Light Up Your Landscape

By National Gardening Association Editors

Autumn is around the corner and the sun is setting earlier now, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy spending warm fall evenings outdoors. Strategically placed landscape lighting can make the difference between a yard you use only in summer to one you can enjoy nearly year-round. Proper lighting not only provides practical illumination, it can also add a dramatic flair, make your home inviting to guests, and add a measure of safety to your home. Landscape lighting can be as simple as stringing a set of outdoor holiday lights over a doorway, but for a more sophisticated, practical, and thorough approach, there are numerous specially designed landscape lights to suit various needs. The key to outdoor lighting is assessing your needs, then choosing the proper lights to get the job done.

Landscape lights can be divided into two categories: task and accent. Task lighting illuminates areas of the landscape where activity takes place -- you need a certain amount of light to cook, and eat, for example, as well as to walk along paths. Accent lighting illuminates areas of yard you want to highlight -- perhaps a sculpture, water feature, or certain plants. Some types of lights can serve both purposes.

Expand Outdoor Living Areas

Landscapers often talk about garden "rooms." Similar to interior rooms, garden rooms are spaces in your landscape designed for different uses. For example, your outdoor "kitchen" might include a stone patio with a grill as well as amenities for the chef -- a chair, a small table to hold utensils, and the like. The "dining room" might include a larger table and chairs or a picnic table, and perhaps a portable cart to transport and hold food from the indoor and outdoor kitchens. The "living room" could be a set of comfy lawn chairs gathered around a fire pit. The "rec room" could be an area of lawn set aside for croquet, badminton, bocce, and other outdoor activities. In summer, these "rooms" are illuminated by daylight well into the evening. Come autumn, you'll need to provide artificial light if you want to continue your enjoyment of them.

Freestanding lamps are a perfect choice for lighting a small space. Illuminating a few comfortable chairs, for example, this light will inspire quiet conversation into the night. To provide light for a larger gathering, consider hanging downward-facing floodlights on posts or trees. Hanging lanterns are ideal for illuminating covered porches and gazebos.

Illuminate Paths

It just makes sense to provide light on walkways. You and your guests will feel safer and more sure-footed. Choose lights that provide soft, diffuse light directed toward the pathway. Decorative lights are a good choice and have the added benefit of being attractive by day, too. Avoid using bright spotlights that face toward the house or driveway; viewed from the wrong angle these can be blinding. Many path lights come in sets that allow you to add extra fixtures to provide light over the entire length of your path.

Add Drama with Spotlights

Is there a special area of your garden you'd like to highlight for your enjoyment and that of passersby? Perhaps you have a decorative fountain or statue, or a tree with particularly dramatic foliage or form. A well-placed spotlight can even turn a seemingly ho-hum nook into a dramatic stage. For the greatest drama, use upward-facing spotlights. Since we usually encounter objects lit from above, directing lights upward -- "uplighting" -- creates unusual shapes and shadows. Consider how the lights will look when viewed from your living areas, both indoors and out. Well-placed spotlights let you enjoy your landscape even when you're housebound by snow or rain. When installing spotlights, check the view from all angles and make sure they are placed so they won't shine in anyone's eyes.

Solar, Low Voltage, and Household Voltage Lights

Of all the types of landscape lighting, solar-powered types are the most economical to operate, since they run on the power of the sun. Some solar lights have the solar collectors right on the light fixtures, while others allow you to place the collector in a different (and presumably sunnier) location if necessary. Next in line are the low-voltage landscape lights. These are often sold in kits that contain the fixtures, a transformer, and cable. Both solar and low-voltage lights produce a relatively low level of light, which is desirable for many applications, such as to illuminate pathways or create a glow in a garden bed. But sometimes, getting enough illumination requires so many fixtures you'd be better off with one or two household-voltage lights.

Safety and Other Considerations

  • Always use lights that are designed for outdoor use.
  • Follow the manufacturer's specifications for bulbs.
  • Most low-voltage and solar systems are relatively simple to install. Household-voltage lights may require an electrician and be governed by local building codes.
  • Consider putting lights on an automatic timer to turn them on and off at a designated time, or use a light sensor attachment that turns lights on at dusk and off at dawn.
  • Turn off bright outdoor lights when possible, to save money and cut down on excessive nighttime glare.

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