one.
If you prefer to really keep it on the dark side, there is good news: In terms of developing night vision, our bodies can come through, to an extent, despite our poor capacity compared to so many other animal species. It is possible to develop “new eyes” in the dark. Once the sun goes down, it takes about half an hour to build up enough light-sensitive visual pigment, called rhodopsin, in the rod cells of our retina; it takes a bit longer until we can orient in the dark. In the absence of light pollution, our capacity to see becomes progressively better—success!—though can be annihilated in seconds by inopportune illumination.
Just like us and other living organisms, plants possess a circadian rhythm, daily cycles on an approximately 24-hour clock. These rhythms appear to be controlled internally by plants but also correspond to day length and the seasons. “Sleep” movements at dusk and dawn are easy to observe, for example, in the prayer plant (Marantana leuconeura), a common houseplant with leaves that fold and unfold throughout the day. In the same circadian vein, the flowers of several moth-pollinated plants open at different times during the night, insurance there is likely a hungry lepidopteran nearby as well as reducing competition among the plants for the pollinator’s attention.
On a global scale, plants wake up to the sunrise. The warmth from the sun stimulates the microscopic pores on the underside of leaves—the stomata—to open, allowing for water loss and gas exchange with the atmosphere. According to Charles Hood and José Gabriel Martínez-Fonseca in their new book Nocturnalia, the movement made by this collective exhale is visible from space.
Form and Color
The quintessential nighttime garden offers a sense of privacy and enclosure rather than feeling public, airy, and exposed. This vibe can help alleviate the vulnerability easily associated with darkness. Taller trees and hedges can create an organic walled secret garden, with the dual function of toning down the wind and chill. Building a pergola lends a similar ambiance; drape it with moonflower (Ipomoea alba), chaparral clematis (Clematis lasiantha), or one of numerous species of white-flowered climbing roses.
Color is arguably the first aspect most of us will consider when plotting our twilight paradise (we are a visual species, after all). It is also one of the easiest changes to implement immediately with the addition of plants with flowers, foliage, or fruits of white, the most useful color against the black of night. A dark hedge provides a contrasting background to really set off the natural illumination. Be aware, however, that the opposite can also be true: a predominantly white garden can be too intensely dazzling during the day. In addition to the go-to white, pale yellow and silver are also effective reflectors of low light. For horticulturalists living in mediterranean climates like coastal California, there are tons of plants with silver foliage—an adaptation to survive heat and drought—including lavender (Lavandula spp.), mugwort (Artemisia spp.), and liveforever (Dudleya spp.). In my go-to book for nighttime garden inspiration, The Twilight Garden (2011), author Lia Leendertz notes that even some blue and purple flowers pop against the night sky.
For additional Nighttime Plant Recommendations from Sky Nursery, Shoreline, WA click here.
Shadows and Fragrance
In intimate relation to light are the playful and impressive shapes various species make as the sun sets and the sky progresses from orange to azure. Any number of palms, such as Trachycarpus, can add drama, as will the sword-like leaves of palm lily (Cordyline spp.) and agave (Agave spp.), leafless dogwood (Cornus spp.) branches, the wending arms of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and manzanita’s (Arctostaphylos spp.) artful architecture. Ferns have fun silhouettes. Grasses give good shadows. Weirdly shaped seedheads that can persist through late autumn and winter, such as coneflower (Echinacea spp.) and onions (Allium spp.), are like ornaments decorating the garden room. Indian mallow (Abutilon spp.) and fuchsia (Fuchsia spp.) come pre-hung with their own “lanterns,” especially species and cultivars that are white- or lighter-colored.
One of the most sensual aspects of designing for a dark horticulture involves fragrance. Olfactory opportunities can provoke a deep “trigger to memory,” as Leendertz writes. It’s no coincidence that so many plants pollinated by nocturnal moths and bats are also strongly scented: beneath a night sky and with blossoms less colorful than daytime species, they’ve got to advertise themselves somehow. This means there are hundreds of species for the aromatically inclined gardener to choose from. Leendertz suggests packing in scented plants at every opportunity in order to guarantee you get “hits” of fragrance from many points as you wander through the landscape. Another useful strategy is to have containers of redolent plants near seating areas if you want a whiff as you lounge. Consider choosing species of heliotrope (Heliotropium spp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), hyacinths (Hyancinthus spp.), or even herbs for cooking.
Depending on your vision, there is a plethora of human-made objects to integrate into the design and add your own spirit, as well. A pizza oven (my favorites are sculpted of cob), low-lit tiki bar, or comfy chair for meditation? A hammock or a site large enough to set up a tent so the kids (or you) can sleep and play on real earth for a night or two? And if you are lucky and live beneath relatively dark skies, what about a flat spot for a telescope to view the stars, our celestial link to wishes and wonder that early-twentieth-century writer Frances Theodora Parsons once described as “sky flowers”?
Happy Winter Solstice
We’ve exited the light, entered the night, and maybe even become more comfortable approaching the nighttime garden—as philosophy, pollinator refugia, and place of late-night revelry.
It’s time to enjoy a new, seasonal way of being connected to one of our most special places.
