Well-placed garden lighting does more than turn night into day. It can transform a dark, mute garden into a lively room to enjoy year-round, whether outdoors in good weather or as a living tableau when you're housebound by rain or snow.
Lighting the landscape can be an expensive proposition if done through 120-volt household current. An economical option is low-voltage lighting. At only 12 volts of power, it is safe, easy to install, and relatively inexpensive to operate: six low-voltage lights use less power than one 75-watt incandescent bulb. The fixtures, wiring, and a transformer to reduce household current are easy to install, and mounted fixtures can easily be moved as plants grow or lighting needs change.
The key to outdoor lighting is deciding what features of your garden to emphasize: a particularly magnificent tree, a colorful bed of annuals, or perhaps a sculpture, a fountain, or an arbor. By selecting which features to light, you create an outdoor room with depth, dimension, and interesting focal points. You can determine what is seen -- and not seen. Unsightly aspects of the garden can recede into the shadows while favorite features come to life.
Accent lighting highlights specific aspects of the garden, while task lighting illuminates areas such as a deck, lawn, or entryway where action takes place. Here we'll focus primarily on accent lighting.
To create a balanced and interesting atmosphere in your nighttime garden, use a variety of fixtures and lighting angles, placing fixtures in the foreground, middle distance, and background. However, remember that less is more, and limit the number of light points in each area. Too much lighting fails to focus attention on aspects of the garden you want to emphasize; light can also spill over into your neighbor's property. Hide the fixtures so that only their effects show, not the sources or the glare they can give off. We describe a cross-section of fixtures below.
Shedding light on a scene can be done in two basic ways: downlighting and uplighting. With either method, the way you direct the light enables you to achieve special effects.
Downlighting is the more common technique. Because the light comes from above, as from the moon or sun, its effects look natural. The most dramatic way of downlighting is to mount canister-shaped lights near the top of a large tree or group of trees. The light that streams down through the canopy mimics diffused light from the moon and casts interesting shadows on the ground. Use three fixtures per large tree, set at different angles, to achieve the most balanced light.
Spotlight a garden bed by mounting a light closer to the ground, on the trunk of a tree, or on the eave of a structure such as a shed or arbor. You can also cast light onto a bed or border by using an upright fixture staked in the ground.
Downlighting is also the most effective way to light a path or walkway. There's nothing worse, when trying to navigate a path, than being blinded by harsh spots of light. To avoid this, use lights with top covers or shades that direct the light out and down but not up. This creates wide circles of softly diffused light that illuminate the ground only.
Uplighting creates a dramatic reversal of natural light, creating striking effects. A canister fixture staked in the ground can send a swath of light upward to highlight a tree's shape, color, and canopy. Also use uplighting for bringing garden sculptures to life, or to show off fountains and arbors. Setting an uplight directly behind an object and aiming the light at a wall creates a distinct silhouette of the object. Bring the light to the front of the plant or object, and you cast its shadow onto the wall instead.
Low-voltage fixtures produce a fairly low level of light, which is desirable for most outdoor lighting needs, but getting enough illumination requires many fixtures: three fixtures per tree for downlighting, one fixture for every 6 to 8 feet of pathway, one fixture per flower bed, and two or three fixtures for a border, depending on its length.
When it comes to selecting low-voltage fixtures, there are numerous manufacturers, so your choices can be overwhelming. Visit garden centers or lighting specialists for a taste of your options, then visit the Web sites of the manufacturers whose products interest you.
Quality and cost span a wide range. An all-you-need kit with six plastic fixtures and a transformer costs as little as $60 at a hardware store, while individual high-quality fixtures can cost anywhere from $50 to $100 each.
Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Inexpensive fixtures of lightweight plastic and metal will crack and corrode over time. In contrast, high-quality fixtures made of durable bronze, copper, or cast or enameled aluminum alloy can withstand extreme temperatures and resist corrosion, as can sockets made of porcelain. Most fixtures come with lamps, the industry term for light bulbs, though you may be able to choose a specific lamp for brighter light, a more focused aim, or a broader swath of light. However, be sure to choose only lamps that conform to the manufacturer's specifications in terms of size and wattage.
