One of my favourite moments to spend in the garden is the so-called golden hour, that blissfully quiet but fleeting moment in which day meets night and light transforms and enhances every element of the space. That sense of excitement, of watching evolving shadows dance along a path doesn’t have to end once the sun has set. You can create the same energy, movement and depth with a lighting pattern, as long as you treat it with care. Outdoor lights are our best allies for doing this.
How to structure the external lights
When designing the garden, I spend hours contemplating its appearance and orientation to determine how the sun moves in space and how this will create light and shadow in the garden during the day. Garden lighting should be given the same consideration. Crucial to the balance of any lighting scheme is the interplay between light and shadow and how this affects our perception of a space. Lighting can create depth, manipulate perspective, and enhance texture and colour.
If you look to nature for inspiration, you will notice how the shadows of the sun vary depending on how high it is in the sky, if there is water to reflect its light and illuminate the surrounding areas and the texture of a planting pattern. The same goes for artificial lighting. You will create a very different effect if you put a light at the foot of a tree than if you place it three feet away. In fact, the same light and the same tree can be combined to evoke an almost infinite range of effects depending on whether you choose to light the tree, back-light it or direct the beam towards the canopy and each can be varied by changing the angle of the beam or the power of the bulb (such as with an LED reflector). It pays to experiment with different effects and try out different adaptations before finalizing your scheme. As with many aspects of garden design, detailed and careful planning is required to make a lighting scheme look effortless.
A few tips for positioning outdoor lights
There are two principles that should guide your choices. The first is functionality. After dark, you need lights simply to make sure you can move easily and comfortably in your garden and keep you safe when it comes to moving between plants and décor items. These don’t have to be the kind of flashing lights that help you find the closest fire exit, they can and should always be treated as subtly as possible so they blend effortlessly into the larger pattern. Instead of marking a path with lights along its length, consider lighting nearby shrubs or trees. The deflected light will cast enough light to show you where you are going, but in a more attractive way, which brings us to the second principle: the atmosphere. This is created by lighting that has a purely aesthetic purpose. It’s the type of lighting that can evoke an emotional response and bring your garden to life. Ambient lights can be used to highlight key features, such as an exemplary tree, draw attention to different areas of the garden by inviting people to explore and discover more, or simply provide light to sit and eat at a table.
The type of outdoor lights you choose will depend on which of these principles is your priority, but the more subtle your lighting, the better the atmosphere you create. You want to avoid finding yourself or your guests sitting under the harsh glow of an LED lamp or spotlight. Occasionally, you will need to have a light fixture on display, but these should be kept to a minimum; any lighting scheme should be less about the montage and more about the effect.
Once you have chosen how you want to structure plants and furnishing elements, therefore, be sure to position the lamps in such a way as to create a functional but pleasant atmosphere, which satisfies every need relating to outdoor domestic spaces and is, above all, able to reflect your person and your aesthetic taste, without altering the ecosystem you have created for yourself and your family.