9 tips for adding lighting to your outdoor space
Jul 10, 2023
We spend countless hours tending our gardens and grounds, only to have their beauty temporarily erased each evening when the sun sets. But nightfall doesn’t need to be your yard’s aesthetic downfall. With the right lighting, landscaping can pop and shine in the darkness.
Here are some tips and techniques from experts to help you glow up your garden and make it just as striking at night as it is during the day.
Before hitting the switch on a project like this, check whether your community has any codes to prevent light pollution, such as ordinances that require that all lights be shielded and emit only downward light, or that limit the amount of time lighting may be used. If you’re a DIYer, plan to have a couple of nights free after the installation to observe the lights and adjust the number, placement and intensity of fixtures (if you’re getting a pro to handle the work, this extra time probably won’t be necessary). Going at it alone? It’s useful to have a helper, both for an additional pair of hands while working and a second opinion on placement. And set — and stick to — a budget. Depending on the size of the property, the complexity of the lighting, the types of fixtures being used and whether a professional’s services are required, these projects can be dazzlingly large investments.
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You can tackle the electrical work yourself if you’re using only low-voltage lighting. Paul Gosselin, president of NightScenes Landscape Lighting Professionals in Kingsland, Tex., and author of “The Landscape Lighting Guide” advises that DIYers use 12-volt LED lights, maximum. The project will require some wiring and installing a transformer that gets plugged into an outdoor GFCI outlet, but there’s little chance of getting shocked. Local ordinances may vary, but he advises burying the wiring at least six inches deep. You don’t need to put the wiring inside protective piping unless you’re worried about animals gnawing it. If you want to use high-voltage lighting elements you must hire a licensed electrician or outdoor lighting professional. It can be helpful to engage their services regardless, allowing you to design the look and feel of the lighting while leaving the technical work to the experts.
All three experts interviewed for this story advised against solar-powered outdoor lighting, saying that the technology just doesn’t work well enough yet. For example, if the unit is in shade for a significant period of the day, it won’t charge properly and will provide poor illumination. “And in many cases, a solar light fixture will fail in six to 12 months,” says Michael Deo, president and lead lighting designer of NatureScape Lighting + Audio in Millington, N.J. “And when it does, it winds up in the landfill because they’re not recyclable. They’re not as green as people think.”
Astronomic timers, which turn lights on at dusk then off at a set time, such as the homeowner’s bedtime, are a popular choice with lighting professionals. Gosselin says timers help keep lighting costs down and allow wildlife — think fireflies and migrating birds — to get a break from man-made light. Lighting designer Janet Lennox Gruel, author of “The Landscape Lighting Book,” likes having lighting on switches that can be operated manually and through an app. “This way, I only turn on lights when I need them and can be mindful of energy conservation,” she says. “If I’m expecting guests, I might turn on every light. But if I’m home by myself, I might just put on the lights to my front walkway and back patio.”
Identify the key elements of your garden you want to showcase, such as statues, water features, prized plants, paths and seating areas. Be selective and don’t go overboard. For a stand of trees, light just one at the center to emphasize it; in a Japanese Zen garden, shine a single beam on a distinctive pattern in the rocks or a sculpture. “Unfortunately, some people think you have to light everything,” says Gosselin. “But more lights or brighter lights doesn’t mean better.”
“Down lighting feels natural to us, because that’s what we’re used to receiving from the sun,” says Lennox Gruel, who prefers it because it reduces light pollution. “It shows us the beauty of our ground plane and connects us back to the Earth.” Used to highlight walkways, flower beds, squat bushes and ground cover, these fixtures can be attached to trees or affixed to your home and angled toward the ground. Or use fixtures on short stakes with rims or other shielding that directs light downward.
Light fixtures that shine upward dramatically highlight trees or other large plants, statues and structures. “The light should be softer at the edges, becoming a bit brighter near the center of the object to make it really stand out,” Gosselin says. This can be achieved by using two or more fixtures, all aiming at the center point, with one closer to the tree than the others. Lennox Gruel recommends fixtures mounted on three-pronged metal stakes, which are stable and durable. Another option is to use small fixtures buried in the ground, but avoid disrupting root systems when excavating.
Gosselin loves shadows, because they bring dimension to a scene. For example, front-lighting a stand of pampas grass next to your house will cast its swaying shadow on the wall; backlighting a topiary will silhouette it and emphasize its shape. Glare, on the other hand, is your enemy. “Glare is when you see the source of the light,” Gosselin says. “Think of when the beam of a flashlight hits you in the face.” To ensure lighting won’t cause discomfort, he advises using fixtures with eyebrows (yes, that’s the official term for the curving rim along the top) to prevent light from escaping upward, or mesh-like louvre lenses, which cut down on glare.
“Trying to think of everything that’s going to happen in the future is impossible,” says Lennox Gruel. “But you have to plan for what you can.” For example, a recently planted sapling may not need light now, but consider putting in a fixture to save yourself the work in the future. You also may need to change, move or add fixtures to ensure plants remain properly lit as they grow. Think of your outdoor lighting as an evolving project.