Article by Pattie Barron
Long summer evenings, when we can unwind with drink in hand, watering can, possibly, in the other, are often the best times to kick back and enjoy our outside space, whether garden, patio or balcony. These precious moments at the end of the day are when we should be surrounded by harmonious plants and delicious scents. Rather than stumble around in the gloom, however, we need to be able to see our surroundings, and the best way to do that is not with harsh lighting, but with plants. As light levels drop, those fashionably fiery colours of summer lose their intensity, absorbing light, while white, silver and palest blues and lilacs reflect every shred of available light and give off a luminous glow. So if you want a garden that comes to life as the day dies, think light – and think white.
For maximum effect and little effort, create a designated twilight zone with a collection of flowers and foliage that might be on patio or terrace, surrounding a seat or even on a balcony. Building up an area of pale, light-reflecting plants will create an enchanting summer space to enjoy as dusk falls.
Aside from their ability to reflect the moonlight, the big plus about many white flowers is that they send out pulses of heady perfume in the evening, so that they can be pollinated by moths and other night-flying insects. Fragrant evergreen jasmine is the perfect backdrop, whether it smothers a fence, patio wall or simply a trellis against the wall on your balcony, or you could have a tripod of compact patio clematis such as snow white Kitty or pale lavender Cezanne. Honeysuckle delivers a honeyed perfume of coconut and pineapple; an archway of yellow-and-white honeysuckle Lonicera halliana would be heavenly. White lilies, with their sculptural trumpet flowers atop five-foot stems, look magnificent in fading light, and the scent is simply sublime. The classic regale lily, with its rose-streaked, waxy flowers is a showstopper and so is the flamboyant Oriental lily, Casa Blanca. For a special evening, you could cheat shamelessly and push several florists’ stems of white lilies into a grand container to surround yourself and your guests with the ultimate in outdoor luxury. If you can get hold of one – and its worth joining a wait list at crocus.co.uk – a brugmansia, aka the aptly-named angels’ trumpets, would make a fabulous centrepiece. With large, hanging trumpet flowers in white, peach or lemon, this tropical plant could be the equivalent of a chandelier to light the night in exotic style, and with care, will last for years. Two annuals are worth sowing in spring or buying as plants from the garden centre: Nicotiana sylvestris, the flowering tobacco plant, with sweet-scented white flowers on tall stems, and evening primrose, its ethereal lemon blooms positively luminous at dusk, and carrying the distinct scent of orange blossom.
Foliage, too, can play its part. On a balcony, twin tubs of Astelia chathamica, which has outsize metallic leaves just like silver spears, would look sensational, or consider a bare-stemmed olive tree, its myriad silvery leaves catching the light. Senecio is a handsome Mediterranean shrub with large, showy palest grey leaves and is ideally suited to containers, needing little water.
Underscore the flower and foliage light show with gentle illuminations. A string of twinkling outdoor fairy lights, trailed around a shrub or topiary, make a fine substitute for fireflies, or you could push small solar spike lights into a windowbox or garden pots. For a romantic touch, create soft pools of light with fat candles set in storm lanterns, or line up a series of glass jars that hold flickering tea lights, candle lit or battery powered; B & Q (diy.com) has a good selection of garden lighting. On cool nights in the garden, a blazing firebowl is fun as well as functional; for a fabulous light-and-shade show, choose a steel globe with laser-cut patterning (primrose.co.uk).
Shimmering silk shawls or pashminas draped over garden furniture add a touch of evening glamour, while tubular wind chimes – metal, not wood – tinkling in the breeze, are all that is needed for a little night music.
Wherever you create your twilight garden, be sure to position some pots and planters near doors and windows, so that the flower fragrances waft indoors deliciously on the night air.