Moonlit Magic

This is the tale of a moon garden, a garden to be enjoyed after the sun goes down as well as during the day. This three chapter story of those shrubs, vines and perennials, all white and mostly fragrant, that light up the garden at night spans the growing seasons – Spring, Summer, and Fall.

The Spring Moon Garden

To give the spring moon garden strong bones Viburnum carlesii is a must-have shrub.
Topping out at about 5 feet tall, this spicy scented viburnum is covered with snowball-like flowers in early spring that morph into red berries as the seasons age. The Korean Spice Viburnum is not particular about soil, and although it prefers full sun, it will tolerate part shade, but be warned – the deeper the shade the fewer the flowers.

For a spring blooming white vine a fine choice is the fast growing Wisteria macrostachaya ‘Clara Mack’.
This Kentucky native wants full sun, and as with all wisterias, patience is a gardener’s virtue; it may take a couple of seasons before it rewards you with its fragrant white flowers. As for care, if you must, prune your wisteria in early spring before the new growth appears, and during its growing season give it a couple of shots of a fertilizer with a high middle number such as 10-30-20 (that is, 10% nitrogen, 30% phosphorus and 20% potash).

Save some space in your spring garden for that queen of perennials, the peony, and the old-fashioned ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ still reigns as the supreme white more than century after its introduction. Its brilliant ruffled petals will set the night garden aglow, and like all peonies the Duchess must have full sun and a regular feeding program.

One tough perennial for a difficult site is Snow-in-Summer, Cerastium tomentosum, which relishes rocky, dry soil and sunny conditions.
In late spring through early summer its fuzzy grey-green foliage is almost obscured by masses of dainty white flowers. Tough though it is, this perennial hates heat, humidity (a no go in the Deep South) and wet feet, but if you can give it sharp drainage, you will be rewarded with a profusion of offspring. Shear the spent flowers if you want to curb its self-sowing enthusiasm

As described in a previous blog post, Not Your Granny’s Groundcovers, the groundcover of choice for a moon garden is Galium odoratum, or Sweet Woodruff.
Forming a vigorous mat of shiny whorls of deep green leaves it is dotted with tiny clusters of white flowers early in the season. This is a true woodland plant thriving in moist shady spots.

The Summer Moon Garden

Summer is usually the season when many blooming perennial plants and shrubs bow out and cede the garden stage to showy annuals. However with the exception of the annual Moon Flower this discussion focuses on perennials that bloom in summer and warrant a spot in a summer moon garden.

The sturdy stems of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ support massive snow-white flowers that appear in late June and continue well into summer.

Although it can take full sun, it shines in part shade, and do keep it well watered – it hates to dry out. One final note: since ‘Annabelle’ is a member of the aborescens species, it blooms on new wood so to keep it tidy, prune it hard in late winter before the new growth appears.

A true moon garden must include the annual Moon Flower, Ipomoea alba, a white morning glory whose fragrant blossoms only open when the sun goes down.
This fast growing growing member of the sweet potato family can reach 20 feet in a single season so it needs to be supported by a trellis or a rock wall. A dose of fertilizer with a high middle number (phosphorus) and full sun will guarantee a profusion of flowers.

The daylilies never disappoint in the heat of summer, and the choice daylily for a summer moon garden is the intensely fragrant Hemerocallis ‘Sunday Gloves’. Its pure white ruffled flowers with creamy centers attract butterflies and humming birds, and unlike many daylilies it will re-bloom throughout the season ensuring a steady food supply for little fliers. The Hemerocallis can take full sun or part shade and is not fussy about water. A tough plant, it even flourishes in polluted cities.

To enjoy your moon garden indoors, Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’ is a stunning cut flower boasting as many as 8 pure white blooms on each 4 foot stem. Like all lilies ‘Casa Blanca’ can be started from a bulb, but site the bulb where it will receive full sun and mulch the plant to keep the roots cool. Beware: these lilies are beloved by deer.

The final choice for a summer moon garden is the native Phlox paniculata ‘David’ which needs full sun to put on its best display. Bushy clusters of fragrant white flowers will illuminate the moon garden from July until well past Labor Day if the gardener is diligent and shears off spent blooms. Although ‘David’ is one of the phloxes most resistant to powdery mildew, space the plants well apart for good air circulation and never water from above.

The Fall Moon Garden

Here’s an oxymoron – an azalea that blooms in the fall. Actually ‘Autumn Angel’ blooms for about nine months of the year, taking a time out only in deep winter. And even then unlike many of its relatives it does not shed its leaves but remains attractive year round. Hardy in all but the most northern states (USDA Zones 6-10) this compact beauty will be happy in full sun to part shade and would welcome a regular fertilizer diet formulated for rhododendrons and azaleas.

