Thursday, February 24, 2011

In the night garden

I’d never really thought about the garden at night until I moved to my present address eight years ago. It’s rarely warm enough to sit out in the evening in the UK - although, for many of us who work, the only time we can enjoy our gardens is in the evening.
However, on arrival at the Backyard, we found that most of our neighbours had outdoor lighting. Indeed, the previous owners of our house had installed it too and it was the first time I’d really thought about how a garden looked at night, as opposed to thinking of it as place to sit and eat or have a glass of wine.

When I say my neighbours have outdoor lighting, I don’t mean security lighting (though some have that too), but spotlights and uplighters that are positioned to highlight particular plants and trees.

It means that at dusk, the landscape becomes a new vista, with pools of green foliage and pale bark shining against a background of deep green.

However, you don’t have to have a sophisticated (and expensive, and energy-consuming) lighting system to transform your garden, as a new book by Lia Leendertz explains. Entitled Twilight Garden, it's a guide to planning, planting and lighting your garden for maximum evening impact and enjoyment. I think it's the only book on the subject I've ever seen, and it's a good balance of gorgeous pictures and down-to-earth advice.

Two of the things I liked most about the book were the ideas for parties - fireworks, star gazing, barbecues - and the general assumption that children will be included in activities. If there is one thing that is guaranteed to get kids interested in gardens, it is things like candles, fairy lights and barbecues, and the idea that what is a very familiar space during the day can take on a magical new persona as dusk falls. My son and I still go on night safaris in the garden - and he's now 21!

The plant listings include not only plants that look good at night - predominantly those with white flowers - but also those that smell good. Lonicera japonica 'Halliana' has gone to the top of my wish list, as has Zaluzianskya ovata. And I must keep a look-out for Epiphyllum oxypetalum, or Queen of the Night, which, says Lia, inspires sundowner parties when it comes into flower once a year. Her recipe for a sundowner party: One Epiphyllum oxypetalum plant, a gin and tonic, Singapore Sling (gin, lime juice, cherry brandy and Benedictine), or Cuba Libre (light rum, cola and a wedge of lime). Sounds like my kind of celebration.

Lia is not such a fan of garden lighting as me. She feels that gardens can be overlit, and that candles and fairy lights can create a magical effect without the need for armoured cabling and electricians.

I think she's absolutely right in pointing out that electrics out of doors need to be installed by professionals, for safety reasons if nothing else. You have to know there is a trip system in case you accidentally shear through it, and it must be secure from the predations of squirrels, rabbits, rats and mice, not to mention rain.

I would add that if you get a specialist garden lighting company in, they will come up with more imaginative, subtle ideas than your average electrician. However, such schemes are not cheap and they do use energy.

A light in your garden will cost as much to run as a light in your house. (Forget about those solar-powered things - I've never found one that gives out anything more than a sulky glower). So although I love looking out at my garden lit up, particularly on a winter evening when it's too cold and wet to appreciate it any other way (I should point out that I don't have curtains), there is a little niggle at the back of my mind that tells me I'm being a bit naughty in terms of power consumption.

And as Lia points out, one of the beauties of night gardening is that no one can really see how posh your candle holder is.