Gardening for the Dark


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David Stuart


Oh, these wonderful photographs... Garden upon enchanted garden. From tiniest to vastest, all filmed in the silvery grey light of dawn by early risers, or the warmer light of afternoon by photographers actually asked to lunch (and some, richer coloured yet, by photographers still there at dinner). But then comes that magical frontier beyond which no camera can roam, no picture editor cluck about the focus, but within which the garden, any garden, becomes its own most perfect embodiment: the garden after dark.

There, with the first stars overhead, colours are no longer so important, and the darkness obscures the garden's imperfections. You and yours, even if that’s just the cats, darker shadows in the darkness, mooch towards the seats... The clink of glasses... There's often a perfect quiet, and if not, even the village dogs or the traffic on the Kings Road, seem more bearable. The walls retain the heat of day, the wind has dropped, and perfumes hang in the air.

Of course, there can be some light, otherwise you’d stub your toe. Moonlight. Starlight. Candlelight. Streetlight. Darkness; the time for truly civilised gardeners, like the voluptuaries of Mughal India, and of Persia, who knew all about that sort of thing (though no doubt their street lighting was more subtle than ours). The Red Fort at Delhi had a ‘moonlight’ garden planted up with jasmine, lilies, tuberose, and narcissus. How that must have smelt! But such specialised and subtle gardens were common. Summer gardens were too hot during the day, anyway, and women were not allowed into any garden at all before dark set in (I know of some cases where that might still be sensible).

For the Mughals, best colours for moonlight viewing were white and yellow. A plant list from C. Villiers-Stuart book ‘Indian Palace Gardens’ of 1915, suggests that the moonlight flora comprised plants like gardenias, jasmines, Nymphaea lotus, Calonyction speciosum, white poppies, tuberose, datura, petunia, stephanotis, magnolia, and the night flowering cactuses like Selenicereus grandflorus. It can’t have quite; Mughal gardeners won’t actually have known the petunia, which didn’t reach Europe or Asia until the early 19th century, though they might have had some of the Chinese magnolias, and certainly the heavily perfumed Magnolia grandiflora.

That doesn’t matter. You probably don’t garden in tawny Asia, but in South Kensington or Scalloway, and you’re not a Mughal princeling (or part of his harem). But don’t let daylit photographs make you forget the pleasures of gardening for after dark. Try it. There are hundreds of good night plants, and some of the most gorgeously perfumed ones can be had even if you’re almost penniless.

There isn’t much to beat the lovely (and easy-to-grow) night scented stock, perfumed enough to make anyone bay at the moon. If you want it in a pot, don't stint on the size. A large one, well fed, will give you a mass of flowers from midsummer to frost; anything less than eight inches in diameter will give you almost nothing. Grander, seed of the old semi-double white East Lothian stock can be found. We’re starting it off again here, once having had it, self-sown, filling the old walled garden to its brim with perfume until early morning. Ahh...

More sumptuous still, in pots or in the open ground, are the white tobaccos. Nicotiana affinis ‘Fragrant Cloud’, a strange greeny-white, by the seat is the thing, and keeps going into October; every pleasure of the Orient lingers in that marvellous smell. Overwinter a few plants away from frost if you can; they’ll be in flower early next summer. If you have room for giants, look for N. sylvestris, its sticky-sepalled white flowers like long hunting horns, its smell carrying almost as well once the moths are out.

For the really warm and sheltered wall, or a conservatory, there's a sort of morning glory, easy from seed, that will gladly climb up it, and pour out perfume all night long. Once called Calonyction aculeatum, now Ipomoea alba, the ‘Moonflower’ is pure Mughal. It’s also perennial if you overwinter it under glass.

But if you have a few pennies, beyond the seats and the lanterns, beneath the white lilac and the philadelphus, cram white phloxes, perfumed daylilies like ‘Whichford’ and ‘Hyperion’, any related to the gorgeous Hemerocallis lilio-asphodelus (sometimes called H. flava) whose perfume will take your breath away, or pale clematis (the clambering Clematis flammula has an extraordinary night smell), and on and on...

If you have only the night patio, pile in more pots: white lilies (pure white Lilium regale, and L. longiflorum are easiest), or the truly named Marvel of Peru (Mirabilis jalapa). Easy from seed, once you've found it, plants will do you proud in a generous tub or pot. The heady perfume is best after dark. But add hedychiums, and that strange little geranium called Pelargonium triste, with invisible brown and green striped flowers that smell of cloves and limes from dusk to dawn, and night flowering cactus. If you have no room for the gawky canes of Selenicereus grandiflorus (’Queen of the Night’, no less), some of the white epiphyllums, smaller, are equally marvellous. One here, amber outer petals, swirling ranks of white inner ones, smells good for its day, but for its two nights, goes into olfactory overdrive and makes our heads swim.

And if your means really are of Mughal proportions, what about copying, under glass if need be, the garden built by the emperor Babur at Nimla (about 25 miles from Jalalabad). It was often used as a halting place on his journeys, and though it has lost all its architectural elements, it still has the layout and most of the trees. The part I would have liked by moonlight was four huge plots of orange trees, solidly underplanted with Poets’ narcissus. Overwhelming.

But the dark is for dreaming. Here, in the far North, summer light lasts so long that we’re usually exhausted long before dark falls, and if we do sit out after dinner, can soon barely see for midges. A kind friend gave us a dozen frosted glass lamps, which, lighted, are guaranteed to keep insects at bay. Marvellously Mughal, but perhaps a bit strong on the citronella. Ah well...

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Copyright david stuart 2004

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