The number of lighting products for homeowners has grown immensely in the last few years, but before you search for your favorite styles and fixtures, think first about design considerations.
For starters, plan conservatively. Choose specific areas of your yard you want to light, and decide what purpose lighting should serve in each space. If you’re illuminating a stairway or walkway, for example, your first priority should be safety. In areas where you want to read or cook, you’ll need ample light to see fine details. If you’re highlighting an interesting garden feature, a more artistic treatment is appropriate.
Once you’ve made your list of priorities and purposes, refine your plan further so the result will be visually pleasing. Your eye should rest on a few selected focal points, not dart around the landscape. Lighting the most unique parts of your garden—structures such as water features, garden art, gazebos, and birdbaths, as well as trees with all-season interest such as crape myrtles, dogwoods, and oaks add interest and dimension.
If you have a pool or pond, place lights underneath the water to catch the movement of ripples and shadows, or light the spillway of a small waterfall. Lighting a dry creek bed can create the illusion of a stream, especially if you have a small fountain that provides the sound of running water.
Keep in mind that all lighting—even safety lighting—requires a little artistic talent.
Many landscape designers install indirect, rather than direct, light so it will evoke an enchanting mood while serving its purpose.
If you need to illuminate a walkway (Photo 2) or entryway, place a light facing upward into an interesting tree or bush nearby. This uplighting provides ambience by illuminating branches and casting shadows while also brightening the walkway. Place the light fixture at the base of the plant or tree, facing the trunk and leaves, so the lamp is not shining directly in people’s eyes. Likewise, respect your neighbors and avoid shining lights into their windows or onto their patio.
Placing the lights up high and aiming them downward—or downlighting—works well when illuminating structures such as a trellis, arbor, or pergola, especially when the lights and their wires are hidden in the rafters or behind climbing vines.
Outdoor lighting comes in a huge range of prices, from around $20 for a plastic 10-piece kit at your local hardware store to $200 or more per fixture at lighting stores. If you’re lighting a main walkway with highly visible fixtures, you may want to spend more on copper, brushed metal, or faux-painted architectural styles. But remember that not every fixture needs to be seen—often, lighting fixtures are hidden to keep the focus on your
garden and landscape. If your fixture is going to be underwater or buried half underground, for instance, you might be able to get by with a less expensive product, as long as it’s durable.
Solar lights are relatively new on the market, but almost none of them provide enough light for any purpose. Fortunately, today’s residential landscape lighting is almost all
low-voltage (12 volts) so it doesn’t pose a danger to small children, pets, or anyone else, and it’s relatively simple to install. Most state codes simply call for the wiring to be dug under ground a few inches; check your state code for specifics.
Aside from fixtures, bulbs, and cords, transformer boxes are the only other thing you need to set up a lighting system. They transform your home’s electricity from its interior 120 volts to the 12 volts needed for outdoor lighting. The boxes, which you attach to the exterior of your house next to an outlet, include a timer that lets you program the system to go on and off at certain times‹or at sunset and sunrise. With inexpensive kits, the
transformer comes with the fixtures. More expensive systems require you to buy a transformer separately, which costs anywhere from $50 to around $300 depending on the amount of wattage the transformer can support. Some transformers will support five lights, while others can handle 30 or more.
When your project is finished, you’ll see the advantages immediately. After the sun slips away and you put down the pruners, you can enjoy the art of just sitting in the garden. And for many of us gardeners, that’s an enlightening experience.
Michelle Leise is a garden writer in Red Wing, Minnesota.