A recent study showed that more than 86% of garden owners think they could improve the appeal of their garden by using proper garden lighting fixtures to make their garden lighting ideas come to life.
Bathed in the bright light of daytime, a garden is a combination of textures, colors, and shapes.
Viewed from inside the house or on the back porch, you can see the rough texture of trees lining the back of the lawn, the clean shapes of hedges, and all the flowers’ colors.
The sun lights all of it, leaving nothing hidden.
During the night, however, the garden becomes a more mysterious place, as shadow and light play with one another to illuminate some parts and conceal others.
The trees at the bottom of the yard loom furtively over the lawn.
The waxing moon reveals the various textures of the flowerbeds.
A low wall or flagstone path is veiled in the darkness.
The garden at night is a beautiful, magical place that just needs to be revealed through proper garden lighting.
Well-thought out garden lighting can bring out the unique beauty of the night-time garden. Well-designed garden lighting will illuminate the garden’s best elements, leaving in shadow the ones you do not wish to showcase. Garden lighting determines what the viewer sees and what he does not. Garden lighting can make a smaller garden appear spacious and open or make a rolling lawn seem intimate and cozy.
Additionally garden lighting has a functional element. Garden lighting helps light the pathways you are walking at night and shows where there are any hazardous changes in the ground’s grade or texture. Garden lighting discourages prowlers by illuminating the ground level and removing shadows around the house. It allows the garden to be used after dark for a nighttime stroll, entertaining, or playing lawn games.
Without undue effort you can design and build a garden lighting system for your garden yourself, using the techniques discussed in this garden lighting guide. I discuss the purpose of garden lighting in the first part of this guide. Then I explain the principles and tools for garden lighting in the second part. The third part is about planning the installation of your garden lighting. The final section is dedicated to the process of implementing and maintaining a garden lighting plan.
Even if you decide to hire a garden lighting designer or professional installer to do your outdoor garden lighting, the information contained in this guide will help you. You will be able to decide what areas of the garden you want to light and how you want it to be done, so that you can work with the designer or contractor in an informed manner.
Light affects us on intellectual, emotional, and physical levels, whether it is the natural light or artificial light. While we cannot control the sun or moon, we are able to decide what we are able to see at night. By installing artificial lights to illuminate or hide areas of the garden and to give shape to the appearance of a place.
Garden lighting is a powerful instrument with which we can draw the eye to the important aspects of an environment. It can show the location of an entrance or seating area, and help us to avoid hazards.
Emotionally, garden lighting can make us feel content and safe by providing a sense of security, or relaxed by lighting the beautiful parts of an environment. Physically, light can make us feel warmer or colder and secure or uncomfortable. These effects are all inside our control when we design and build a garden lighting system.
1. The Purpose: Form and Function
Garden lighting has two purposes: the functional and the aesthetic. As with other aspects of garden design, these two aspects should complement one another to provide a kind of beautiful practicality. While one could certainly illuminate the entire garden by placing floodlights strategically, eliminating any elements of shadow, this would create a garish, unattractive appearance. Similarly, one could place only a few footlights along a central path. However, this would plunge the rest of the garden into near total darkness, preventing the viewer from enjoying its nighttime nuances.
Your garden lighting plan should find a comfortable middle ground between these two extremes. The purpose of the garden lighting plan is simple. Choose which aspects of the garden you wish to showcase to your visitors, and what activities you wish to use the garden for.
Every gardener has at least one or two flower beds, or a particular landscape accent such as a pond or stand of trees, that they are particularly proud of.
By planning a garden lighting system that accents your showpieces, you allow visitors to enjoy its intricacies at night as well as during the day. It’s important to strike a balance that allows for a discernible change in the garden’s overall mood from day to night.
Do you tend to entertain in your garden? If you have a furnished patio or lawn furniture, consider a garden lighting plan that allows visitors to enjoy the summer evening while lounging in soft garden lighting.
If you occasionally host dinner parties in the garden, as I do, you will want garden lighting that allows guests to see what they are eating. If you have children or engage in games or sports in your garden at night, consider adding one or two floodlights. You can turn them on during games to illuminate the playing lawn.
