In rural areas you can see the Milky Way; in urban plots, look for comets and meteor showers. Photograph: Chad Powell
The night garden is full of interest: dusk-shrouded flowers, the rustle of nocturnal animals, the scent of damp leaf litter. But look up, and there’s a celestial light show to enjoy, too.
With the return of The Sky At Night with a new presenter this month, and the success of BBC2’s Stargazing Live, public gardens are beginning to cater for a new type of visitor, too busy looking up at the stars to worry about what’s going on below. The National Botanic Garden of Wales recently became the first botanic garden to receive Dark Sky status, meaning it’s free enough from light pollution to get a good view of the stars. “The Dark Sky sites are a response to the question, ‘Where is the best local place to see the stars?’,” says Dan Hillier of the Science & Technology Facilities Council, who leads the Dark Sky Discovery network. “You don’t have to go to a serious observatory to enjoy the stars. It comes down to three simple things: darkness; getting away from sources of light; good sightlines. You need an open sky and good public access.”
Stars in your garden
You may think backyard star-spotting in built-up areas is doomed to failure: the orange glow of street lamps reflects off clouds and water vapour in the atmosphere, blotting much celestial action. But Tom Kerss, astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, says you can start close to home. Even in urban areas there are good views of brighter objects such as Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and the moon, and transient events such as meteor showers and comets. There’s even a stargazing group in central London. “The Baker Street Irregular Astronomers use Regent’s Park for star parties,” says Kerss, “but if you have a back garden with no street lights and turn off the house lights, it is ideal for family stargazing.
“The darker it gets and the more you look, the more you will see. In a good site, you can see the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2.5m light years away, with the naked eye. The best thing to do is to get away from direct light sources. Your ability to adapt to the dark is the biggest factor, and after 30 minutes your eyes become more sensitive.”
Where else to go
Once you’ve got the hang of star-spotting in your garden, it’s worth looking farther afield. More gardens are offering star parties, among them the National Botanic Garden of Wales and Ness Botanic Gardens in Cheshire, and there are six National Trust properties with Dark Sky status, including Emmetts garden in Kent and Allan Bank in Cumbria.
There will even be a constellation-inspired garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show in May. The planting of designers Harry and David Rich’s Night Sky Garden will echo colours of the Milky Way, using white foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora), starry white foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) and the violet flower spikes of whorled clary (Salvia verticillata). Two circular pools (designed to call to mind black holes) will reflect the sky, with boulders resembling meteorites and a rooftop stargazing platform.
To look up from our green world at a star-encrusted sky, the heavenly bodies seem remote and frosty; but perhaps we are not as self-contained as we imagine. “The history of the Earth is an astronomical event,” says Dan Hillier. “Today’s plants are the survivors of changes to the Earth’s orbit of the sun and catastrophic asteroid impacts. We think of the Earth as a closed ecosystem, but our geology and ecology are affected by activity way beyond our own planet. We are part of a much grander scheme.”
What to see now
• February is good for viewing the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus and Gemini, which has Jupiter nearby (it’s the star that doesn’t twinkle).
• The pentagonal constellation of Auriga is also full of beautiful star clusters.
• The moon will be full mid-month. Use binoculars to get a good look at its mountains and craters.
• Binoculars will also help you see the moons of Jupiter and other fainter star clusters.
• You should also be able to spot more distant objects such as our nearest neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda, visible as a faint smudge high up in the west.