Beautifully placed and well thought out outdoor lighting is truly a feast for the eyes. There is a very fine line between lighting that is done thoughtfully and lighting that is overdone to the point of being garish. Lighting should be a landscape enhancement, not a landscape disaster. Properly planned and installed outdoor lighting adds another dimension to the garden and increases the time each day and night that the garden can be enjoyed. Outdoor lighting can have the same effect that candlelight has inside the house. Even a messy garden looks beautiful in the evening glow of outdoor lighting. It is always better to err on the side of too little lighting than too much. It is advisable to install a basic group of lights and add to it after you have lived it and enjoyed it for a while –– and add more fixtures later as the landscape budget allows.
Outdoor lighting should be an asset to the landscape. It should add to the beauty of the garden and garden features but not detract from it. Outdoor lighting adds security as well as beauty to the evening garden. It is best to purchase the highest quality fixtures and highest quality bulbs within your budget. I like to buy unobtrusive fixtures rather than “decorative” fixtures. The job of outdoor lighting is not to decorate the landscape with the fixture but to enjoy the pleasing light it casts. It’s wise to spend the money on the front end to purchase a larger transformer so that additional light fixtures can be added as the garden matures, or as more focal points or water features are included in the garden. High quality fixtures and transformers will last longer and perform better.
Equipment and Fixtures
The first piece of equipment to consider for your lighting scheme is the transformer. The transformer converts high voltage electricity into low voltage. Low voltage is what powers the lighting fixtures. Because of this, they are energy efficient and do not add a huge burden to the utility bill. Choose a transformer that can carry a larger number of watts than you think you will need. As the garden matures, you will probably want to add or change lighting fixtures. A certified electrician can install the transformer. It is recommended to install it in a covered and protected area that is easily accessible to the gardener.
Up lights are fixtures that do just what their name suggests. They are fixtures that are installed in the ground and the bulb faces upward. There is a shield that directs the light up toward the desired shrub, tree or focal point in the garden. The shield also contains that light so that it won’t blind the eyes of garden visitors. Up lights are very effective if used behind a tree or shrub to cast a soft glow on the house or other structures in the garden. It is best to not see the fixture but to see the soft glow that they provide.
Path lights also do exactly what their name suggests. They have a hood that projects the glow downward to a walkway, path or other area to travel in the garden. In my opinion, these are the trickiest lights to place. Path lights should be placed so that they lead the eye naturally down a path or corridor. Path lights should not be installed like runway lights. They should gently suggest the way down … from one interesting place in the garden to another. Use fewer fixtures rather than more. Figure out the arc of light that the fixture will provide and use just enough (or fewer) to lead the visitor down the garden path. Think of path lights as a “dot to dot” way to get the visitor from one place to the other.
Moonlighting is basically more sophisticated type of floodlight that is placed in trees or large shrubs to cast light down into the garden. To achieve a moonlight-effect, these fixtures should be installed at least 25 to 30 feet from the ground. There should be branches between the lights and the ground so that nice shadows are formed instead of just a big pool of light or strong beam of light. Shadows can be just as interesting and pleasing as the light cast by the fixture.
Moonlights are my least favorite of all fixtures. Unless they are installed in exactly the right place, they can cast an eerie or almost depressing light down into the garden. I have seen them installed beautifully in majestic live oak trees and magnolias, and the lighting has been effective and adds safety to the area. I definitely recommend getting expert advice to use this type of fixture in the garden. Also make sure that the bulb installed in the fixture casts a warm glow instead of a cool blue color. Choosing the right bulb can make a big difference in the type of ambience in the garden. Always think warm.
