Gardens are seldom planted to be enjoyed in the sun’s absence. In the dark, all the motley blooms in pinks, purples and sunny yellows become flat and barely visible. But in recent years, gardening enthusiasts are beginning to appreciate the glow of another celestial body, the Moon. Picking the palest flowers with grey-green leaves, they found, transformed their garden under ethereal moonbeams.
Popularly referred to as moon garden, the trend makes an evening stroll in the backyard or time spent in the balcony after sundown a dreamy affair. Gulf News hopped on the bandwagon and spoke to different gardening experts on how to create our very own moon garden in the UAE, from selecting the right foliage to tips on design.
Create your own famous White Garden
Long before we revived the moon garden movement under stretches of lockdown, English poet and author Vita Sackville-West was planning her own single-coloured garden in 1939. Her vision was simple – tall white flowers that would tower over a bed of silver-toned shrubs, pale enough to reflect the moonlight, as she and her husband Harold Nicolson made their way across the Sissinghurst Castle at night.
Today the White Garden in Sissinghurst, England, is one of the most imitated gardens in the world. Using Sackville-West’s limited palette of white, grey, green and silver, you can imitate the illuminating garden with plants that will thrive in the UAE’s warm summer nights.
You also get to enjoy the silhouettes of all the plants [at night].
Besides the pull of glowing blooms, a gardening enthusiast of 40 years tells Gulf News that night time gardening is an activity she looks forward to, as well. “I do enjoy gardening at night, as it is cool and incredibly peaceful. You also get to enjoy the silhouettes of all the plants,” said Maree Knock, a 45-year-old Australian expat in Abu Dhabi.
If you’ve decided to give moon gardens a go, the first step would be to do a bit of rookie site analysis.
Choosing a site for your moon garden
Depending on where you live, whether in an apartment or a house, the plants for a moon garden will differ. Just like with any garden, daytime conditions need to be ideal for the foliage to survive at night.
Tanja B., a UK-trained garden designer with 15 years of experience in the UAE and founder of Gardens by Design in Dubai, says a balcony-sized moon garden is challenging but possible.
“A balcony is very restrictive and conditions are harsh because it’s quite windy and, since a balcony is glass enclosed, there is a lot of radiated heat from the glass or brick panels. Climber plants in the summer are basically going to be slow cooked on the walls,” she said.
I usually conduct a site analysis to see if the garden is south- or north-facing. People end up wasting a lot of money by planting the wrong plants in the wrong place. You need a plan.
With an existing open garden, some might find planting a separate palette too much of a commitment. This is where a flowerbed comes in, which can be a designated area for your mini white garden.
“I usually conduct a site analysis to see if the garden is south- or north-facing. People end up wasting a lot of money by planting the wrong plants in the wrong place. You need a plan,” Tanja said.
The best time to enjoy a moon garden, she adds, is when the full moon is overhead, without artificial lighting so that you’re solely surrounded by Nature.
Picking the white blooms: Frangipani, petunias and more
The paler the flowers, the more likely they are to stand out against the black of the night, bathed in moonlight.
For both balconies and gardens, plumeria or frangipani is a popular choice in the UAE. Its round white petals tinged with yellow at the centre need full sunshine to bloom, so it’s important that your frangipani tree or shrub is in the right place, says Tanja.
Another flowering plant for either potting or the garden bed is white petunias. Like frangipani, these plants need ample sunshine to flower, producing scented funnel-shaped flowers in multiples.
While both do well in a pot, you have more varieties to experiment with in an open garden, like white spider lilies that prefer to be in some shade; fragrant wild jasmines with pointy petals that thrive in the summer; and desert cotton, which needs free draining soil.
Picking the silver foliage: Yucca, agave and more
Some silvery leafy growth, as opposed to lush green plants, adds contrast to the moonlit blooms. And if you’re picking out silver foliage for the summer, then they’re a practical choice, says Knock.
“These grey leaved plants have adapted to withstand extreme temperatures and little water, as the paler leaves help to reflect the sun’s rays. Many of the grey leaved plants are also salt tolerant making them suitable for growing in sandy alkaline soils that we have in many areas of the UAE,” added Knock.
These grey leaved plants have adapted to withstand extreme temperatures and little water, as the paler leaves help to reflect the sun’s rays.
Grey foliage often looks a little dusty, washed out and blends in rather than stand out. These qualities are what makes it charming, according to Tanja. Some silver plants can be “spiky or look like they have a layer of salt on them”, that then add variation to your garden.
“For a small balcony, you can plant two succulents in medium-sized pots: the beaked yucca, which is a silver-coloured succulent if you want to create a desert feel on the balcony, and the Agave americana, which wouldn’t be the best if you have small children since it has sharp spines,” said Tanja.
Knock and Tanja also recommend the olive tree for its silvery leaves. If planted in a pot, do keep in mind that the olive tree does not do well with hot winds – drag the pot to a sheltered corner in the balcony.
Coming to small-to-medium gardens, pepper the ground with clusters of saltbush shrubs. They’re densely packed, so the grey-blue leaves take on a deeper hue when clumped together.
Designing a moon flowerbed
Say you’re running out of space, the next best option would be to clear a bed for your small moon garden.
“Most people have a flowerbed on the outer boundary of their gardens,” said Tanja, who advises planting the bed in odd numbers of the same variety for a fuller effect.
When people buy plants, they buy one of each like a stamp collection. Don’t be scared to buy in groups because one or two will not have the effect.
“When people buy plants, they buy one of each like a stamp collection. Don’t be scared to buy in groups because one or two will not have the effect,” she added.
You can create your own plant combination for the moon garden bed; Tanja recommends at least up to four species of plants. Try out frangipani, wild jasmine, Thai jasmine and spider lily for starters, making sure wild jasmine is in full sun while spider lily is in the shade.
Quick gardening tips for the summer
In warmer months, it’s almost too easy to conclude that plants are thirstier than usual. Repeatedly overwatering your plant can cause root rot, even in summer.
Knock tells us she likes to mix in perlite or sweet red sand into regular potting soil, to help with water drainage: “Perlite has the added benefit of aerating soil, holding moisture, as well as being lightweight.”
It’s not just the soil that needs attention. What kind of pots are your plants housed in? Knock advises against pots painted in dark colours, for the same reason we prefer wearing lighter colours in the summer months.
“Black will obviously absorb heat so choose lighter coloured pots where possible. Ceramic and plastic hold moisture and are not breathable so be mindful of not overwatering. My preferred pot choice is clay or terracotta, as it’s porous and therefore breathable. This means that soil temperature can be up to 10°C cooler in it than other pots,” she added.
Though plants will enjoy an overall cooler soil in the open ground, you can still take precautions by mulching. Layering the soil with bark chips and dry leaves or straw can keep the moisture from escaping the surface, says Knock.
Now all that’s keeping you from your moon garden is visiting the nearest plant nursery.