In The Night Garden

Reading time 10 minutes

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!


Dahlia ‘American Dawn’


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.


Ghostly Tillandsia albida


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.


Dahlia ‘Magenta Star’


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.


Dahlia ‘Labyrinth’


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.


Nemesia ‘Wisley Vanilla’ is sweetly scented


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.


An unknown fuchsia


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.


Dahlia ‘Burlesca’


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?


Osteospermum ‘3D Violet Ice’


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.


Coleus and geraniums in the night garden







Categories: Flowers, Foliage, fragrance, herbs, Musings, Our Coastal Garden, Photography, Plants, Small Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

Greetings Garden Lover! Welcome to my blog. Plants are my passion and this is my way of sharing that joyful emotion with the world. You'll find over 1000 posts here featuring everything from abutilons to zinnias. If you've enjoyed what you've read, please leave a comment and consider subscribing using the yellow 'Follow' button in the bottom, right-hand corner of your screen. You will receive an email every time I post something new.

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33 comments On "In The Night Garden"

  1. Hello, thank you for this lovely post! I was actually just thinking about you when my phone pinged with this article. I had noticed a rosy glow to some of my white begonias and remembered that you’d said something about yours doing this when they were getting dry. I have learned much from you and can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading your posts! Enjoy your weekend – I’m off to find a torch for later!

    1. It could be that your begonias are meant to have that blush, hard to say. If they look good, go with it. Some plants develop a reddish tinge in their foliage if they are dry or stressed, but in flowers it’s not that usual.

      Enjoy your night garden Julie!

  2. Tip top post, enjoyed it bigly. Dahlias look fab against the dark background. I am a little scandalized by your slug disposal method. If your neighbours are deserving of molluscular revenge then I approve, I suppose. Besides, don’t they just come back if you don’t end them? The slugs. Not suggesting you end your neighbours.

    1. I tittered when I read ‘bigly’, imagining Donald Trump. Having looked it up in the dictionary it appears the word bigly dates from 1350-1400, before the USA was even on the map. Apparently it never really caught on as ‘big’ was considered adequate … but not for the Trumpmeister …. or your good self! Love it … bigly!!

      I am fortunate in that I don’t really suffer with slugs, only snails. These make excellent missiles. What I actually do is throw them up on roof of the garage which is like a giant plate for the seagulls. They will eat anything!!

      1. I was channelling the Orange One. Make Autumn Great Again! Gonna be great, so great. Maybe you should build a wall to keep the molluscs out; you could make your neighbours pay, and pay bigly.

  3. Beautiful articles and pictures ! Thank you for the word nyctinasty which I will write down in my list of musical words. I have ventured in my garden in the night recently (we go to bed very very late) but will do it again with renewed interest after having read your post. 🙂

  4. Ah, Dan, not in winter, but in summer absooolutely as I am not a good sleeper (possibly the disadvantages of age ;)). Anyhow, in the Australian moonlight I rarely need a torch, but your pics are just sooo beautiful as usual, thank you for sharing your night adventures.

    1. My pleasure. We had some very brightly moonlit night a few weeks ago. I kept waking up in the night thinking the security lights had come on in the garden. The long, cool shadows gave the garden a very eerie appearance.

      I keep waiting for that moment in my life when I need less sleep. I need a lot more than I get, and when I skimp on sleep that’s when I get run down and sick. This weekend I’m all about lie-ins. Zzzzzz.

  5. Totally agree, night time is the very best time to be in the garden, it is too dark to see what you have missed, or what needs doing, but light enough to enjoy the atmosphere. An opportunity to stand in complete, relaxed silence and when a hunting barn owl drifts over the garden wall two feet above your head, with its eyes staring straight in to yours, it is truly magical.

  6. Great article, I have never done that, except coming home late at night, I will take a discovery trip one dark evening. Your photographs are superb, an LED torch, well,well, I wouldn’t have thought of that, the effect is dramatic. Thanks.

  7. Great post and photos Dan I can just see you in your PJs gin and tonic in one hand LED torch and iPhone in the other, slug slinging! Hope you neighbours don’t read your posts! Yes night gardens are really very different places…it would be great if major gardens opened their doors at night….sissinghursts white garden and Dixter would be fantastic!

    1. Not such an inaccurate picture Anne!

      I know Sissinghurst has done some dawn openings for photographers and I am sure you can sign up to events which happen in the evening. My dream is to one day hire that little cottage next to Delos so that I can be immersed in the garden day and night. What a treat that would be!

  8. Loving those dahlias!!! gorgeous… My ‘cricket’ arms isn’t that great to fling those pests over the fences unfortunately – 5 metres I might make….500metres – NUP! so squish revenge for me! great post Dan.

  9. Don,I do so enjoy your blogposts on my infrequent visits. You are the one person who makes me regret having moved on. This summer I will do the same as you in my ever-improving new garden – in special outdoor-only shoes due to land mines on the lawn…

    1. Goodness. Under those circumstances I’d probably stay indoors Jack. I am really enjoying the photos of your new garden and all that fabulous colour. I have a bit of a crush on South African flowers!! Do you go back and visit your old place sometimes?

  10. Gardens are more peaceful at nights or early morning. I use to wake up early morning, go to garden at 4 am. I feel connected to nature at that time and doing yoga at that place in early morning gives a feeling of wisdom.

    1. I just love the idea that everyone else is asleep and I have a place to myself when I get up and out early. Although, when I left home in the dark and drizzle to catch the train at 5.30 this morning I wasn’t quite so enamoured!

  11. You’ve captured some really interesting effects here, Dan. Lovely. I was put off meandering in the garden after dark by accidentally treading on a slug in my bare feet…

  12. What stunning colours you’ve captured within these images. I have never really made an effort to go out into my garden at night, but after looking through this collection of images, I might just take my camera down the garden path for a look!

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