Low-voltage lighting -- transformer, fixtures, and cable -- is relatively safe to install yourself. However, it can be hazardous if the connections at the fixtures are loose or if too many fixtures are connected on one cable. Most equipment comes with detailed instructions for installation, but here are some important things to keep in mind.
Before you install any lighting, check local electrical codes. For instance, some areas allow weather-rated low-voltage flexible cable when installing fixtures in trees, while others insist on metal-clad cable.
Be sure to follow instructions that come with the fixtures, and check with the seller or manufacturer if you have questions. If you are unfamiliar with wiring, you may want to have an electrician do the installation, or check your work.
The transformer converts standard 120-volt household current to 12 volts. Check its wattage capability; most can operate systems using up to several hundred watts. Because there's a limit on the number of fixtures a transformer can power and on the distance the cable can run -- about 100 feet -- without significant loss of power, divide the lighting load into several circuits of 6 to 10 lights each. The size of bulbs and transformer are also important; consult manufacturer's specifications and stay within required limits. A basic transformer capable of handling 6 12-watt lights can cost as little as $30. One that can support 10 50-watt lights will cost anywhere from $130 to $350, depending on whether it is electronic or magnetic. To keep the lengths of cable at a minimum, place the transformer where it's central to the fixtures.
Mount the transformer next to an outside outlet, but don't plug it in until you have mounted the fixtures and laid the cable. To add a time clock, plug the transformer into the clock box's receptacle and then plug the clock into the outlet.
Place the fixtures where you want them. Attach one end of the cable to the terminal on the transformer, then connect the fixtures. Some fixtures have a clamp you lay the cable into; other types require that you cut the cable and connect it to the fixture's wiring. Consult manufacturer's instructions.
At this point, turn on the system at night and, if needed, adjust the lights for placement and patterns. The cable can run on the soil surface if plants or mulch will cover it. Or bury it in a narrow trench, taking care not to place it where you might slice it with a shovel. If you have pets that might dig it up, bury the cable about 12 inches deep; otherwise, 6 inches is sufficient.
Once installed, low-voltage systems require relatively little attention, though some routine maintenance will ensure a longer life. To avoid corrosion, remove the lamps once a year and coat the sockets with a silicone-based lubricant. Clean debris out of fixtures, particularly uplighting ones, regularly. Replace dead lamps immediately; otherwise unused voltage will go to the other lamps and cause them to burn out faster. Lastly, prune vegetation around fixtures to maximize light output. The exception to this may be with tree-mounted fixtures; small branches growing in front of these lights helps to diffuse their bright light and casts intriguing shadows on the ground.
Upright lamps that can be staked in the ground are perfect for shedding light on paths and garden beds. Line a pathway with low- or medium-height lamps -- with shaded tops to prevent blinding glare. Options include Rockscape's brass Flora and Walk-About; Nightscaping's solid copper Footliter;
BK Lighting's machined aluminum Camino Star; and Hinkley Lighting's cast aluminum #1544.
Taller overhanging lamps shed a broader circle of light on a flower bed or border. Consider Rockscape's brass Flora Bell and Nightscaping's copper Deliter.
BK Lighting's Tree Strap, with BK's machined aluminum Micro Star II fixture, provides trouble-free tree mounting -- for you and your tree. The adjustable strap attaches easily around the tree trunk, with no need for nails or screws that may damage the tree and lead to disease. Loosen the strap as the tree grows.
Directional light fixtures can be mounted in trees or on walls to light a section of your garden. Three fixtures stabilized in the upper canopy of a large tree will cast diffused light much like natural moonlight. A single fixture mounted on a wall, trellis, or eave can provide just the right light to softly highlight a plant, garden sculpture, or patio. Attractive lights include Nightscaping's steel Starliter; Lumiere's Advanced Composite MR16 Accent Fixture and aluminum alloy Industry Standard model with a brass finish; and Rockscape's brass directional.
Nightscaping's cast aluminum Versa-liter points a broad circle of light in one direction -- perfect for lighting a background or creating a silhouette; Lumiere's aluminum alloy Simple Directional Uplight stakes into the ground and points straight up -- great for highlighting a fountain, stone
wall, or garden sculpture; Rockscape's adjustable cast bronze W515 Directional is ideal for uplighting trees or casting shadows against a wall.
Article published on June 23, 2008.