Losing a shuttlecock or ball in the darkness will quickly put an end to evening play. But by including several optional garden lighting levels as part of the overall plan, you leave yourself with a number of choices depending on what you wish to set the mood for.
Spotlights and floodlights are also useful as security lights. As I will discuss later, the spot or floodlight can be attached to a motion sensor in areas of concern. In the event an intruder happens by, they will be bathed in bright light. This generally deters any further prowling.
Floodlights attached to motion sensors are doubly effective if used in conjunction with lower-wattage passive security garden lighting. The passive security garden lighting sends the signal to potential intruders that the homeowner is concerned with security.
Ideally, the overall garden lighting plan will be executed in such a way that the visitor does not notice the fixtures themselves as much as what they are illuminating. The focal point of the plan is the objects and areas you are illuminating, not the light fixtures, just as in the home.
While well-designed lamps can be attractive when they are noticed, the guest does not wish to spend their time in your home staring at them any more than they wish to do so in the yard.
The landscape features you wish to draw attention to are often best highlighted by just enough garden lighting to show them off without illuminating the spaces around or behind them. This creates a striking contrast between the showpiece and the shadows around it, and can give depth to an object during the night that it may not posses during the day.
Shadowing objects can have an even more dramatic effect than silhouetting them. The shadow of the object will often be considerably magnified onto the surface behind the object.
Because the rest of the yard will be bathed in darkness, it is especially important that the bulbs of any accent lamps are shielded from view. Otherwise the eye will be drawn to the light source itself instead of to the object of illumination. Similarly, we do not hang bare bulbs in the living room of the house, as the glare will distract the visitor from the room itself. This can be done a number of ways.
The lights themselves can be concealed in the foliage of other trees or shrubs. They can be housed in deep conical or bullet-shaped shields. Or numerous low-voltage bulbs can be incorporated into the flowerbeds or wound around tree branches and trunks to provide an almost magical, sparkling effect.
You may wish to incorporate colored lights into your design. Colored garden lighting is most typically used as holiday decoration. However, a tastefully placed colored light can add to the overall aesthetic of your garden. Certain flowers can appear strikingly different under colored lights, while others can appear washed out.
You can also have one or two lamps that you use specifically for holiday decoration, and keep different colored bulbs on hand to swap out depending on the season.
Consider the reflectivity of the plants and other materials in the garden when you are choosing your garden lighting. Different plants have differing levels of reflectivity, depending on the structure and density of their foliage. Plants and materials that are not highly reflective will require brighter garden lighting to make them stand out.
In the next section, I will compare a number of different types of lamps and light bulbs. Each one will have a different range of intensity, aesthetic, and functionality. I urge you to consider which one is the most appropriate type of lamp for your garden lighting system, and rely primarily on that one kind.
It may occasionally prove necessary to use a few contrasting types of lamps to highlight particular features or focal points in the garden. You might also include one or two floodlights for security purposes. But for the most part you should probably use standard or low-voltage incandescent lamps.
Mixing and matching too many different garden lighting styles will create a jumbled aesthetic and make your garden lighting system difficult to maintain over time.
2. Lighting Tools and Techniques
2a. Light bulbs
There is a wide array of garden lighting fixtures, lamps, and other materials available to the backyard gardener. Using these materials, you can bring any of the garden lighting techniques that will be discussed below to your garden. You will be able to light the plants and materials brilliantly or softly and control the garden lighting system with ease and even automatically.
The low-voltage garden lighting system and the solar-powered LED system are invaluable developments in garden lighting materials that have occurred in the last thirty years. The former system typically runs on 12 volts of power rather than the standard 120 volts in the home. The latter uses solar panels to charge LED, or Light-Emitting Diode, lamps.
The LED system typically requires very little planning and no wiring in order to set up. It can typically be installed immediately, with each lamp being a standalone component in the system, requires no external power source, and has an extremely long life.
LED lights can be very useful for lighting your garden. This is especially true if it’s your first experience with garden lighting. You should use LED lights if you do not have a very large garden or intensive project in mind. Garden centers and online retailers now have a wide variety of LED lights available. They range from relatively powerful motion-sensitive spotlights to understated path lights.
