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January 5, 2024 – Published in Design & Decor Autumn-Winter 2023 issue

The garden at night… rethinking when and how to enjoy the garden

Words: Dean Bolton-Grant

Recently I visited Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. Famous for her polka-dots, Kusama’s current work, ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ is an immersive installation that transports you into her world of endless reflections.

Using mirrors, water and tiny hanging LED lights which mesmerizingly blink through a spectrum of colours, Kusama has created a space in which you can’t help but feel part of the work itself. Experiencing the phenomenological environment, which I hasten to add is akin to floating in the night sky, I came away thinking about gardens at night. 

My clients often talk about hosting garden parties and enjoying their gardens during the day, aiming for swathes of colour to impress guests in spaces they can entertain in with ease. This is in line with the traditional British approach of spending daytime during the summer outdoors. As temperatures continue to rise, our working habits and patterns evolve and more and more of us look to enjoy the enviable Alfresco lifestyle embraced by many of our European neighbours, is it time we start thinking about how we can spend more time in our gardens at night? 

I spend time as much time outdoors as I can and I want to transition between inside and outside as seamlessly as possible. I’m intrigued to explore this vantage point of creative execution. When designing gardens for clients my approach has always been to create an outdoor extension of their home. Part of my creative design process is to visit clients’ homes. I take great pleasure in getting to know them, their taste in design, art, their cultural touch points, how they remember spending time in gardens as a child or with friends and family. These markers help me to envisage how to mould and shape their garden to their needs and then it’s on to dressing the garden so that aesthetically it reflects and enriches their home lifestyle. Building my retail company, Urban Grow, has convinced me of an approach I have harboured for a while; that the garden is not just a space for flora and fauna but an opportunity to extend the footprint of your home. 

Visiting Kusama’s show, her work has influenced me to consider how I can capture the feeling of being part of an experience. How can I help my clients feel immersed in their gardens, and how can I do this at night? 

Statistics tell us that 2023 is set to be one of the warmest years on record and the aftermath of the pandemic has left many of us working from home, working outside of the traditional 9am – 5pm working day and in some cases, living in multi-generational households to ease and support our families’ care requirements. These changes have rumbled behind the scenes since visiting Kusama’s exhibition. Her experimentation with light, her ability to take a dark room and make it a place for reflection, transformation, dare I say magic, has me excited to design a garden for night-time. A space where people can gather in comfort to relax, enjoy company or solitude, all the while being calmed, comforted and transported by their surroundings. 

Space in the dark 

The first thing that springs to mind when considering creating a garden for night-time pleasure is the use of space. Humans by nature are intimidated by dark, large open spaces so my priority would be to create pockets of pleasure where people can relax, cocooned by the night. This can be achieved using structures such as trellises, canopies and tall planting, especially grasses. Think bamboo for planting and hessian drapes to create a natural aesthetic. Boundary walls can also contribute to creating space for sanctuary. The clean white Mediterranean style of rendering can work as a striking reflective canvas on which to plant, creating a night-time only playground of shadow and structure. 

Sensory delight 

Come the evening our sense of smell, in accordance with our circadian rhythm is at its strongest. It is my vision to fill a garden for night-time with plants that can bloom with dreamy scents. Night scented jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), evening primrose (Oenothera), tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa), perennial white stock (Matthiola perennis ‘Alba’) and Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’ are all plants that release scent at night. Matching the garden’s planting to our natural biological rhythm seems like an obvious cue to follow in terms of design, one to be embraced and enhanced. Other plants I’d be keen to try would be rosemary, lavender, santolina and southernwood. Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis), night scented stock (Matthiola longipetala) and flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) would also be on my list and all would need to be considered in terms of the garden’s climate, water supply and temperature. Warmer climes carry night-time scents, there’s nothing lovelier than sitting of an evening and catching them being carried on the breeze. 

Light the night 

It’s common practice to consider lighting when designing a garden regardless of whether the garden is for daytime or night-time. I’d love to create an evening inspired dining area. Sandstone paving that retains the daytime sun, making walking on the paving a pleasant barefooted nod that the end of the day has arrived, shoes no longer required. Overhead vines, creepers and climbers would be interlaced with aforementioned heavy scented jasmine, and from amongst the tendrils and lazily hanging fruit would be subtle neon lights, metamorphizing, conjuring prisms of colour. 

In contrast, for drama and perfect for poolside or for creating a sense of boundary, large statuesque cacti can be planted. Lighting is then used to illuminate the plants, casting beautiful, elongated shadows and highlighting the unique formations of these incredible plants, which during the day look brittle and aggressive. Come the evening with the right lighting their softness is revealed and they become almost guardians of the garden, defenders of the dark. 

As we head towards the end of the year, I’ll be taking more time to visit galleries, exhibitions and events. As encouraged by Kusama, now is a time for reflection. 

In the past I’ve considered autumn and winter as a time to restock, reflect on the year just gone, what worked well in my clients’ gardens, what plants thrived, what colour schemes should we try with the new season’s planting? 

This year feels no different. However, thanks to Kusama and her “Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the brilliant of Life” I’ll be paying more attention to breaking the traditional boundaries we have leaned towards, I’ll be looking for ways in which I can help my clients embrace the challenges of our changing world. Sourcing practical solutions for water storage and irrigation to sustainably produced garden furniture and environmentally friendly lighting, I’m envisaging that these will all be more significant factors in my creative responses to clients’ briefs. Considering gardens for use at night is also pulling my curiosity towards considering how as humans we interact with our outside spaces. Scent is only one part of how we process our environment, imagine a garden with a dedicated star gazing space – low lighting, a podium for your telescope, an invitation to consider the world above us and feast our eyes on all the night sky has to offer. Creating spaces in our homes that encourage us to step away from the stress of the day is becoming more important as our homes become hubs for work and play. Equally creating cosy corners in the garden, away from screens, where stories can be swapped by firelight is a fantasy that could well be a reality for families, as generations join forces when faced with the modern-day demands for care and shared living. 

Lots to consider and continue to think about over the coming months! 

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