Alan Branhagen is director of horticulture at Powell Gardens, Kansas City’s botanical garden, where he supervises the horticulture staff that maintains the diverse gardens and extensive plant collections of the 970-acre site. Alan also tends his own 3-acre garden on his free time.

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Nighttime and Evening Gardens
by Alan Branhagen       #Fragrant   #Flowers   #Themed Gardens   #White

Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’

Many of us work all day and by the time we get home to garden or relax in the garden, dusk is upon us. In the evening, the bright colors of the day recede and disappear and the creams, silvers and whites begin to glow with the fading light. We need some time to de-stress, relax and unwind from the day and we’re usually not in the mood for some energizing red colors anyway! A garden designed for evening and the night is the perfect match for many of us.

There are other great reasons for an evening garden. Many gardeners really like the classic white and silver flowers or other whitened hues like pink, cream, sky blue and silver. These are colors of the evening garden because they show up nicely in low light — often appearing to glow. With night lighting, they can simply shine!

Most white flowers also emit intoxicating fragrances that enrich the evening garden and soothe our senses. I can think of no finer time than sitting on my back deck when the scents of the jasmine, gardenia, lilies, flowering-tobaccos and magnolias start to tickle my olfactory nerves. These flowers are not fragrant for our enjoyment but to attract pollinators, mainly moths. Yes, thank the underappreciated moths for many of our fragrant plants. Most are beneficial, and at dusk, the hummingbird-like sphinx moths enliven the garden experience with their blur of fast-beating wings.

Smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) including the cultivar ‘Annabelle’ have immense flower heads of gorgeous white in midsummer.

A premier evening garden should have a complete mix of plant types from evergreens and small trees to shrubs, vines, perennials, bulbs, annuals and tropicals. Using this complete pyramid of plant types ensures a beautiful space and a structured design, as well as incorporating the best evening garden players. Use an evergreen to block an unsightly view or prevailing wind, a couple (or a few) small trees or pruned-up large shrubs to create a delightful “human-scale” feel by a favorite chair or surrounding an intimate seating area. Shrubs can be used as screens and backdrops, while a mix of herbaceous perennials, bulbs and annuals can create beautiful borders, ground covers or fill containers. Tropical plants really add polish to the most exquisite of evening gardens.

‘Golden Ghost’ Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’) can be really striking, especially with reflected night lighting.

Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).

Evening garden evergreens are those with variegation and whitened needles that give many “blue” needles. Chalky blue varieties of blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Koster’) or Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis ‘Silveray’), Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra) and the variegated pines like Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’) can be really striking, especially with reflected night lighting. In Zone 6, the hardy Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’) shines with polished leaves that reflect moonlight and white, intensely fragrant flowers.

Some superior small trees for the evening garden begin with the sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), whose lustrous leaves are whitened underneath and reflect light wonderfully while the small white flowers emit a lemony fragrance that can perfume an entire garden. Many of the larger panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, ‘Tardiva’, ‘Unique’ and others) can be trained up as little trees and their huge white, mid to late-summertime flowers create a spectacle to enjoy as you spend time outside at night. ‘Harvest Gold’ crabapple (Malus ‘Harvest Gold’) is also a phenomenal evening garden tree with white fragrant flowers in spring and soft yellow fruit in fall that are shockingly luminescent with night lighting.

Many of our native azaleas (Rhododendron arborescens, R. atlanticum and R. viscosum) and their hybrids excel as evening garden plants and bloom from midspring to midsummer depending on the variety. Other classic plants of the evening garden are the smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) with the cultivars ‘Annabelle’ and Incrediball™ having the most immense flower heads of gorgeous white in midsummer. Nearly everblooming roses (Rosa sp.) are also stars including the classic grandiflora rose ‘Iceberg’ but my favorite evening garden rose is the David Austin rose ‘Heritage’ with blush-pink flowers with incredible fragrance. Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) also is an underutilized shrub with new varieties like Vanilla Spice™, ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and Sugartina™ Crystalina glowing with spires of fragrant white flowers later in summer.