A fast growing vigorous vine Clematis virginiana tops out at about 20 feet, and demands sturdy support such as a chimney or split rail fence, although some gardeners are happy to let it ramble through a neighboring shrub.
Covered with masses of fragrant tiny white flowers from August to October, this native even blooms in deep shade. Once the flowers have faded, silky seed heads, a characteristic of the clematis family, hang on through the winter months. Give it plenty of water and then step aside.

Although it has been around since 1858 Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ was honored only in 2016 as Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association – about time.
This charming 3 foot tall plant produces masses of sweet white flowers with butter yellow centers just when the rest of the garden is looking long in the tooth. Mlle. Jobert can tolerate part shade but she prefers full sun and do keep her well watered. And oh, yes, she is beloved by migrating butterflies.

Another standout for the fall moon garden, the Montauk Daisy or Nipponanthemum nipponicum (quite a handle for a humble daisy) begins to put on a show in midsummer and, if deadheaded, the show will continue well into the fall months.
A profusion of snow white daisies with yellow eyes rise above glossy green leaves, a draw for both bees and butterflies. Give your Montauk Daisy full sun except in the southern zones and moderate water. To ensure it doesn’t get leggy, whack it back in early spring to about 6 inches, and continue to pinch off new growth until mid-July. Then sit back and enjoy the show.

For a spot at the back of a shady garden that needs a stately anchor, look no further than the native Actaea racemosa (formerly Cimicifuga racemosa).
Thriving in moist woodland conditions, spires of fuzzy white flowers crown wiry graceful stems throughout early fall filling the night air with their fragrance.

That’s the end of the tale of the moon garden. With a bit of planning, enjoyment of the garden need not be confined to the daylight hours. Whether you have sun or shade, dry or moist soil, the plant world offers many opportunities to extend the garden’s pleasures well after the sun goes down.

Plant Sources


White Flower Farm

Niche Gardens

Photo Credits

Viburnum carlesii -Rudiger Wolk
Wisteria macrostachaya – RedCoat
Cerastium tomentosum – Heron2
Gallium odoratum – Hajotthu
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ – Giligone
Moon Flower – J.M. Garg
Clematis virginiana – SB Johnny
Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ – JJ Harrison
Montauk Daisy – KENPEI
Actaea racemosa – H. Zell

Not Your Granny’s Groundcovers

Think of groundcovers and what leaps to mind? Pachysandra? Vinca? Ajuga? For years, these were the only groundcover choices for home gardeners. Readily available at nurseries and garden centers, they grew like Topsy, filling in bare patches of soil in a single season. But as interest in gardening has ballooned, gardeners have expanded their vision, clamoring for more interesting plants to carpet their woodland floor or anchor their barren slope. The growers listened and over the years they have cultivated an extensive and varied collection of perennial groundcovers for both sunny and shady locations.

If your garden is blessed with sun at least six hours a day, consider Arctostaphylos uva ursi, or Bearberry, a handsome prostrate plant prized for its lush green foliage and wiry red stems. A combination of Greek, arctos (bear) and staphlye (grape) and Latin, uva (grape) and ursus (bear), this native is covered with tiny white blossoms in spring. But the display it stages in fall and winter really stops the show; as the nights lengthen the leathery leaves turn deep burgundy forming a rich backdrop for masses of bright red berries. Hardy in USDA Zones 2-6 the Bearberry thrives in lean, gritty slightly acidic soil, and once established, can tolerated dry conditions, an ideal candidate for a sunbaked hillside. Look for the cultivar ‘Massachusetts’ an especially prolific bloomer.

Another choice for a sunny dry location, Helianthemum nummularium is evergreen or semi-evergreen in USDA Zones 5-8. Not fussy about soil, the Rock Rose thrives in anything from sand to clay, but take care that the soil is not acidic and be sure that it gets good drainage; no wet feet for the Rock Rose. In late spring through early summer masses of dainty blossoms in vivid colors or muted pastels (depending on the cultivar chosen) almost obscure the fuzzy gray-green foliage, and if you shear back the flowers once they have faded you will be rewarded with a second blast of color in fall. For those interested in the medicinal properties of plants, the Rock Rose has been known to help treat panic, anxiety, and fear. What more can you ask for in a plant?

If you are looking for bright blue flowers you need look no farther than Veronica prostrata, or Creeping Speedwell. This sun-loving veronica, hardy throughout most of the country (USDA Zones 2-9), and evergreen in the more temperate zones, tolerates any soil and water conditions, and even if it dies back in your garden in winter, the spectacular blast of electric blue flowers in the spring compensates for its disappearance in cold weather.

