by Dorothy Dobbie
As day wanes, tired gardeners reluctantly head indoors, anxious for the dawn so they can continue to indulge their passion. But stop — stay in the garden for a while and savour the magic of the dark. It may be bedtime for you, but it’s wake up time for many creatures and plants.
Start by turning off the lights. Then listen to the music of the night: the sound of crickets rubbing their wings together, the mating calls of small tree frogs forcing air from their lungs into the vocal sacs beneath their chins, the rustlings and stirrings of mice and moles as they emerge to forage for food. If you live near the country, acute ears may hear the slight whooshing of wings from owls swooping down on unsuspecting prey. An owl’s great night vision is aided by spectacular hearing that can detect a mouse step from far above in the night sky.
Little brown bats come out to feed now, consuming up to one-third of their body weight in insects in just one half hour — that translates into 300 mosquitoes every 30 minutes. They have an acute sense of smell and can detect their own babies in a crowd from their specific scent.
If you’re lucky, you may see the luminous lamps of fireflies flitting though the dark. Dragonflies and damselflies take this time to change into adulthood, shedding pupal casings in the cool of the evening, away from the scorching sun that would damage tender emerging skin. They are lethargic now and the cover of the night protects them from the beady eyes of predators.
At dusk and again at dawn, deer and rabbits are on the move, visiting vulnerable gardens when you are sound asleep, following the raccoons who have popped by for a midnight snack at the
garbage bin. Don’t be too angry with them. While raccoons can be a nuisance, they also eat all sorts of insects and even mice to add protein to their diet of berries, nuts and other small fruits.
Slug haters can use this time with a flashlight to hunt down and destroy the enemy who come out in the damp of night, protecting their vulnerable slimy skin.
At dusk, you may be visited by the fascinating hummingbird moth, the offspring of the dreaded tomato hornworm, which is a large caterpillar of about four inches long at adulthood. It generally feeds on the leaves of tomatoes and tobacco plants and sometimes on the fruit itself. The moth is spectacular and can easily be mistaken for a hummingbird, flitting in and out of petunias and other nectar rich flowers. If you are interested in which moths visit you at dusk, try shining a flashlight on a sheet of white paper to attract them.
There are a few plants that bloom at night, the most notable being the lovely moonflower, which produces large, four- to six-inch white or pale pink morning-glory-like blossoms on a 15 foot twining vine. The lovely scented flowers emerge at dusk, lasting though the night until touched by the morning sun. Plant them in pots around your patio or deck.
Flowering tobacco or Nicotiana alata has small white tubular flowers that open at dusk and emit a strong jasmine-like scent. Four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) open in late afternoon and, although perennial, are grown as annuals here.
Night blooming jasmine (Cetrum nocturnum) is a shrubby plant that has a strong bubble gum scent. The flowers are small and tubular, not unlike nicotiana.
Many people plant white flowers to reflect moonlight, but don’t overlook pale blue which glows in the dark to the eyes of many night time pollinators.
The garden after dark is a wonderful, mysterious place filled with activity and secret sounds and scents. What a way for the passionate gardener to end the day — or, at dawn, to start it.
Dorothy Dobbie is the publisher of Manitoba Gardener. She broadcasts a weekly radio show on CJNU 93.7 FM every Sunday morning at 8:00 or live streamed at CJNU.ca