Left: Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)  Right: ‘White Lights’ azalea

Some favorite vines of the evening garden include annual moonvine (Ipomoea alba), white-flowering native wisterias (Wisteria frutescens) such as ‘Clara Mack’ and honeysuckles. Do not plant the sweet Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) as it is an invasive exotic, but try selections of woodbine honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenoides) like ‘Graham Thomas’ for evening fragrance.

Perennials in my evening garden are structured around various white-flowering cultivars of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata hybrids) starting with early blooming varieties like ‘Minnie Pearl’ to later varieties like ‘David’. White-flowering cultivars of daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Gentle Shepherd’, ‘Limefrost’ and ‘Sunday Gloves’) also put on a show with some lighter yellow varieties like ‘Going Bananas’ and late-blooming ‘August Frost’. White-flowering coneflowers Echinacea purpurea also are evening favorites with ‘Fragrant Angel’ and ‘Pow Wow White’. There are many others, but these three groups provide a great sturdy backbone and all are lightly fragrant too.

Formosa lily (L. formosanum)

No evening garden could be without the lilies: their fragrance is unsurpassed! Try hardy varieties of Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) and regal lilies (Lilium regale) for earliest bloom followed by Oriental hybrid lilies like ‘Casa Blanca’ and simply magnificent hybrid Orienpet lilies like ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Triumphator’ for spectacular towers of flowers. Later species lilies such as Formosa lily (L. formosanum) and Lilium speciosum will give you a whole summer of blooms.

Classic evening garden annuals begin with the Datura species whose huge white trumpets open after the sun sets, often with a waiting honeybee to gather a snack before bedtime. These flowers are a delight for anyone to watch as they unfurl right before your eyes. The flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana alata and N. sylvestris) are king of the fragrant evening annuals with white flowers that open up and emit intoxicating scents to lure the delightful sphinx moths. Four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) are another evening garden beauty that don’t open until their namesake time but remain so through the night.

Gardenia jasminoides

And what evening garden in our Zones would be without some containers filled with tropical plants — a real gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) exudes the most phenomenal scent of any plant and can’t be manufactured or mimicked. Jasmines (Jasminum spp.) and angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia spp.) are others with spectacular and fragrant flowers that shine for evening display.

So plan and plant an evening garden around your favorite outdoor summertime space; you will create a beautiful, relaxing and enjoyable place for you to spend your end of the day or for you to entertain in. It also allows you to savor the moderated temperatures beyond the daytime’s heat and explore a sweet range of plants that really shine at that time. These classic plants look great at any time but really are stars of the nighttime garden.

Other Stars of the Evening Garden:

Small Trees and Large Shrubs:
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus ‘Diana’)
Ashe magnolia (Magnolia ashei)
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellate)
Mock orange (Philadelphus ‘Snow Velvet’)
Seven sons (Heptacodium miconioides)

Azaleas (‘White Lights’, ‘Northern Hi-Lights’ and ‘Viscosepala’)
Flowering quince (Chaenomeles ‘Jet Trail’, ‘O-Yashima’)
Fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.)
Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia)
Lilacs (Syringa ‘Angel White’ and ‘Betsy Ross’)
Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii)

Hardy Bulbs:
Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis white and cream cultivars)
Daffodils (Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’, ‘Mount Hood’, ‘Stainless’,‘Thalia’)

Acidanthera (Gladiolus calianthus)
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima ‘Snow Princess’)
Euphorbia Diamond Frost®
Old-fashioned climbing petunia (P. x hybrida)

White bleeding hearts
(Dicentra (Lamprocapnos) spectabilis ‘Alba’)
Hardy hibiscus cultivars with white flowers
Hostas (Hosta plantaginea and others with white variegation or white flowers)
Miscanthus grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’‘Variegata’ and others)
Variegated sweetflag (Acorus calamus ‘Variegata’)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Sweet or tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans)
Japanese pittosporum (P. japonicum variegated cultivars)
White mandevilla (M. x amabilis white-flowering cultivars)


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Alan Branhagen.


Posted: 03/17/17   RSS | Print


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