Path lights are typically available as conical lamps or bollard lamps attached to moderately long spikes that can be pushed directly into the soil. Small solar panels charge the lamps during the day, and they provide adequate footpath garden lighting at night. Typically the lamps are sold in packs of four or more, but each lamp is self-contained, making replacement of broken or burned out lamps fairly easy, as they are not wired together.
The disadvantage of many of these lamps is that they sometimes cannot be turned off. While they are available in a range of styles and colors, they do not provide the type of glow particular to other kinds of bulbs. Therefore you may decide to consider using other options for light bulbs.
Incandescent lamps provide light from a hot thread of tungsten or filament within a glass bulb. They include the standard kind of bulb used indoors; reflector bulbs, designated R (for reflector), ER (for elliptical reflector), and PAR (for parabolic aluminized reflector, the most commonly used bulb for spot and floodlighting). There are also low voltage versions of each of these.
Quartz incandescent lamps operate on the same principle as standard incandescent lamps. But quartz burns at a higher temperature and give more consistently bright light.
Fluorescent lamps have become increasingly common in household use in the last twenty years. This is mainly due to the advent of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that fit directly into incandescent lamp fixtures. For aesthetic reasons, they are not commonly used in garden lighting, but you are certainly welcome to consider them for your garden.
CFLs may prove useful for lighting doorways, patios, or the garage. They have a longer life than incandescent bulbs and are more energy-efficient as well.
2b. Lighting Fixtures
Outdoor garden lighting fixtures are available for any job from uplighting a small tree to floodlighting very large areas. The majority are designed to be used with incandescent bulbs, although CFLs can of course be used instead.
Many are also available for use with tubular quartz or fluorescent bulbs, mercury vapor, high-pressure sodium, or metal halide lamps, incorporating the special fittings required.
The best way to choose the garden lighting fixtures you intend to use is to study the design principles discussed in next section. Then, consider what you want to illuminate and why. Then, decide the specific garden lighting techniques you will use to do this, as discussed in the next part of this section. Finally, refer to the survey of light fixtures that follows to make informed choices from the many products available on the market.
Lamp holders are simple fixtures that are typically just an electrical junction box attached to one or more sockets, with no shield or lens, and designed to hold floodlights and spotlights. Though they are inexpensive and used often, lamp holders do not provide particularly attractive garden lighting, because they do nothing to shield the lamp or reduce the glare.
Bullet lights are similar to lamp holders and almost as common, but they improve upon them by enclosing the lamp in a cone-shaped metal or plastic shield. This not only reduces glare, it also protects the lamp and socket from debris and moisture, and avoids short circuits.
Additional protection is provided by the plastic or glass lens sold with many bullet lights. This is essential if you will be using R o ER type incandescent lamps outdoors, because moisture and sudden temperature changes can cause these indoor lamps to explode.
Lamp holders and bullet lights are typically used for uplighting, downlighting, moonlighting, spotlighting, grazing light and safety lighting. Silhouetting is typically done with bullet lights trained upward on a wall behind a plant, and shadowing is done with bullet lights trained on a plant in front of a wall.
Well lights can be installed underground, with the top of the fixture flush with the ground. This method is useful for uplighting trees, shrubs, walls, and signs. Well lights are available in both standard and low voltage, plastic and various metals, and can often be installed with a grill to better hide and protect the lamp.
Post lights are the most common garden lighting fixtures. They are frequently installed along a front entry walk or driveway to provide area garden lighting, illuminate the path for safety, and welcome visitors. Post lights are available in various heights from 3 feet (1m) to more than 8 feet (2 m) tall. They can be plastic, enameled metal, or wooden.
Usually the lamp is enclosed in a globe or chimney at the top of the post. This should be made of some kind of light-diffusing material such as frosted glass or white plastic to reduce glare, especially if the lamp is at or near eye level.
Bollard lights are very similar to post lights but are usually less than 3 feet (1 m) in height and typically enclose the lamp behind plastic or glass panels within the post itself. They are also available in plastic metal, or wood styles.
Porch lights can be useful for lighting the porch itself as well as for area lighting when hung on the patio, or safety lighting when hung on walls near dark paths. Porch lights are available in any number of styles and can hang from walls or ceilings. Choose a fixture with diffusing glass or plastic if it will hang at eye level, or locate the fixture overhead so that only its light is seen.