Don’t think you have to light every inch of the garden. Balance is key in achieving a beautiful lighting scheme. I like to light the corners of the property and then balance the light by moving in from both ends to the middle. For example, if there is a fence or brick wall at the back of the property, place an up light in each corner, either washing the wall or fence with light or the plant that is anchoring the corner. Then light the middle of the wall. Split the difference on each side of the middle and up light the wall or plant in those areas. If this looks like too much light, take out one or two of the middle fixtures. Any interesting focal point in the landscape deserves a light or two. An interesting urn, birdhouse or water feature can be enjoyed so much more when washed in the glow of a well-placed low voltage light. It is also effective to light night blooming plants such as moon vine or night blooming jasmine. This adds another interesting aspect to the nighttime garden. Lighting a deciduous tree such as a fig tree or crape myrtle can be beautiful in the winter when the structure of the tree and interesting bark become the focal point.
Also consider the lanterns or hanging fixture at your front, side or back entrance. In many cases, these fixtures are too small or are hung too high to be in proper scale with the house. Sometimes just cleaning the glass of these lanterns or hanging fixtures can enhance the entrance that you use on a daily basis. I highly recommend adding a dimmer. Also consider adding a timer to your outdoor lighting transformer. Most high quality transformers have a built-in feature that can be programmed to turn the lights on and off at the desired times. Some are even “smart” enough to change with daylight saving time. I have our lighting system turn on early in the morning so that when we get up early we can enjoy the garden from our breakfast room before the sun rises.
Nothing looks worse than a nighttime garden where half of the lights are burned out. It is better to have no lighting than poorly maintained lighting. Make sure the fixtures are in the right position. Many times a lawn mower or weed eater can knock a fixture askew and instead of casting a pleasing wash of light the fixture is emitting a terrifying blinding light. Peruse the garden at night and get the fixtures back in the right place. Fixtures may have to be moved because trees and shrubs have gotten bigger. (I think it’s helpful and demonstrative to take a photograph of the nighttime garden to see if the lighting is balanced.) This is easy to do because the wires are not buried deep in the ground. Adding length to the wire is not a difficult task. However, if you are not familiar with doing this or feel uncomfortable, it is always advisable to call in an expert. Keep the glass on the fixtures clean and make sure leaves or mulch have not accumulated to block the light. Prune bushes near path lights so that you can achieve the desired light.
Take the Leap
Add lighting to the long list of the garden wish list. In fact, move it to the top of the list. Outdoor lighting, done the right way, can add so much beauty to the garden. Give it a try. Remember: buy the best transformer and fixtures that you can afford. It is better to have six quality fixtures than 10 cheap ones that will become a maintenance nightmare. Enjoy your nighttime garden. You’ll be glad you did!
Blooms to Enjoy in September
Abelia, buddleia, crape myrtle, Rosa rugosa, Knock Out® roses, Blackberry lily, salvia leucantha, butterfly weed, Helianthus angustifolia (swamp sunflower), Cleome, dahlia, Ginger lily, hosta, lantana, plumbago and zinnia.
Monthly Garden Chores for September
- Gardening picks up again in September. This is a perfect time to add desired plants to the garden.
- Deadhead or cut back any tired looking annuals. You may get another flush of color before late fall.
- Make sure you have ordered or purchased any specialty bulbs to plant later this fall or winter. These can sell out fast.
- It is time to divide and replant any perennials that have finished their blooming period. It is best to do this on a cooler, damp day.
- If iris did not bloom beautifully this year, it may be time to dig them up and replant. If iris burrow too deep in the ground, they do not bloom as well. Their “corm” needs to see the sun.
- There is still time to do cosmetic pruning. It is not recommended to do heavy pruning this time of year. Cut out any dead branches in shrubs and trees to achieve the desired shape and size and to improve the appearance of the plant.
- Try something new: dry perennial blooms for a longer lasting bouquet.
- Fertilize tomato plants to extend their production time.
- “Gib” camellias to achieve larger and earlier blooms. To gib, remove a vegetative or leaf bud next to a flower bud. Place a drop of gibberellic acid in the bud cup, and you should get a big, beautiful bloom.
- Scout the lighting system. Make sure the timer is working properly and is set to the appropriate on/off times. Make sure lighting fixture glass is clean and replace any burned out bulbs. Stabilize any fixtures that have gotten knocked off kilter by lawn equipment.