A long time favorite groundcover in Great Britain now gaining popularity in the US Persicaria affinis, Himalayan Fleece Flower, is one of those rare perennials that blooms all summer long, its short spikes of red and pink flowers hovering above a mat of deep green leather-like leaves. This too is a groundcover for full sun (it can also take partial shade) and can tolerate any type of soil and water conditions, although it prefers an average to moist environment. Hardy in USDA Zones 3-9, semi-evergreen in cooler climates, the Fleece Flower is billed as deer resistant. Those who live in deer country know that deer resistant does not mean deer proof, so give it a trial in a small patch before you plunk down a week’s wages.

The same advice applies to the final choice for a groundcover that loves the sun, Lemon Thyme or Thymus citriodorus, and as its common name implies, this plant is highly fragrant; generally deer seem to avoid scented plants. Adaptable in much of the country (USDA Zones 4-10) and evergreen in the deep South, Lemon Thyme likes its soil dry; too much moisture and the roots will rot. Although it is grown primarily for its leaves it is massed with tiny light lilac flowers in July, truly a bonus. Try using some of the leaves as a substitute for lemon zest in cooking.

For gardens bathed in partial or even total shade, the groundcover selection is vast; no need to fall back on pachysandra or ajuga. If you have deep shade you cannot go wrong with the Northeastern native Gaultheria procumbens P1070821
or Wintergreen whose range extends from USDA Zone 3 to 8. Preferring moist soil, Wintergreen is a natural choice for a damp woodland floor and a great alternative to moss. In early summer the plants are covered with tiny waxy white blossoms that morph into bright red berries in the fall, and if you crush its evergreen glossy foliage, and you will know immediately how it got its common name; it is the very same wintergreen that flavors gum and candy.
A second groundcover, a personal favorite, Galium odoratum, or Sweet Woodruff, P1070815
also has fragrant leaves, can tolerate deep shade and moist acidic soil, but that’s where the similarity to Wintergreen ends. The foliage of Sweet Woodruff is made up of whorls of lancet-like leaves that support clusters of dainty white flowers in spring, and the leaves can be dried for potpourris or to flavor May wine. Although it dies back in the winter (USDA Zones 4-8), it emerges in the spring with renewed vigor. If it threatens to take over your woodland garden, just cut back on the water; Sweet Woodruff has an aggressive reputation.
Another groundcover that thrives in deep shade and moist acidic soil is the handsome Canadian Ginger, Asarum canadense P1070817
admired for its matte kidney-shaped leaves that slowly form a thick carpet of green. If you prefer shiny leaves then take a look at its sibling, European Ginger Asarum europaeum. Two strikes against the Gingers; the flowers are nondescript and they are not evergreen. But if these are of no concern then either of the Gingers is a fine choice for an understory plant, a plant to ring a shade tree perhaps, and a groundcover that will tolerate the toxic soil around a black walnut tree, a rarity in the plant world. Hardy to USDA Zones 4-7 neither Ginger is fond of the heat and humidity of Southern summers.
Moving out of the deep shade of woodland gardens into partial shade gardens, one of the longest flowering groundcovers is Plumbago or Ceratostigma plumbaganoides. Putting on a show from July to September, deep blue phlox-like blossoms stand above the shiny green leaves fading only when the nights begin to lengthen. Then the second act begins; the leaves slowly turn a rich bronze adding a splash of color to a winter garden in milder climates (hardy to USDA Zones 5-9). Not fussy about soil but requiring good drainage, Plumbago is slow to leaf out in the spring emerging just as the daffodils are beginning to wither. Plant them together for a seamless transition into late spring.
Long favored in Europe the final choice for a shade-loving groundcover Waldsteinia ternata P1070819
is just now beginning to gain recognition in its home country. Native to the Eastern and Central parts of the US, the Barren Strawberry is adaptable to any type of soil but prefers it on the moist side, and if happy it will reward the gardener by forming a dense mat of shiny wedge-shaped leaves. Mid spring the Barren Strawberry produces a profusion of buttercup yellow flowers followed by small strawberry-like fruits (inedible) in summer. In the fall when the flowers and fruits are memories, the leaves turn purple and may last through a mild winter (hardy to USDA Zones 3-7). Although it is fast growing, the Barren Strawberry is well behaved and not considered invasive.
So if you have a barren spot, a patch of soil that cries out for a carpet of green, forget about the old triumvirate – pachysandra, vinca and ajuga – and plant a more unusual and interesting groundcover to fill in that bare spot. Although this brief discussion describes a few distinctive groundcovers, many more are available commercially, either from local nurseries, garden centers or over the Internet.

Plant Sources:

Digging Dog Nursery

Advertises a large and diverse selection of perennial plants

High Country Gardens

Specializes in water-wise and native plants

Plant Delights Nursery

Offers unusual and hard to find plants