The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Lantern Festival opens May 26 and runs through Aug. 19. This fun Asian-themed extravaganza will introduce many people to the delights of the night-time garden with the dramatic illumination of dozens of custom-made giant Chinese lantern landscapes.
The home garden also can be made dramatic with suitable night lighting. Julie prefers candles, torches, paper bag luminaries and occasional up-lights placed at the foot of trees. I like more variety and will use different techniques to illuminate the Chinese garden at our house. Hard-wired lighting is best left for the electrician to do, so that any 110 volt lines will be run to building code. Most of our other lighting will be low-voltage or solar, both easy do-it-yourself projects for the savvy gardener.
Most important are lighting plans for safety, which include illumination of walkways, stairs, driveways and entry points. We have used discreet stair tread lights with downward aiming covers in each step for the deck stairs and similar hooded fixtures on the railings. We are trying to keep our project energy-efficient, and will use solar, LED and compact fluorescent bulbs when possible.
The mood lighting for our garden will begin at the street, creating drama and mystery through careful placement of each fixture. First, the entry plaque for the garden, a four-foot standing stone, will be lit from a small flood on the ground a few feet in front of it but hidden by plantings. The lion sculpture lurking in the mixed-grass panel halfway down the walk will get gentle downlighting from a black fixture hidden in the tree above it. Along the rock boulder retaining wall that runs alongside the front walk, I’ve found some wonderfully organic glazed ceramic oil lamps that will come out just for parties on the ledges.
Inside the garden, the main waterfall will be lit from the rear and within the pools. We found some wonderful self-contained waterproof solar fixtures recently and may use them in the three ponds. Parties will get special treatment. Along with the oil lamps for the front wall are more for the edges of the steps to the house. Clustered on the porch will be several celadon green Chinese candle lamps that I have collected over the years. Hanging overhead on lines that run from the house to the trees above the court will be traditional large round silk lanterns in red or white. These are actually polyester weather-proof fixtures that may stay out for the whole summer. For the trees, I have some strings of 3-inch round patio lights.
There is nothing more romantic than a summer garden on moonlit eve. Since the full moon is only with us occasionally, well-planned garden lighting can be used to good effect on other occasions.
Plants with white or silver foliage can almost glow in the dark. Julie loves Caladium ‘Moonlight,’ an almost all-white caladium that reflects back any little bit of light and brightens an area after dark. Centaurea ‘Colchester White’ also is quite reflective. Variegated leaves with cream or white streaks and bands help plants stand out at night. Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’ is a lovely bicolor form with gray-green and cream leaves. C. kousa cultivar ‘Eva’ matures at about 8 feet and has a more narrow upright habit that makes it a perfect specimen for small gardens. Both of these varieties benefit from some shade.
Dark, damp spots are great for white ‘Walleriana’ impatiens and colored ferns. Athyrium ‘Pewter Lace’ and ‘Silver Falls’ are two fern cultivars with silvery foliage that thrive in moist, shady locations. Athyrium ‘Ghost’ is a new fern hybrid (lady fern and Japanese painted fern) that will brighten up a shaded corner. Ferns with dark maroon midribs combine very nicely with smoky or bronze fennel; the fennel doesn’t mind the shade at all! Siberian bugloss Brunnera ‘Looking Glass’ is another great shade garden selection with very silver leaves and dainty pale blue flowers. B. ‘Dawson’s White’ has silvery white variegated foliage that shows well by evening light.
I’ve written previously about my favorite vine, moonflower (Ipomoea alba), and how the pie-plate twirled flowers suddenly unfurl as dusk deepens into darkness. Another great white-flowered vine for night viewing is Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, the climbing hydrangea. Yellow trumpet vine, our native Campsis radicans var. flava, offers a long summer season of bloom with golden yellow blossoms on a vigorous vine. And what summer eve would be complete without honeysuckle? Japanese honeysuckle has a well-deserved bad reputation as an invasive weed and should not be planted intentionally. Choose instead the native Lonicera ‘John Clayton,’ which has a much more restrained habit and lovely creamy yellow, tubular blossoms.
No nocturnal border would be complete without Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’ This stately beauty may top out at 5 feet or more with huge, waxy white blooms that exude a sultry, sweet scent. Alstroemeria ‘Casablanca’ was bred for the cut flower trade but proved to be winter hardy, too.
Whether you want to add drama to your own garden by grazing or upswept light fixtures, candles, torches or white plants, take time to enjoy the process. Grab a few strong flashlights, a portable lawn chair and a glass of crisp white wine, and head outside as dusk is gathering to find those special spots in your own garden that deserve nocturnal attention…and invite a friend to join you.
Art by Day, Magic by Night
May 26-28: Grand Opening Weekend, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
May 31-July 29: Thursday-Sunday evenings, 6 to 10 p.m.
Aug. 1-19: Monday-Sunday evenings, 6 to 10 p.m. (last entry at 9 p.m. all nights)
Admission for the Grand Opening Weekend and exhibition evenings is $22 adults, $10 children (ages 3 to 12). No extra charge to view the unlit works of art by day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. beginning May 29.