Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Yard & Garden Planning

Light Up Your Landscape

by Beth Marie Renaud

Well-placed garden lighting does more than turn night into day. It can transform a dark, mute garden into a lively room to enjoy year-round, whether outdoors in good weather or as a living tableau when you're housebound by rain or snow.

Lighting the landscape can be an expensive proposition if done through 120-volt household current. An economical option is low-voltage lighting. At only 12 volts of power, it is safe, easy to install, and relatively inexpensive to operate: six low-voltage lights use less power than one 75-watt incandescent bulb. The fixtures, wiring, and a transformer to reduce household current are easy to install, and mounted fixtures can easily be moved as plants grow or lighting needs change.

The key to outdoor lighting is deciding what features of your garden to emphasize: a particularly magnificent tree, a colorful bed of annuals, or perhaps a sculpture, a fountain, or an arbor. By selecting which features to light, you create an outdoor room with depth, dimension, and interesting focal points. You can determine what is seen -- and not seen. Unsightly aspects of the garden can recede into the shadows while favorite features come to life.

What Do You Want Lighting to Do?

Accent lighting highlights specific aspects of the garden, while task lighting illuminates areas such as a deck, lawn, or entryway where action takes place. Here we?ll focus primarily on accent lighting.

To create a balanced and interesting atmosphere in your nighttime garden, use a variety of fixtures and lighting angles, placing fixtures in the foreground, middle distance, and background. However, remember that less is more, and limit the number of light points in each area. Too much lighting fails to focus attention on aspects of the garden you want to emphasize; light can also spill over into your neighbor's property. Hide the fixtures so that only their effects show, not the sources or the glare they can give off. We describe a cross-section of fixtures below.

Shedding light on a scene can be done in two basic ways: downlighting and uplighting. With either method, the way you direct the light enables you to achieve special effects.

Downlighting is the more common technique. Because the light comes from above, as from the moon or sun, its effects look natural. The most dramatic way of downlighting is to mount canister-shaped lights near the top of a large tree or group of trees. The light that streams down through the canopy mimics diffused light from the moon and casts interesting shadows on the ground. Use three fixtures per large tree, set at different angles, to achieve the most balanced light.

Spotlight a garden bed by mounting a light closer to the ground, on the trunk of a tree, or on the eave of a structure such as a shed or arbor. You can also cast light onto a bed or border by using an upright fixture staked in the ground.

Downlighting is also the most effective way to light a path or walkway. There's nothing worse, when trying to navigate a path, than being blinded by harsh spots of light. To avoid this, use lights with top covers or shades that direct the light out and down but not up. This creates wide circles of softly diffused light that illuminate the ground only.

Uplighting creates a dramatic reversal of natural light, creating striking effects. A canister fixture staked in the ground can send a swath of light upward to highlight a tree's shape, color, and canopy. Also use uplighting for bringing garden sculptures to life, or to show off fountains and arbors. Setting an uplight directly behind an object and aiming the light at a wall creates a distinct silhouette of the object. Bring the light to the front of the plant or object, and you cast its shadow onto the wall instead.

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