Garden & Landscape Tips

light post
This three-light post not only helps light pathways at night, it illuminates the landscaping around it.
© George Weigel

One of the nicest finishing touches in any landscape improvement is lighting. Soft, well placed lights along paths and plants provide safer footing for evening guests, and a beautiful ambience. Landscape lighting has become a popular form of inexpensive gardening, with the advent of less-costly, low-voltage lighting. There are several lighting methods available to gardeners and do-it-yourselfers to provide the perfect accent to a night-time garden.

Several systems use 12 volts of electricity – the same amount that powers toy train sets.

Low voltage ensures gardening safety by reducing the risk of electrocution and fire hazards.

How does it work? Low-voltage systems use a transformer to cut the power from 120 volts to the 12 volts that attach to the fixtures. The transformer is plugged in outdoors and is protected with a ground fault circuit interrupter. If you don’t have a circuit interrupter, it will need to be installed by an electrician.

After deciding to install the system, decide what you want to highlight. Trees, pathways, perennial borders, sculpture, etc. Only then can you lay the outdoor electric line that come with lighting kits.

night falls
Landscape lights can be used to illuminate a focal point in the garden, such as a waterfall.
© George Weigel

Most low-voltage kits have “pierce-point connectors” already on the lines so no splicing is needed. The lights are screwed into the connectors by the user. If you change your garden design later, it’s easy to unscrew the lights and re-screw them in new locations.

Most low-voltage systems also come with sensors that allow you to control when the lights will automatically come on and go off. Some landscape lighting is solar-powered, solving the issue of what happens if you have no outdoor electrical outlets. However, solar lights may not be as bright or as consistently functional as electricity-fueled models, especially in cloudy weather or shoulder seasons when there’s not enough sunlight to fully recharge during the day.

Professional outdoor lighting installers and many landscapers install wired-in lights that are powered with 120 volts and buried within conduits – a plus if prone to cutting through shallow lines with a shovel or garden edger.

lights lined up
Lining up lights 3 feet apart on both sides of a walk reminds one of an airport runway.
© George Weigel

Where to Install: While any weekend warrior should be able to install a low-voltage system, installing it artfully is a different story. Landscape lighting is not only for paths. It can be used in many other ways to create lighting for whatever activities you have in mind. For walkways, a tendency is to string lights 3 or 4 feet apart in a straight line. That definitely lights a path, but it’s also reminiscent of an airport runway. Instead, try alternating lights and spacing them so that one light picks up just where the neighboring light fades. A light mounted in a tree, for example, can shine down on plantings underneath, giving the effect of moonlight. Or to illuminate the front door a light can be mounted at the base of a house wall and “grazed” up and across the wall. This produces a more subtle effect than one aimed directly at the front door.

Lights can also be used behind statues, fountains, or other focal points in the garden to silhouette them at night, or used in front of a tree to cast a shadow on a wall behind.

Lights of assorted types and styles are available to carry out these and other creative uses. A landscape designer or landscape architect can help with the idea part, even if you’re planning to install a low-voltage system yourself. Like any other gardening project, lights can be overdone. Usually the goal is to have a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere rather than making it garish and like tinsel town. Do be sure not to point lights directly into windows, especially your neighbors’ windows.

waterlilies nightlighted
A spotlight shining on the water gives nighttime color to waterlily flowers.
© George Weigel

Here are some other types and uses of landscape lighting:

  • Uplighting. Shining one or two lights from the base of a tree or other object upward.
  • Spotlighting. Shining a light directly onto the front of an object to highlight it.
  • Mirror lighting. Shining light onto an object beside a pond or lake so that there is a reflection in the water.
  • Spread lighting. Mounting a light above the garden or sitting area and shining it down in a wide fan.
  • Underwater lighting. Using water-tight fixtures that are sunken in a water garden and pointed upwards, such as onto a waterfall or fountain.
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