Jo Arnell explains how to make the most of your outdoor space once darkness falls

Some enchanted evening you may see me outside – mainly searching for slugs in the garden, because the cool hours of night are when they slide out from their daytime hidey-holes and start their covert plant decimation. But slugs aside (a long way aside please) there is no doubt that out in the warm twilight, when the air is still and filled with fragrance, there are few situations more lovely. The business – and the busy-ness – of the day is over, we can relax into the evening and enjoy our outdoor space.
Twilight is a liminal space, neither day or night and in the summer this transitional time lasts longer – in fact the further north you travel, the longer it lasts – and apparently there are actually three official phases of dusk too. It starts with civil twilight – when the sun is setting and just below the horizon, but it’s still fairly light. This changes to nautical twilight, when colours fade and the stars start appearing, and then deepens to astronomical twilight, when it is almost dark and hard to see anything in detail. The addition of garden lighting will help you to stay out for longer, enjoying the magical atmosphere of the warm summer nights.

Shine on

As the light fades and our eyes adjust to the darkening sky, the bright flower colours recede and pale pastels shine out. There’s a change in the ecosystem too, as the creatures of the day retreat to their roosts and the night shift takes over. Plants that attract in night flying pollinators like moths, beetles and bats tend to have white or pale coloured flowers. These are useful for shady parts of the daytime garden too, as they show up in dim light and will lift a gloomy corner, and contrast well against dark evergreen foliage. Geranium phaeum ‘Album’ is a tough little perennial that will happily grow – and glow in deep, dry shade. The graceful spires of aconitums are taller, but also very useful in the gloom – like a shade loving delphinium shining out from the gloom in white, ivory or blue.
The first flowers to disappear into the shadows as dusk falls are at the red end of the spectrum, while those nearest ultra violet – pastel blues and mauves will take on an ethereal quality, luminous in the half light. White flowers stand out against the darkness for the longest, especially if the moon is out and will create a magical atmosphere around a seating area. Try climbers like the

evergreen Trachelospermum jasminoides, the ‘Star Jasmine’, that has a neat, twining habit – unlike actual jasmine, that grows into a huge tangle of wild and whippy stems. It will prefer a warm and sheltered situation and – this is where it gets its name – has jasmine scented flowers in the summer.
It’s not just flowers that can look good in the evening. Moonlight will enhance any variegated plants too. The variegated dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ has pretty sage green leaves edged in white. It is deciduous, but has deep red stems in winter – cut back some of them to the ground in the early spring to maintain its shape and to encourage new coloured wood to shoot up from the base. Silvery ground cover is provided by Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, a very useful low-growing, slowly spreading perennial with lovely white-veined leaves that will grow in the dry shade under

trees. Variegated euonymus will provide an evergreen alternative and, depending on the variety, can be grown as bushes, ground cover or creeping wall shrubs.

Garden lighting

Electric outdoor lighting can be easily installed and connected to the mains (use an electrician for this) but a cheaper and effective alternative is to use solar power. Solar lights have no wires (or if not integral, then shorter wires connected to a solar panel) and can be positioned anywhere you like – providing the solar receptor is in sun during the day, so the battery can charge. They might not be quite as powerful as mains lighting, but they are more versatile.
Architectural plants can look striking with the right kind of lighting – uplight through the foliage of plants like yuccas, phormiums or grasses for dramatic effects.
Subtle lighting is more effective than harsh floodlights, but even then we should be sparing with artificial light. Wildlife is confused by light at night and too much glare stops us from seeing the stars. Light pollution is now a recognised problem across the world.

Pump up the perfume

We get a bit transfixed by the look of our plants and sometimes forget that all our senses are affected when we’re outside – it is an immersive experience and scent is an important factor. Once it gets dark and we can no longer see the flowers in detail, the aromas in the garden increase. Fragrant plants tend to pump out more perfume as it gets darker – sadly not for our benefit, but to lure in the night pollinators.
Some of the most familiar cottage garden shrubs have the loveliest perfume – lilac and philadelphus (mock orange) are hard to beat, but the traditional varieties can get quite large. There are now dwarf types available – try the compact standard lilac Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ or Philadelphus ‘Manteau d’Hermine’ for small plants with big fragrance.
Create a sheltered site for scented plants – still air will help to trap the fragrance, but make sure that it doesn’t get too overwhelming; some plants, like lilies (especially the oriental ones) have really powerful scent. The only lily I sometimes grow (and be careful if you have cats – lilies are very poisonous to them) is Lilium regale, which was discovered in China by the intrepid plant hunter E H Wilson, who came across entire valleys filled with them. He nearly lost his leg on the trip, walking forever after with what he called his ‘lily limp’. The accident happened during an avalanche, not (as I like to imagine) by him being knocked off his donkey by the scent of the lilies.

Low growing and insignificant by day, night scented stock becomes a feature of the garden in the evening. It is a hardy annual, so seeds can be scattered near seating areas or by the back door, although the fragrance will carry for quite a distance. There are many varieties of nicotiana (tobacco plant) that are also annuals, some of them growing from what looks like a speck of dust into plants over seven feet tall. The great thing about nicotiana is that it will grow in shade too.
It is the species plants and less cultivated versions that have the most fragrance – aroma production is governed by the same hormone that influences length of flowering and the plant breeders are keen on prolonging the flowers, which sadly comes at the expense of fragrance. Old fashioned cottage garden biennials and perennials like dianthus – sweet Williams and pinks have a spicy fragrance, hesperis (sweet rocket) is a statuesque biennial with graceful white or lilac flowers and wallflowers have a lovely honey scent. Plant these in relaxed drifts by paths and you might even begin to enjoy a trip out to empty the bin of an evening.
Sadly, once we are past the solstice, we lose two minutes of daylight every night. Even as the darkness slowly increases, we can stay out in the summer garden. It might be getting darker, but it is still lovely and warm – and hopefully beautifully fragrant too.

To book a gardening course contact Jo on 07923 969634 and see

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