Low area lights (or path lights) usually stand less than 3 feet (1 m) in height. Most common low area fixtures are in the shape of a mushroom or pagoda. The light from these fixtures is usually diffused through plastic panels or directed toward the ground with shields or louvers.
Low area lights are most commonly used for path and safety lighting. However, they can also be used for contour lighting and area lighting of flat surfaces or low plantings such as lawns or ground cover. They are available in a great variety of styles and materials.
Accent lights can be used to add interest to a garden in many ways. You may use strings of miniature lights over trees and shrubs, star shaped area lights in beds, or fixtures hung along walls. For precise spotlighting of garden focal points, a framing optical projector can match the shape of the light beam to the object of illumination so that no light spills beyond it.
3. Techniques and Effects of Garden Lighting
Many techniques are used in garden lighting. They vary in the position of the light source and whether it is aimed up, down, or across a surface. Different techniques can bring the spotlight of focal glow, a background of ambient luminescence, or the sparkle of accent lighting to your garden. Choose from these techniques to light the different parts of your garden, or combine them to make a garden lighting system.
Downlighting is a general term that includes many of the other techniques listed below. It is the lighting of an object, area, or surface from above.
The light source can be a large floodlight to provide general illumination for safety, security, or entertainment. It can be several small floodlights set high up in a tree, providing filtered light. It can be diffused through a globe, stretched canvas, or other material. It can focus on a particular plant or small area in the landscape.
When done well, downlighting imitates natural lighting. It can suggest the sun gently lighting a patio, a shaft of sunlight falling through the clouds on an overcast day, or a full moon filtering through the foliage.
Uplighting is also a general term that means lighting something from below. Uplighting provides focal glow in the garden. It is dramatic, not unlike the spotlight in a theater or searchlights at night. Uplighting occurs rarely in nature, and this provides a somewhat unnatural appearance, and demands attention.
Use this technique sparingly: when there is a reason to call attention to a particular part of the garden or feature within it, such as a statue or tree.
Safety lighting allows people to feel comfortable in the garden and direct them where and how to move through it. You can light for safety with well-placed downlighting from trees or buildings, or with low path lights. Safety lighting should be brightest on heavily travelled paths or steps. It also needs to be brighter if nearby areas are brightly lit or if it will seem dim in comparison to other lighting.
Security lighting is often the first choice homeowners make when deciding what lighting to put in. This is because of the importance they place on keeping their property safe from burglars and other intruders. Often this is done at the expense of aesthetic, and this is not necessary.
Proper illumination of paths and entryways can protect the home while enhancing the garden’s beauty. Switches for security lights should be located indoors. You should also consider putting security lights on timers. Another solution is installing motion sensitive security lights as discussed above.
Moon lighting uses a mild source of light, usually placed high above the ground, to simulate the soft, diffuse glow of moonlight. Filter light through foliage or tree branches, and place it high enough that visitors cannot see the light source, to achieve this effect.
Grazing light is the positioning of a light source to bring out an interesting texture on a garden surface, such as a masonry wall, attractive door, or ivied fence. Place the light source a few inches (8 – 10 cm) from the object and align it to direct light across the surface.
Uplighting and downlighting trees can use grazing effects to accent the texture of the bark.
Cross lighting is the technique of using two or more light sources to light an object. The object is thus more fully revealed and casts softer shadows. Cross lighting is typically done with broad floodlights or other diffuse sources of light, rather than with spotlights. The beams of light should cross one another well before they reach the object of illumination.
Spotlighting gives focal glow to a garden as it directs an intense beam of light to pick out a particular object. Spotlighting focal points, if done with discretion, can have a dramatic effect on a garden. It reveals to visitors what the important pieces in the garden are.
Silhouetting an object against a wall likewise creates a dramatic effect. This occurs in nature when trees are silhouetted against a ridge at dusk. The light source should be concealed, either sunk into the ground of placed directly behind the object being silhouetted. Plants with distinctively shaped leaves are especially attractive if lit this way.
Shadowing is similar to silhouetting, except that the shadow of the plant is projected on the wall behind it by being lit from the front.
