Lighting In the Garden

Just as we enjoy how the sunlight plays off the different shapes, textures, and colors at different times of the day, lighting in the garden can add an entirely new dimension of richness, texture, and depth at night.

Imagine the warmth of your home extending out into the yard and the magical setting created by highlighted trees, specimen plants, or garden art. The shadow play of foliage on walls or being able watch the delightful movements and sounds of your waterfall, stream, and pond into the evening creates a cozy and safe setting.

Light Placement

To decide where you want lighting in your back yard, look out of your main back windows and your decks or patio and scan from one side of the yard to the other. Consider the various trees and larger shrubs that could be a focal point in each area. A small leafed or tightly trimmed plant might look wonderful during the day, but an up-light on it will cast an interesting shadow or give depth to the area in the evening. Look for broad-leafed plants or other plants with interesting branches or movement when a breeze visits. Regardless of the style of your garden, there will be some plants or trees that work well with lighting. Palms, Angel Trumpets, Japanese Maples, bushy Mediterranean species, and so many other plants will serve your needs.

Trees with multiple trunks almost always work well, and you can even have more than one light on a larger tree to subtly capture its grandeur. I remember standing on a friend’s new deck one summer evening and commenting on how beautiful the moonlight was filtering through the trees. I was a little embarrassed but delighted to find out that what I was enjoying were well-placed lights in the trees that were creating their desired effect.

In your light placement, remember that it is not just about illuminating a water element, tree, or sculpture,  but also playing with contrasts. In other words, where you don’t have light is just as important as where you do. Unless you are going for the Las Vegas look, subtlety in lighting works well. Just as you can enjoy the beauty of a pond or pool, it is often the reflections off the water that create the most striking images. It is not just what you’re lighting but how you light it and what shadows are created that determines the optimal design.

In the front area of your home, again take the time to look out at the area from your main viewing window and the front door to get a sense of where lighting would work best. Here though, you also want to go out in front of the home by the street or entryway. From there you can get a sense of additional lighting opportunities you have to create an attractive and safe setting for yourself and guests as they enter the property.

Entryways are wonderful transitional areas where you can create the feeling that you and others are entering a special and unique space. Let the beauty of your yard have the same effect as the stepping stones to a Japanese tea house that slow the person down and supports them in being more present and enjoying the beauty of the garden. Let the feeling of your entry support yourself and others in leaving the world behind and arriving in a more relaxed state.

Other Benefits Of Lighting

One surprise gift that outdoor lighting gives us is we find ourselves not only looking out at and enjoying the garden in the evening, but actually going out into the garden and discovering the gentle scents the evening moisture draws out.

While the beauty that subtle lighting brings to your home and garden is being enjoyed, there are many other benefits and reasons to have outdoor lighting. Being able to see and walk along pathways is certainly one main reason. While most light fixtures used for up-light are designed to disappear into the landscape, pathway lights can range from subtle to little “tah dahs” that light our way. Consider if you want the light fixture to be an art piece in the garden or something that almost goes unseen.

To know how many lights you need along a given path, find out what the radius (about eight feet is normal) of the light is. Some lights have easily adjustable ranges, so find the one you like and then determine how many you need to get the desired amount of light you want. In high traffic areas you probably want the adjacent lights to overlap a little, while on garden paths you might want a bit more distance between them. Measure the overall distance of the path and divide by the diameter of light each fixture gives off. Having one close to each step or transition along the path is important.

These days security is also a good reason to have adequate outdoor lighting. When a home and yard are well-lit, it is easier to see if there is someone or unwanted animal in the yard or approaching the home. While low voltage garden lighting is no substitute for 110-volt security spotlights, it can help since unless the security lighting is on or being triggered by movement, it’s not doing the job. I know I got so used to various critters (cats, raccoons, skunks, giraffes and what not) triggering movement-sensitive lights that I finally either ignored them or turned them off. My garden lighting (with a timer), on the other hand, goes on automatically, and I enjoy its beauty every night.

An essential part of any low-voltage lighting system is the transformer. It does what its name says it does: it transforms the normal 110 household voltage to 12-volts for the low-voltage lights. If you plan to have eight lights on your system, and each is potentially 25-watts, then eight times twenty-five equals 200-watts. So you’ll probably get a 300-watt transformer to handle the anticipated demand.

If you need more lights and the total wattage of all the lights is over 300 watts, then you’ll need the next larger transformer to handle the demand. I always install a larger transformer than is needed, so the homeowner can add more lights later, if they wish. You might also want separate transformers for the front and back, so the lights can be on different automatic timers.

While a small lighting system is relatively easy to install, professionals can help you technologically and artistically design and set up your more extensive systems. Just keep in mind that “subtle” is the guideline for most professionals. The appropriate number and type of lights in a yard make the home cozy and inviting. Too many or too bright of lights can have a commercial look or the look of a security compound.

4 replies
  1. Derek Dewitt
    Derek Dewitt says:

    My wife and I have been thinking about installing some lights for our garden but aren’t quite sure where to start. I like that you mention how lighting is also about playing with contrast and avoiding bad lighting placement. I think it’s important that the lights show off the best parts of the garden but also make sure that it doesn’t all blend together. Thanks for the tips!

    Reply

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