When was the last time you ventured out into your garden after nightfall? Not at dusk, or to put the rubbish out, but to walk there when it’s properly dark?
If it’s been a while, or you’ve never considered such an adventure, I urge you to do so. The garden is a different world after dark, a world of strange behaviour, inky recesses, fluttering wings and luminous petals.
On warm, still nights, such as those we’ve enjoyed over the last week, I venture outside just before bedtime. I am always too hot, so a brief spell in the coolness of the garden prepares me well for sleep. It’s fascinating how tiny water droplets form at the edges of some leaves and not others. This phenomenon is called guttation and is used by certain plants as a means of expelling excess water from their system – a bit like having a wee. I have noticed this happening along the leaf edges of coleus, for example. Guttation can be a sign that a plant has been overwatered, but is otherwise harmless and simply a means of the plant redressing the balance. Better out than in, as they say!
I note that some flowers close at night. This is known as nyctinasty (a term which could also double as a description for the gruesome images on modern-day cigarette packets). Tulips, osteospermums, crocuses, poppies and hibiscus all display this behaviour. Some plants also adjust the positioning of their leaves at night, usually making them more horizontal, but occasionally lifting them up vertically, as does the prayer plant, Maranta leuconeura. There are many theories about why plants exhibit nyctinasty, ranging from protecting their pollen from soaking by dew to creating a clearer view of the ground for nighttime hunters, such as owls, that prey on flower-munching herbivores looking for a midnight snack. The plant is effectively making itself smaller and less conspicuous to avoid being trampled or eaten.
Not many owls or marauding herbivores in my garden, but I do have seagulls. In seaside towns where there are street lamps and other night lights it seems the herring gull never sleeps. I’ve long since tuned-out their raucous screaming and angry nattering, but they are always there at dusk, patrolling the rooftops like SAS snipers. By first light they will be savaging my neighbours rubbish in search of breakfast, scattering debris down the street. By and large they do not damage plants unless they see something that might make good nesting material.
In contrast to the flowers that display nyctinasty there are those that only open at night, and some that only produce fragrance at night. Notable among these are evening primroses (Oenothera spp.), Marvel of Peru (Mirabilis spp.) and numerous cacti too tender to grow outside in the UK. I’m tantalised by different scents, many of which can’t be detected during daylight hours. When it’s dark, I literally follow my nose to discover where they are coming from. The most highly-scented plants in my garden at night are Cestrum nocturnum, Trachelopsermum jasminoides and all the gingers. It’s a good plan to plant night-scented plants near the front or back door so that the scent can drift inside.
In the night garden, pale colours come to the fore whilst dark ones recede. White flowers do a better job than solar-powered lights and are more attractive in every way. I always make sure I have a few white flowers blooming to act as way-markers after dark. One of my all time favourites is Nemesia ‘Wisley Vanilla’ which does not stop flowering from spring until autumn. A sharp haircut in midsummer will revitalise any plants that look like they are flagging.
It’s marvellous how many moths and insects appear after dusk. I like fresh air, but if I leave the front door open, the lights inside quickly draw them in. Pests such as vine weevils reveal themselves after dark and are easily picked off and squished once you’ve worked out where to look for them. On wet nights you’ll also find snails and slugs are most active. Check your neighbours are sound asleep before picking them off and hurling them over the fence. At this time of year spiders will start to fashion larger and more elaborate webs, most often across the pathway leading to my front gate and at head height! At night I’ll find these eight-legged emperors presiding over their gossamer dominions, ready to imprison any invaders.
If all of this sounds a bit spooky, or you are fearful of taking a tumble over a gnome or suchlike, take a good torch with you. During the daytime our eyes are so distracted by everything else that it can be difficult to focus on the detail. Torchlight will reveal each quilted leaf surface, every diaphanous petal and myriad trembling speck of pollen in immaculate detail. It’s extraordinary how differently I see things when they are in the spotlight. Some leaves are so transparent I can almost see the water coursing through their veins. If the plants could throw the torchlight back onto me they’d see gin coursing through mine.
Of course, plants are also breathing at night: they breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Suggestions that this can somehow rob humans of oxygen are hokum, since the amounts concerned are so miniscule. If it were true, what would become of all those woodland creatures that only venture out at night?
I tend to use my iPhone to take pictures after dark. Although the depth of field isn’t great, it’s easy to play with different camera and lighting angles this way. I never use the flash as this illuminates the background far too much: instead I substitute an LED torch. There’s nothing very refined or calculated about it, I just tinker and see what results I get. Dahlias and other solid objects photograph more easily, although I do love the shot of African basil and fennel at the top of this post.
Tonight, before bedtime, I challenge you to step out and explore your garden in silence, treading gently and carefully as you go, keeping your eyes peeled. There’s more to the night garden than you ever imagined. TFG.