Perspective lighting provides a subtle sense of drama and adds dimension to the garden by emphasizing a line of sight. This may be a natural view through a group of trees, a long, narrow patio, or the open corridor through plantings formed by a path.
Perspective lighting can make a garden feel larger than it is by suggesting the far end of a visual axis is farther than it is. This is achieved by lighting the foreground dimly, provide dim lighting along the visual axis, and light the focal point at the end of the view brightly.
Each garden is unique, and there are no hard and fast rules for garden lighting. However, I recommend sticking to certain design principles that will help your garden lighting system be both useful and beautiful, while avoiding pitfalls and mistakes. These are simple principles to bear in mind while you are designing the system. The same points can serve as a checklist to refer to if you hire a contractor to see if their design will suit your needs.
Study natural light. See how the sun highlights plants and landscapes, the pattern of shadow on a wooded hill… Analyze the silhouettes of trees against the sky as the sun sets. Observe the sudden brilliance of a shaft of sunlight shining through the clouds. The sun spotlights, accents, downlights, silhouettes, and grazes surfaces.
Our garden lighting systems are only imitations of what natural light already does. Notice the dramatic difference in mood and feeling between sunlight and moonlight. As with any kind of garden design, the garden lighting effect will seem most natural and comfortable when it imitates nature.
Don’t over-light. A small amount of the right kind of light will produce a much better effect than large quantities of the wrong kind of light. Less light will also create more subtly beautiful effects. This means you must carefully decide where light is needed and select the appropriate lamps and fixtures for each area. Use techniques that are in scale with your garden.
Consider reflectivity. Every object and plant in the garden has its own reflectivity, as mentioned in previous section. Keep this in mind when you are choosing how to light each one.
Rely primarily on one kind of lamp. To reiterate, do not fill your garden with a widely variable assortment of lamps and fixtures. They will disrupt continuity and prove more difficult to maintain over time. If you decide to go predominantly with LEDs, stick with that. If you choose incandescent bulbs, do not mix in fluorescent ones.
Rely on several garden lighting techniques. Unlike lamps, you will be able to produce flow and depth to the garden if you choose several of the techniques described above. Graze a wall, cross light or moonlight a few trees, and accent light footpaths. Mix and match techniques to get a palette that works best for your particular garden.
Make your garden lighting system adjustable. If possible, plan your system with several circuits, each with its own switch. Use dimmer switches wherever it is practical to do so. This will allow you to turn only the lights you need at a given time and to precisely control their levels.
The planning process includes several step. First, making an assessment of your garden and lighting needs. Second, experimenting with garden lighting techniques and fixture placement. Finally, choosing materials, and drawing up the plan.
First, consider why you are lighting the garden. How will you use the garden at night? Assess your entertaining and relaxation habits. What are your favorite and least favorite features in your garden? What parts of the garden are dangerous at night? What is your existing garden lighting and how could it be improved?
Next, make a basic plan of your garden. I strongly recommend drawing the garden to scale on graph paper. If you are only putting in two or three lights, you do not need to draw it to scale but can simply sketch it roughly, but either way, you should get it down on paper. Make several copies of the scale drawing and experiment on paper with light placement and angles. This way you can experiment before you buy bulb number one, and avoid mistakes in real life by making them on paper.
Then, prioritize your garden lighting needs. You won’t be able to incorporate every variation you’ve sketched out on paper into your garden lighting plan, so decide whether safety or aesthetic is more important. Decide which features are more important to you as far as accents are concerned. It is best to start small, and build upon your plan from one year to the next. Keeping that in mind, begin with the most important features this year, and plan to expand on them later.
Finally, try out your plan. There is no real substitute for finding out exactly what does and does not work in the real world than by doing it. You may wish to begin with simple modular LED lamps, so that you can move them around the garden independently to get a sense of what works best. In doing so you may decide that LEDs are the best way to go as you’re getting started, or you may wish to try something more permanent.
4. Implementing the Plan
The hardest part – determining your garden lighting needs and planning the garden – is behind you. Now you only have to decide which materials to use and install them. Due to the wide array of solar- and battery-powered garden lighting kits available online and at garden centers today, this is a fairly easy undertaking.
