Artfully placed outdoor lighting can create a truly stunning night garden
As dusk gathers over your garden, details and then shapes start to blur and disappear. However, instead of your garden rapidly becoming a dark void into the evening, with the flick of a switch a different picture appears — a soft glow back-lights some striking architectural plants. Up-lights pick out the twisted limbs of a beautiful canopy tree, and beckoning path lights guide you to a pool of light filling an outdoor room.
In the best-lit gardens, less is definitely more. For a start, you don’t want to drown out the night sky or shine lights into your neighbour’s house and you also don’t want to light everything just because you can. Part of the point of a night garden is how different you can make it feel from how it looks during the day. By lighting some parts and leaving others in shadow, you can change nearly everything; the apparent size, dimensions, spatial relationships and focal points in a garden can all be moved or disguised.
Mood is another variable, as some nights you may want a place that’s soft and romantic, but on special occasions you’re ready to be revved up by a bevy of bright lights and fun colours that lift your garden into party mode.
Designing a night garden
Planning a night garden involves a number of different stages. First there’s the balance of light and dark that needs to be designed. As Nat Corrigan of Gardens At Night says: ”the key to landscape lighting is consistency and contrast”.
For example, if you have an avenue of trees to light, don’t light every second or third one — a subtle light shining up each tree will look much better. Pools of darkness and shadow patterns are also essential to contrast with more brightly lit areas. Use darkness to create a sense of mystery or to conveniently hide anything you don’t want seen. Dim lighting can also make an area appear to recede when compared to brighter spots. With clever lighting, you can transform a very ordinary little garden into something magical, with no obvious flaws or boundaries.
Next, look at how to light each part. Safety lighting for steps and paths is more straight forward, but some garden features might be better front lit, others from one or both sides, and those with dramatic silhouettes back-lit for stunning effect. Up-lighting brings out the beauty of a tree’s form, while a downlight makes an appealing rounded pool of light across the ground. Use lighting through slats and screens to cast interesting shadow patterns.
Look at designing separate lighting moods for different occasions or to maximise energy efficiency — you won’t want all your lights on at once. Group together the appropriate lights onto separate switches, so you can have one, several or all systems running. For example, you might want your pool lit for night entertaining in summer or for it to become a dark void when you’re featuring the warm glow of an outdoor room on a winter’s night. If you can’t afford to buy all your lights in one go, planning ahead can save you lots of time and headache later on. Installing conduits under paved areas or through where you’re planting trees reduces the destructive digging needed down the track.
The art of discretion
The best landscape lighting designers are also horticulturists, so they really know how to light plants to best effect, as well as understanding how plant growth changes lighting needs and placement. No system is set-and-forget, and as installations are done in daylight hours make sure the installer comes back at night for a proper “aim and adjust”, as Gardens At Night describes it.
With a design ready, you need to turn it into reality by choosing the right lights and spacings. Even once you’ve decided on those there’s the more technical side of selecting the correct transformers and cabling to contend with. Although many places sell outside lights on a DIY basis and using low-voltage systems mean it is possible for you to install them yourself, it’s much more difficult to do it properly than you’d expect. Most of us have bought off-the-shelf kits at some point, put them in the garden and then found they’ve failed after six months or so. Good-quality light fittings (sometimes called luminaires) supported by transformers that are working well within their capacity and cabling that’s installed so no moisture can enter will build a system that lasts for a decade.
Good garden lights are discreet, so while you see the illumination they spread, you don’t see the source of the light itself. More lower-output lights look better than a few bright lights. Hidden among garden plants or attached to shine down from trees and built structures, these fittings are often small and made from easy-to-disguise brass and copper. Where the lights are more obvious, such as path, wall or bollard lights, there are also stainless-steel and coated aluminium options to match the style of your garden. If you want to light the outside of your house, consider more decorative architectural wall or post lights, as seeing the light source here adds to the welcoming effect.
Array of lighting options
Although we’d all love to go as green as possible, solar lighting has still not developed well enough to be a serious contender for good landscape lighting. If you just want something to faintly mark out a path they can do that, but they’re not up to casting enough light for any other purpose.
Optic-fibre lighting is another option you might consider for lighting water, very heat-sensitive items, where you want lots of tiny star-like lights, or where maintenance access is extremely difficult. The optic fibres carry reflections of a light source (a halogen or metal halide lamp) either along the length of the cable just to its tip, or illuminating the whole cable length, in which case it needs to be connected into the light source at both ends. Many decorative lighting effects on water jets and waterfalls are achieved using the narrow beam and endless colour variations possible with optic fibre.
LED has definitely arrived as the viable landscape lighting system, although it’s taken some years to achieve a good range of landscape lights of the required intensity, colour temperature (warm or cool), beam width and light quality. LEDs can create a reliable, low-running-cost installation that illuminates in all the ways you need — down, spot and up-lights, as well as bollard, path, wall, step, strip, flexible strip and paver lights. LEDs have several advantages over low-voltage halogen lights. Even after hours of operation, they only feel warm to the touch, so there’s no danger of burning plants or people, and as there’s no UV in the light beam it attracts fewer insects. A greater energy-efficiency means power and greenhouse gas savings and they last up to 20 times as long as an incandescent alternative. Because a good light output is now possible with a five-watt light, the lights are also smaller and easy to conceal.
Explore LE D lighting effects
LED lighting effects are created by optional optics that cover the LED output, which can be fitted as required into the LED light. Frosted optics send out a more diffused light and linear optics can control beam angle and spread. Coloured LEDs in red, blue, green and amber make mood or fun party lighting. LED lights can be dimmed, but you need to specify that at installation, as it’s quite difficult to retrofit.
However, all LED lights are not created equal. First, choose lights designed for LEDs, not retrofitted halogen designs. LEDs are very heat sensitive, so the light needs lots of external fins to increase surface area and dissipate heat. Look for a colour temperature of around 3000–3200°K, so you’ll have a nice, warm white. Check the IP, or ingress protection rating, to make sure it’s high enough for where you want to use the lights, such as IP68 for in-ground or submersible use. Good-quality LED lights cost around $200–$250 and have a three-year warranty.
But even the best-quality LED lights are not all it takes to make a reliable system. Each 24-volt transformer needs to be powerful enough to run the LEDs without being too close to its total capacity. There’s also a maximum cable length before you start getting voltage drop, requiring either a heavier cable or moving the transformer closer to the lights. Cable joins are also critical. Too much solder creates resistance, and if the join is not properly protected using a heat-shrink cap, moisture can be drawn back into the light as it heats and cools, causing condensation and possible corrosion inside even a high IP-rated light.
Low-voltage (12V) halogen lights are effective, widely available and often substantially cheaper than LED alternatives. MR16 halogen lamps are long-lasting, but the light will still need relamping many times over its lifespan. Most lighting experts believe that LED is the superior technology of the future.
Some LED Options
• Underwater Lights: LEDs are sensitive to operating at too high a temperature, so should the light be left out of water — or placed in a pond that is allowed to run dry — they sense the rise in temperature and cut back the output until they cool back down.
• Accent Lights: These are directional spike lights that can be used for illuminating shrubs, hedges, trees etc. There are narrow, medium, wide or even elliptical beams, the latter producing an oval-shaped beam.
• In-Ground Lights: With halogen or metal halide in-ground lights, you had to be mindful that they could get hot and therefore place them away from where they could be inadvertently touched or stood on without shoes. Not so with the high-powered LEDs.
• Step Lights: These illuminate the way and are vital for safety. There are broadly two types: the surface-mounted lights that tend to pool light onto steps and for wider staircases, and the recessed step lights, which project light across the entire tread.