How Does Your Garden Glow?
Gardening is something of a national pastime – so much so that increasingly people are looking for ways of enjoying the garden by night as well as during the day. Hence the growing popularity of garden lighting. Once restricted to floodlights or security lighting, outdoor illuminations are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are fast becoming an integral part of every well-designed garden.
We’ve collected together some lighting top tips from two London landscape gardeners. But before we get creative, here’s a simple introduction to how to plan for your garden lighting.
There are four main garden lighting techniques. The most usual technique is that of uplighting, which creates dramatic effects by giving trees and shrubs depth and contour. In contrast, downlighting involves placing fittings high – often on a tree – and illuminating the ground. If you are concerned with security or safety, this is probably the sort of light you will use. Pathlighting incorporates the use of low-level shielded lights for the areas around paths, borders and steps. These cast symmetrical light patterns onto the ground. Spotlighting highlights features by directing an intense beam of light, but you should consider using these with a mix of other lights to reduce the glare.
So the first thing you have to think about is what you want your garden lights for. Do you want to illuminate the whole garden, or just individual trees or plants? Do you want to have lighting in discrete areas, such as, for example, an area for holding barbecues? How about having underwater lights to emphasize a water feature? It’s a good idea to discuss your ideas with your garden designer and your electrician at the same time, so that your ideas can be incorporated into the whole garden design.
This is also the time to consider what kind of electricity supply you would like running into your garden. Will you use it for lighting only, or do you also have to make provision for a water pump? How about running electricity supplies to a garden shed or outside office, or having the facility to use a laptop outdoors? If you plan your entire electricity needs now, it will save having to dig up the garden twice.
Then there are the light fittings to select. Whilst lighting shops are stocking ever wider ranges of garden lights, there is yet more choice if you go to manufacturers direct. Ask your garden designer or electrician for lighting catalogues or links to relevant websites. Get samples of your chosen lights before you go ahead, but do leave plenty of time for delivery – some take up to three weeks to arrive – and do check the returns policy before you order as some manufacturers do not accommodate returns.
Another aspect to consider is how you want your light switches to operate. Do you want them to be operated by movement? This may be reassuring if you are security conscious, but they are more likely to be illuminated by a passing cat or fox, rather than an intruder. Or use a sensor which measures natural light: as dusk falls your lights go on.
Generally, the requirements for running outside electrical installations – lights and power supplies – are quite strict. They are best done by a professional electrician, not only to comply with legal requirements which ask for self-certification of electrical works, but because lights must be correctly used and fitted in order to be durable. Even if a manufacturer claims a light fitting is suitable for use outdoors, an electrician will be able to tell you with certainty whether it is appropriate for your specific location. For example, lights that are perfectly suitable for the outside walls of a house become dangerous on the walls of a flowerbed because ground water from the flowerbed can seep in and penetrate both the lights and the connections. No electrician enjoys having to tell a customer that by “saving” a few hundred pounds in having their lights originally installed by a builder, they will now have to spend thousands in order to put right the damage to their installations.
Landscapers’ top tips
So, what do our landscape gardeners advise you to do in order to get the most out of your lighting?
We asked Jeannie Simmons of Brondesbury Park-based Nurture Nature, James Firth of Firth Gardens in Kensington, and Colin Gill of Ealing’s Green Bubble Garden Design for their top lighting tips.
James’ first tip is not to overdo things.
“Consider the scale of your garden, small fittings and low wattage are all that is necessary for the average terrace house garden”
In smaller gardens he rarely uses point lighting above 20 watt in plant beds, and even that has to be dimmable. Uplights for larger shrubs can be up to 50 watt. However, if your garden is spacious, plan the lighting accordingly. Uplighting a tree might take two or three 500 watt units, one at the base, and the other half way up the tree.
On a similar theme, James recommends that you consider garden lighting in conjunction with the exterior lighting of the house. If you are out in the garden in the evening, you will see the two sets of lights on together. Use different circuits for the more subtle garden illuminations.
“Nothing looks less inviting than a couple of 500 watt floodlights glaring down from the house walls making your patio appear like a prison yard”
Both James and Jeannie agree that LED lights can be very useful outdoors. Jeannie points out that they are not necessarily more expensive than conventional lights, but they are certainly more environmentally friendly. They do not emit a lot of heat, are more energy efficient to run and last longer than regular bulbs. James suggests that you look out for the new “warm light” LEDs, which offer both low voltage installation and reliability.
Staying with the environment, Jeannie suggests we should all spare a thought for the insects.
“What worries me about lighting at night is light pollution. We have so much in London that it disorients our wildlife and flora”
So do use a timer to ensure lights are turned off in the small hours when you are not using your garden, particularly if you have plants that attract night-pollinating insects and birds. As an alternative to lighting, why not use a burning brazier; ideal for those cooler evenings when you need heat as well as light.
“Lighting really comes into its own around water features, or highlighting the outline of individual plants against a wall. You really need to illuminate water at night in order to capture its life and beauty. Use light sparingly to try to imitate the effect of the moon and stars. Imagine recessed spotlights underlighting grasses; the light is going to capture the balletic quality of the movement of grasses in the breeze”
Colin urges us to think of the view from the house when choosing which features to illuminate:
“A lit water feature, architectural plant or sculpture that can be seen whilst sitting in a lounge or study, or standing at the kitchen sink means that parts of your garden can be enjoyed all year round, even in the cold winter months when you may not be that keen to go outdoors.”
Garden statues can be set off to best effect by lighting it from an acute angle from a position near the surface. This will emphasize the sculpture by casting strong shadows and creating an effect where the light appears to graze the surface. This technique can be used by anything with an interesting surface, including walls and trees with textured barks, Colin suggests.