The gibbous moon shines its gentle illumination, enough to dampen the stars drawing Auriga and Gemini in the winter solstice sky. You blink a couple times, avoid looking at the nearby streetlight, and decide you’ve developed enough precious rhodopsin to have adequate night vision and attempt a bit of work. You open your pruners and cut back the leggy stems of white sage (Salvia apiana), its purifying spice flooding the cool air. You tidy up the ponysfoot (Dichondra argentea) groundcover, its leaves like silver hearts. You witness a hawkmoth (Sphingidae) probe its long, filament tongue into the center of the woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris). Did you hear the pair of great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus) conversing in hoots, or see the family of five bandito mapaches (Procyon lotor) amble about searching for garden grubs and dunking their human-like hands in the small pond? Did you smile at the yips from the den of coyotes (Canis latrans) living beyond your garden, their spirited response answering the call of an ambulance siren?
Inhaling the scent of angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens) so potent it’s intoxicating, you realize you’ve become a cathemeral creature, active both during hours of daylight and of darkness. Ambiurnal. Everything is lunar infused—including you—connected to the night, its community of creatures, and the cosmos beyond.
Read: Do Plants Sleep? Botany By Moonlight
By: Charles Hood & José Gabriel Martínez-Fonseca
After dark, even though there’s no sunshine and hence no direct photosynthesis, plants still have work to do. Botanist Peter Thomas points out that “trees and other plants are not dormant or ‘asleep’ in the cool of the night. Trees do most of their growing at night, perhaps because water stress is lower.”
How Gardeners Can Help “Hit the Lights!”
It’s not just moths who are disrupted by light pollution. Almost no aspect of an animal’s biological clock—including our own—is secure amid our modern, global phenomenon of anthropogenic artificial light. This can prolong or shorten reproductive cycles, induce hatching prematurely, and tweak the timing of metamorphosis. Pollination and hunting can get wacky, for though we might be afraid of the dark, both predator and prey species survival depends on the protection of camouflage provided by the cover of night. The detrimental effects on bird migration might be the most well-documented fatal problem of light pollution, as nighttime is when over half of all migratory birds take their long and ambitious flights.
Yet as with all pollutions, there are solutions to the ubiquity of artificial light. What can we do to not damage the dark while still feeling safe and secure as night-vision poor, justifiably nyctophobic humans?
1. Be thoughtful about how you use lighting, especially if it is only for cosmetic purposes rather than safety.
2. Turn off all lights when going to sleep.
3. Close curtains or blinds at night.
4. Dim lights.
5. Confine light “spillage” only to the spot you want illuminated—installing shielding around individual lights can direct the beam downward and away from the sky.
6. Install motion activators and/or timers.
7. If you are upgrading the lighting you do have, choose red or amber LEDs over blue-white LEDs because amber is less attractive to insects.
8. Plant shade trees—the canopy will mitigate light pollution.
9. Use “night shift” settings on all digital devices (this is also better for your eyes!).
10. Get inspired and access public outreach materials such as sample letters and petitions via organizations like DarkSky International and the SKYGLOW project.
11. Participate in April’s International Dark Sky Week and extend those actions into the rest of the year.
12. Read up! Johan Eklöf’s The Darkness Manifesto: On Light Pollution, Night Ecology, and the Ancient Rhythms That Sustain Life; Tiffany Francis-Baker’s Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night; Paul Bogard’s The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.
13. Take a cue from Eklöf’s ten-point “Darkness Manifesto” at the end of his book of the same name. Some favorites? “Become aware of the darkness,” “follow your inner rhythm,” and “discover nocturnal life.”
Read: Seeding: The End and the Beginning
By: Jennifer Jewell
The coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) is still in such wide-open, bighearted, full-throated seed “bloom” that it glows by day and even more luminously by moonlight on the meadowy hillside at the top of the road. Torch-like branches are held high, positively resplendent with the white seed plumes … even a little breath of the cold night air sends them trembling and jostling and then …
For more night environment resources, follow DarkSky International, and the SKYGLOW Project. See also the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens for the “California Native Moon Garden Plant List” [pdf] by Meghan Ashley Peterman.
Anderson, Max, Ellen L. Rotheray, Fiona Matthews. 2023. “Marvellous moths! pollen deposition rate of bramble (Rubus futicosus L. agg.) is greater at night than day.” PLoS ONE 18(3): e0281810.
Bogard, Paul. 2013. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Eklöf, Johan. 2023. The Darkness Manifesto: On Light Pollution, Night Ecology, and the Ancient Rhythms That Sustain Life. New York: Scribner.
Francis-Baker, Tiffany. 2019. Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hetfield, James, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammet. 1991. “Enter Sandman,” track #1 on Metallica (The Black Album), Electra Records.
Hood, Charles and José Gabriel Martínez-Fonseca. 2023. Nocturnalia: Nature in the Western Night. Berkeley: Heyday.
Leendertz, Lia. 2011. The Twilight Garden: Creating a Garden That Entrances by Day and Comes Alive at Night. Chicago: Chicago Review Press; Ball Publishing.Walton, Richard E, Carl D. Sayer, Helen Bennion, and Jan C. Axmacher. 2020. “Nocturnal pollinators strongly contribute to pollen transport of wild flowers in an agricultural landscape.” Biology Letters 16: 20190877.
Walton, Richard E., Carl D. Sayer, Helen Bennion, Jan C. Axmacher. 2020. “Nocturnal pollinators strongly contribute to pollen transport of wild flowers in an agricultural landscape.“ Biology Letters 16 (5).