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Your private moonlit haven
There's a moment in the garden when everything changes. It happens quietly, slowly, without fanfare. It doesn't demand attention, and, like the silently unfurling bud of a flower, it's easily — and often — ignored.
Neighboring jackhammers have quieted; bees depart to their hives; the sun lowers, then is gone. The air cools. Weeds and roses that minutes ago screamed out for attention lose their voices. Moths come fluttering, and the moon takes over the sky. A calm settles.
At this moment, the most vibrant gardens, those saturated with deep, luscious reds, shocking purples and extravagant oranges, melt into the shadows and disappear. They've gone to sleep. Over the fence, however, that discreet, monochromatic "white garden" starts to stir. Reflecting the moon's rays with its ivory blossoms, silvery foliage and variegated leaves, it awakens as a moonlight garden.
Elegant and serene during the day, this garden beckons at night.
"So many people are working long hours now, and moonlight gardens wait for them," says landscape architect Shirley Kerins. To enjoy plants, she continues, "you have to see them, and at night you can see whites, silvers and golds, and the palest of pinks and yellows." Because pale flowers lack the pigment that draws pollinators to colorful blossoms, they generally rely on fragrance to do the trick. "That's an added bonus," she says. "Moonlight gardens are very fragrant."
Garden designer Paul Robbins grew up in England near Sissinghurst Castle, where in 1950 Vita Sackville-West designed perhaps the most famous white garden.
"The white garden is such an ingrained part of English garden design, but you can't interpret it here in the same way," he says. The white roses and delicate flowers, he says, can be "washed out" by our harsh sunlight, if not properly placed.
When it came to designing a moonlight garden in the Hollywood Hills, he found inspiration in the "creepy, eerie blue garden" at Lotusland in Santa Barbara. There, silvery to blue-gray plants — blue fescue, Senecio mandraliscae and huge agaves — grow under enormous blue Atlas cedars and Chilean wine palms. The focal point of the garden in the hills, nevertheless, is an old metal Indian gazebo covered in dramatic 'White Dawn' roses.
While busy, English-style white gardens certainly make a statement, Robbins prefers to keep it simple. He uses Teucrium fruticans, a sprawling plant with crisscrossed white branches, as a border, and silvery artemisia elsewhere in the garden. Gravel, from which grow white salvia, santolina and white achillea, was chosen over grass, in part to save on water.
Joan Reeves, an avid gardener in Westwood, started playing with plantings as soon as garden designer Lisa Moseley gave her knoll its "bones": terraces and distinct sections throughout the property. Moseley placed an arbor (which Reeves covered with white Sally Holmes roses) over the moonlight garden's long, meandering path and added a pair of variegated Pittosporum tenuifolium shrubs, shaped into tall cones, to anchor the area. Reeves created a formal entry by placing two white antique urns on either side of the path.
"I love going to the nursery and experimenting with plants," says Reeves, who brought in Veronica 'Icicle,' Thunbergia grandiflora 'Alba,' white heliotrope, zinnia 'White Star,' white verbascum, Iris tectorum variegata, buddleia 'White Profusion' and more. An Aloysia virgata towers over it all. "If you have the space for one of these," Moseley says of the tall, delicate-looking shrub with small white flowers, "you should have one. It's not just beautiful, but its scent is amazing." One client, she says, described its fragrance as "just like a lingerie drawer."
After a long afternoon working in the garden, Reeves enjoys it from a terrace situated off the kitchen at the top of the knoll. Her white plants "light up and stand out," she says, when the rest of her garden darkens. "The moonlight garden is a wonderful focal point at night," she says.
Ruben Flores, a garden designer based in Laguna Beach, created a formal moonlight front garden to complement a client's Tudor-style home in Beverly Hills. At different times of the year passersby peer over the potato vine-covered carved wood fence to observe what's in bloom: an espaliered avocado; plum trees; Southern and white saucer magnolias; white ginger; an enormous buddleia; a variety of white roses.
"Some people think that a white garden is a boring idea," he says, "but it's just a more subtle game. You work with the subtleties of horticulture, like texture and variegations, instead of bold colors." Flores mixes up the bold leaves of a fig, the sword-shaped green-and-white variegated leaves of a phormium and the toothed leaves of a white abutilon to great effect.
With so many plants available with white blooms, silvery foliage or green-and-white variegated leaves, a moonlit retreat is easy to create. There are no strict rules, and there aren't any clashing colors to worry about — white goes with white. To avoid a haphazard look, however, a site should start with good structure to define the area. Gravel, like light-colored stones, is also a good choice because it reflects moonlight, creating clear, safe pathways at night.
The right garden furniture makes a difference too. Flores set one English antique iron bench under an ornamental pear and another near a rose-covered topiary. A teak bench, bleached silver by the sun during the day, shines at night. The garden's main focal point, a sandstone birdbath, is covered with jasmine. Sandstone urns, graciously placed on either side of the house's front door, are filled with fragrant stephanotis.
Kerins recommends locating a moonlight garden in a quiet spot and bringing in a soothing fountain if there are neighboring sounds you want to mask. "And make sure you have a place to sit or, even better, to lie down to enjoy it. Look up and see the moon and stars. Touch the velvety silver leaves, smell the night perfumes. Take the time to hear the crickets and the wind rustling through the branches."
Though her list is never-ending, some of Kerins' favorite plants for a moonlight garden are dianthus 'Itsaul White,' a low-growing plant with silvery leaves and white flowers that's great for edging; Beaumontia grandiflora, the vigorous Easter lily vine, for its lovely scent and bold clusters of flowers; variegated hydrangeas; all kinds of citrus; and especially Ipomoea alba, the moonflower. "It's stunning," she says. "It opens on cue every night — at about 5:30 this time of year — and it's fun to watch. And it has a lovely, soapy-clean smell."
Don't resist. Follow that path outside after dark. Relax among the glowing flowers and delicate, mingling perfumes. Take your shoes off. Listen to the wind. TiVo "The Apprentice" and watch it in the morning.
Christy Hobart is a Santa Monica writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Here are some plants that capture the moonlight:
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Cooperi': Blotchy green, white and pink leaves with bold red flowers.
Hibiscus schizopetalus 'Variegata': Great leaves plus dramatic red-and-white flowers.
Variegated hydrangea: Cream-lined green leaves and lavender flowers.
Pelargonium crispum 'Variegatum': Crinkled golden leaves with a lemony scent; white flowers.
Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Marjorie Channon': Great for hedging or for shaping.
Night-blooming cereus: The "queen of the night" blooms but one night a year. It's worth it.
Francoa ramosa: Graceful, long, white-flowering stems.
White heliotrope: The plant's small, clustered flowers are amazingly fragrant.
Heuchera 'Opal' and 'Snow Angel': Flowers bloom at the ends of tall, delicate stalks.
Osmanthus fragrans: Powerfully fragrant tall shrub with small white flowers. Also called sweet olive.
Wisteria sinensis 'Alba': A white variety of the flowering vine.
Artemisia: A wide variety from which to choose.
This variety of the butterfly bush has silvery leaves and lilac flowers.
Lavandula 'Purple Haze': Enjoy the purple flowers during the day and the silvery foliage at night.
Senecio cineraria 'Dusty Miller': Glowing white leaves.
Verbascum bombyciferum 'Silver Lining': Silver leaves with yellow flowers. "Sculpture in the garden," says Shirley Kerins.
— Christy Hobart