Sometimes the best time to sit down and enjoy the garden is at the end of the day. Flowers and foliage take on a magical quality at twilight, but once the sun sets, the garden quickly disappears behind a curtain of darkness. That’s when an illuminated garden becomes most appealing. Here’s how to light an outdoor setting to enhance its natural beauty:
Don’t go overboard. My rule of thumb when lighting a garden is less rather than more. The idea is to create a safe, soothing, subtly lit atmosphere, not to flood the garden with so many lights it looks like high noon.
Let plants glow. Before you hire an electrician to wire your garden for lights, consider adding plants with white blooms and silvery foliage. These plants add their own natural brilliance to the night garden. To add even more appeal, choose light-colored flowers that have a sweet fragrance, such as angels’ trumpets (Brugmansia spp.), gardenia (Gardenia augusta), moonflower (Ipomoea alba), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestrus), or Oriental lily ‘Casa Blanca’. Silver and variegated foliage also turns up the wattage in containers and nearby flower borders.
Keep in style. Just as you choose lamps and light fixtures inside your home to complement the décor of the room, look for outdoor candles, lanterns, or wall lamps that go with the style of your garden. For instance, if you have a relaxed cottage-style garden, antique lanterns or candles in wire-mesh baskets might be the perfect accent. For a tropical poolside garden, use tiki torches anchored in gravel-filled galvanized buckets to complement the garden’s style.
Take advantage of blank walls. If your outdoor seating area is next to the house, your home’s exterior forms one wall in your outdoor setting. Add lights to this area to create a focal point at night. Look for other nearby flat vertical surfaces such as a fence or the side of a tool shed. Accent the wall with one or more lights and enjoy the patterns created when the light plays off the background. If a wall isn’t available, anchor a trellis in a container and adorn it with lights.
Use holiday lights in summer. Unpack some of your exterior holiday lights and use them for your summer garden. If the walkway to your garden is lined with shrubs, cover them with netted lights. This type of light looks best when the wires are nestled into the shrub rather than just laid on top. Also, place strings of lights along the edge of the path to provide direction and guidance for visitors making their way to your garden. When decorating with these types of lights, use restraint. Too many can make it appear as though you forgot to take down the Christmas decorations.
Be safe and energy-efficient. There’s nothing like the glimmer of candlelight to add romance to an outdoor area, but there are times when open flames aren’t safe. In those cases, try LED lights that flicker just like candles. They’re available in a range of sizes and designs, and some turn on and off automatically at dusk and dawn. LED lights burn longer and use less energy than standard incandescent bulbs. Long-lasting battery LED lights also help you illuminate areas where there’s no place to plug in.
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on the “Today” show, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Living in the Garden Home (Clarkson Potter, 2007) and other books in the Garden Home series.