Home & Garden

In the heat of a desert summer, enjoy blooms and scents of a moon garden

Datura is a night-blooming summer wildflower that can live on rainfall alone. (Jacqueline A. Soule)

Right now, in March, we can enjoy our gardens in the daytime, but by June — not so much! The problem with this is that you need to water and care for your garden all year long, so it’s a real shame you can’t enjoy it all year long. The solution? Consider adding a moon garden. I bring this concept to your attention now because the ideal time to install this garden is right now. Planted in the cooler months, plants will have a chance to become established, and your moon garden will be ready to delight you this summer.

A moon garden can be fancy or simple. The idea is to add plants to your landscape that will increase your enjoyment of the space anytime after the sun goes down, whether the moon is out or not. You create a space to go outside, sit down, and let the cool air and slower pace of a desert night seep into your soul. To truly appreciate it, you have to let the worries of the day fade for at least 10 minutes while your eyes adjust to the dark. Pale colors will glimmer in the moonlight and light-colored flowers appear to float as their darker stems fade in the dusk. Since your sense of sight is diminished, your sense of smell becomes more acute.

Nighttime is a truly magical time in our Southwestern summers. As the blazing sun sinks below the horizon and the air begins to cool down, a number of desert plants open their flowers, drenching the night air with alluring fragrances to entice the night-flying pollinators. This makes sense! Why let the searing sun evaporate your nectar when there are ample nighttime pollinators at your beck and call?

One plant that blooms at night is our official state wildflower, the saguaro cactus. Since planting a saguaro and waiting for it to bloom requires a lengthy time frame, let’s look at some other plants you can plant now and enjoy this summer.

Evening primrose comes in a number of species, and their blooms last well into the day. These low-growing groundcovers can be tucked in all around the garden: tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa), Arizona evening primrose, (O. hookerii), and the spring primrose (O. primiveris). The fragrance is somewhat akin to jasmine.

Datura is a summer annual wildflower that fills the night with a sweet and musky fragrance that attracts the giant hummingbird moths to pollinate them. The plants have large dusky-green leaves and they appear to survive on rainfall alone, a real plus in my book. There are a number of species including Wright’s datura (Datura wrightii), desert thorn-apple (D. discolor), and oakleaf datura (D. quercifolia).

Shrubs with silvery leaves that gleam in the moonlight, the aloysias bloom honey-sweet at night, and linger into the day, attracting butterflies. Related to lemon verbena, the vanilla-scented white bush (Aloysia lycioides) and oreganillo (A. wrightii) are both native to the Tucson valley.

Cacti of many shapes and sizes bloom at night, including our locally famous Arizona queen of the night (Peniocereus greggii). Look for the huge white blooms sometime in late May or June. A number of night-blooming cacti also provide edible fruit, including serpent cactus (Peniocereus serpentinus), vanilla cactus (Selenicereus grandiflorus), harrisia (Harrisia martinii), Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus peruvianus) and dragonfruit (Hylocereus undatus).

In addition to plants, one of the most important components of a moon garden is a place to sit and enjoy your garden. Bench or chair, edge of the garden or center of it — there is no right or wrong; just make sure seating is comfortable.

There is no specific design for a moon garden. You can start small with a few night blooming plants and some relaxing seating. As time goes by and you use your moon garden, add to it. Create a yard you can enjoy every day of the year, and all 24 hours of the day.

Jacqueline Soule, Ph.D., has been writing about gardening in our region for over three decades. Her most recent book is “Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening” (Cool Springs Press, 2014).