I strongly recommend that you use one of these types of kits, especially if this is your first time doing any electrical work. Not only are they safer, they also allow you to change your mind after the fact and move them around.
Most solar-powered spotlights retail at less than one hundred dollars apiece, and many are far cheaper than that. Solar-powered, bright security spotlights are available for comparable prices. Accent and path lights that are solar powered are sold in sets that price out to about ten dollars per light. If you are using LED accents you will almost never have to worry about replacing them.
Alternately, you can install a simple 12-volt garden lighting system. I will briefly cover the basic steps involved in this kind of installation. I highly recommend you consult with an electrician or a qualified expert at your local hardware store before deciding to install this kind of system. This is not an exhaustive or comprehensive guide to this kind of installation.
4a. Materials for Garden Lighting
Cable is usually two-conductor, direct burial cable of size 12, 14, or 16 (American). To ensure correct cable, order it with the fixtures from the manufacturer. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for maximum length of wire runs in your system.
Wire connectors: Some systems come with their own clamp-on terminals, which can be fit without cutting the cable. Others require wire nuts, which are often supplied with the wires.
Receptacles and switches should be ordered to power your transformers. These will either be GFI switches or installed on a circuit protected by GFI. This system should be controlled from indoors with a switch.
Fixtures will be set into the ground on spikes or attached to trees. Low-voltage fixtures are usually sold complete with the lamps; I recommend buying this kind for ease of installations.
Transformers are available to operate systems using up to several hundred watts. Larger systems can be divided among several transformers. Be sure not to exceed the maximum wattage recommended for the transformer you select.
Tools: You will need needle-nose, lineman’s, and side-cutting pliers; flat head and Phillips screwdrivers; and a spade for trenching.
4b. Layout your Garden Lighting
When you have all the parts for your system assembled, lay out the system in the garden according to the scale map of the garden lighting plan you drew (see previous section). Begin by driving a wooden stake at the location of each fixture. Write the name and number of each fixture on its corresponding stake.
Choose a central location for the transformer. The wire runs should extend from it like the spokes of a wheel to keep the runs as short as possible. Mark the runs with chalk or lime. When possible, try to follow natural barriers in the landscape to protect the wires from damage. Do not exceed the maximum wire length.
4c. Run Cable
Run the lighting cable on the ground surface between the fixtures along the chalk lines, and then bury them in narrow “slit” trenches about six inches (15 cm) deep. Run cable into trees for any fixtures to be installed there. Use a metal staple and a zip-tie to attach cables to trees. Try to place the cable so that is not very visible.
4d. Connect Fixtures
Connect the cables to the fixtures before plugging the cables into the transformer. Otherwise, you will blow the transformer fuse or trip its circuit breaker.
Check the locations of the fixtures against the plan, and then connect the cable to each according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Be sure all the fixtures are aligned vertically and aimed correctly.
4e. Install Transformer and Test System
Your transformer should either be wired directly into an indoor switch or connected to a GFI protected receptor switch. If the transformer is outdoors, it should be protected in a weatherproof design. Attach the low-voltage cables from the wire runs to the transformer, and plug it in.
It is best to test the system in the evening or at night, when you can see the effects. Once the fixtures are on, make sure they are in the proper placement and orientation. If any fixture doesn’t turn on, check the lamp first. Then turn off the transformer and check the cable connection. Make the connection again if necessary.
If the connection is good, you may have overextended the wire run past its maximum length. This is remedied by rearranging the wire runs so they do not exceed the manufacturer’s recommended maximum length.
5. Final Word
A thoughtfully designed and well executed garden lighting system can enhance and improve your garden considerably. It will extend the use of the garden into the evening and night time, when the garden can be a lovely place for entertaining or play, away from the heat of day.
Accent and spot lighting can draw the visitor’s eye to the parts of the garden you wish to highlight. It will give the garden a completely different mood and character at night than the one it has during the day. A mix of garden lighting techniques can make the entire garden flow through a series of areas and accents.
I hope this guide proved informative and enjoyable. Use the techniques in this guide to create a magical, lovely space in your nighttime garden, by having the perfect garden lighting.