The Illuminated Garden: A Bright Idea

Whether colored or white, outdoor lights aren’t just for Christmas anymore.

Photos courtesy of Litescapes

Great architects design with an eye toward light. Thomas Jefferson studied the way sunlight flooded the Dome Room of the Rotunda and positioned convex “hostess mirrors” on the level below to make the most of the reflection. When Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to ensure people would not stumble going down the walkway in his music room at Taliesin West, he recessed small electric lights at the base end of row seating, thereby creating the dim aisle lighting that is still used in theatres today. Modern landscape designers have wisely taken cues from such progressive thinkers and have moved illumination to the outdoors, with spectacular effects.

When lighting was first used in the home landscape, it usually took the form of powerful halogen lamps to flood the landscape for the purpose of providing security—it was not about atmosphere or creativity. Floodlighting is still used for security, but it is now more sophisticated and convenient because of technological advancements with timers, sensors and remotes.

Safety and security are still the practical considerations behind pathlights along driveways, sidewalks, steps and patio edges; additional benefits include the greatly extended time the outdoor space can be used as well as the inviting quality that beckons visitors further along the path. Feature lights have become popular to accent specimen trees and plants, statuary or other focal points, while low-voltage lighting adds ambience to the garden after dusk. Water lighting can produce lovely effects that ripple with movement and shimmer with natural reflection.

Today’s lighting effects can take many directions. Uplighting, or the placing of spotlights at ground level, can effectively illuminate a garden building or rows of individual trees, softly washing light upward and calling attention to seasonal interest whether that means blossoms, leafy canopies, fruits and berries, changing leaf color or the tracings of bare limbs.

Downlighting is used over doors and entrances, or along walls to provide subdued lighting in areas of entertainment. Crosslighting highlights a garden feature from two sides, which produces a strong shadow at the point of intersection as well as a softening effect on the overall background. Shadowing is achieved by placing a spotlight in front of an object such as a sculpture, which casts a dramatic shadow on the wall behind it. No matter which effects you choose, lay enough cable so that it is possible to move lights if necessary as the garden matures. Make sure a qualified electrician installs a circuit breaker or an electrical trip. For 240-volt lighting, use armor cable. Lay the cable deep enough that it will not cause problems with future digging and keep a drawing of the lighting plan for maintenance.

String lights, or “party lights,” can be effective if you have a feature to outline such as a pergola. For outdoor parties where tents are used, string white lights inside along the metal poles and wrap them with ivy or long branches of shrubs such as Russian olive or Poet’s laurel. Resourceful UVA coeds Julia Croddick and Susannah Hornsby threw an elegant and memorable Great Gatsby party in a rural setting by stretching sturdy parallel ropes high up between two trees, and draping white lights in big “swoops” along and between the aerial perimeters to give the outdoor space the dramatic feel of a decorated ballroom.

Fixtures can also be great mood-setters, from Victorian gaslight-style reproductions that create a nostalgic atmosphere to solar-powered bollard lights high on columns, and walkover lights that set a sleek, contemporary tone. Regardless of style, the use of white is highly effective in the illuminated night garden because of its reflective quality. White-blooming trees such as Bradford pears, dogwood and cherries radiate an ethereal, upper-story glow that is effusively romantic. White flowers, gray or variegated foliage and white painted structures catch the eye in moonlight and lamplight, so use them liberally.

If you are considering lighting a section of your landscape, experiment first with movable or temporary lights, such as oil-filled lamps or large candles, for optimal placement and effect. If you decide you like the romance of flattering candlelight, you might opt to stay with candlelight in certain areas of the garden. Spend on candles the money that you save on wiring and invest in a distinctive antique chandelier that can be outfitted with chunky candles and suspended from a tree limb by a thick rope or chain. Colonial-style lanterns or sconces offer charm and subdued light on decks and fences or along paths, but sandbagged paper lanterns pierced with theme designs can light an interesting walk on the smallest of budgets. Pole-mounted, globed candles or battery-powered lamps draped with festive ribbons and seasonal evergreens offer a glowing, warm welcome to your arriving guests.

Perhaps the simple holiday tradition of placing a single white light in every window became so firmly entrenched in Virginia as a holdover from the quaint charm of candlelit Williamsburg. The tiniest light is a beacon for returning grown children, grandchildren, veterans—when it emanates from home. Whatever the reason, keeping the light on carries familial, communal and spiritual significance.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum