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How to Design Garden Lighting
Your garden looks amazing during the day. Everything is well designed and the plants are lush. Then the sun goes down and your garden is plunged into darkness. No one can see the stunning trees, follow the expensive flagstone path or find a seat on the patio. Sound familiar? Then it is time for some landscape lighting.
The first impulse you have once you realize you need some lighting in your yard might be to run to a home improvement store and grab some lights. After you have randomly placed them throughout your yard and waited for night to fall, you are sadly disappointed by the results.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can do better.
Where to Begin
Like most landscape projects, you should begin with a walkthrough and take notes. Do you have pathways that need to be well illuminated? Are there features you want to highlight such as certain plants or a water feature? Do you need a lot of light in a specific area or do you need just a little bit of light to fight off the darkness?
Draw a sketch of your yard and note where you think lights should go. You can change things around later but having an initial sketch will allow you to see the project as a whole rather than focusing on individual lights to start.
Or instead of noting where individual lights should go you could lightly color or circle where you want the light to fall. Color in pathways, columns and special plants. Then you can consider the types of lights to use for all your different needs.
Types of Landscape Lighting
Flood lights- Brighten up the largest space possible with flood lights. These are large, bright lights that cover a large area. They are often used as security lights or for sports courts and pools where visibility is a necessity.
Spot lights- A bright, focused light used to draw attention to a specific feature. Often used to illuminate address numbers, columns or other potential obstacles. A spot light can also be used to dramatic effect to highlight certain plants such as large trees or ornate bushes.
Pathway lights- Also called bollard lights, these small lights stick up from the ground and then cast their light downward to provide visibility along a path or walkway. There are also lights that can be installed flush with surfaces such as wooden decking or the ground to prevent tripping hazards.
Step lights- These small lights are usually attached to the vertical rise of the step and provide light while navigating a set of stairs.
String lights- Commonly hung, string lights consist of a series of lights attached together. Christmas lights are one example but larger and more dramatic styles are now available. These are often used above patios to give a festive atmosphere.
Paver lights- LED lights can be encased in glass pavers to create a glowing pathway. These glass bricks could also be used in walls or even water features.
These are the general categories of lighting used for outdoor purposes. Now let’s look at the different ways to use lighting in your garden.
Uses for Landscape Lighting
Being able to see where you are going is really important. You certainly don’t want people wandering off the path and twisting an ankle or crushing the begonias. So if you have a pathway in your garden be sure to light it well.
To do this you can use a series of pathway or bollard lights. Trying to use another type of light such as a flood light would cause all the light to be concentrated in one area and might leave other areas in the dark. Therefore it is best to use smaller lights and space them at shorter intervals.
Got a beautiful tree you want to show off? Or a really neat sculpture? Then using a spotlight can really make a dramatic impact especially if the focal point is lit from below and casts a shadow.
One spotlight might be good to showcase a beautiful plant but if you really need people to see something then multiple smaller lights might be better.
For example, if you have stone columns that you would prefer people don’t run their car into. One spotlight might show people where the column is but it might not make all the edges visible. In this case using a few lights, maybe one on each side, would make the object more visible.
We talked a little bit about safety with pathway navigation but there are other aspects of safety to consider. One is anti-left or security lights. Usually flood lights, safety lights are often motion activated to turn on. These types of lights can deter both human and animal intruders.
Then there is the safety consideration for pools and sport courts. If you want to use your pool or tennis court in the evening or at night then having adequate lighting is a must. Many pools come with built-in lights but you can also add more around the edge to delineate where the pool begins or use flood lights to make everything visible.
The same can be done for sport courts such as tennis or basketball depending on how the space will be used.
Generally we don’t want drama in our lives but a little bit in your landscape lighting can take it from nice to impressive. Spot lights are often used to create dramatic shadows and sharp contrast between light and dark.
When lighting for drama don’t just think from the ground up. Try placing lighting in trees shining down or into the branches. Light things from the side or behind to give more interest.
If you really want to go wild then try different colored lights or lighting fixtures that are themselves pieces of art.
A change in lighting can drastically affect the mood of the space. Ponder what kind of mood you want to set. A lot of lights with warm tones will create a fun and vibrant nighttime space.
For a more low key mood try cooler or softer lights. Also try diffusing the light by backlighting features.
To create a festive mood then pack the space with a multitude of twinkling little lights. String lights are great for this.
You have a design plan. You know the different types of lights and how to use them. It’s time to start digging, right? Not yet. Here are a few other things to take into consideration before you start installation.
Is your garden english country or mid century modern? If you have an overarching theme for your garden then you should stick with it and get lighting fixtures that go with the aesthetic. Or at least don’t clash with it.
If you have a more generic styled garden then you can have some leeway in choosing fixtures. And there are a lot to choose from. But keep an eye on the price. If you need fifteen bollard lights to go along your walkway and they cost $50 each then $750 has already been spent before you even get them in the ground.
Brass vs Aluminium
Continuing the discussion of style brings us to the choice of brass vs aluminium. While the styles do differ, so too do the cost and durability.
Brass outdoor lighting fixtures are stronger and last longer but cost more. Aluminum on the other hand are more cost effective but the finish coatings tend to break down faster and are more easily damaged.
Wired or Solar
When looking at lighting options you will inevitably see two lights that look exactly the same. But they are not. One is connected to wires and subsequently your home’s electrical grid while the other is freestanding and runs off small solar panels.
Which is best? It depends.
Solar lights are great because they are easy to install and can go anywhere. Well, almost. Most solar lights need between 6 and 8 hours of direct sunlight to recharge their batteries. And yes, there are batteries in them which may need to be replaced occasionally.
So if you have a shaded area that doesn’t get enough sunlight to recharge the battery then solar lights might not work.
Wired lights are much more reliable but do require more work to install. It is possible to install landscape lights as a DIY project or you could hire a professional to do it. One drawback of wired light, however, is that wire.
If you have a very long distance between your electrical box and where you want to place the light then it can get very expensive or labor intensive to install wired lights. This is where a combination of the two might be useful.
Maybe you decide that pathway lights that need to work for safety reasons can be wired while the few decorative spot lights further away in the yard can be solar. It’s your yard so do whatever combination works best for you.
Color temperature means how hot the lightbulb gets, right? No. The color temperature refers to how the light looks. Some lights have a yellow tinge to them which makes them look warmer. Other lights have more blue which makes them appear cooler.
How do you decide on what color temperature to use? Well, consider what mood you want in your garden. A warmer light, also called candle light, will create a pleasant and, well, warm feel in your garden.
For a more romantic or relaxed mood then try cooler lights with more blue. But most people opt for the middle of the road white light and use the style and number of lights to set the mood.
Now that you have decided where your garden needs light, what type, style and mood you want you can now begin designing. I always recommend drawing out a couple different designs before deciding on the final iteration. This will give you a change to think through the design. Sometimes if you push yourself to come up with a second or third design which is significantly different than the first you will find a new or better way of doing something.