Everything You Need to Know About Garden Lighting
Create a cosy ambience in your garden with this expert guide to getting the lighting spot-on
Professional advice from: Karen Rogers of KR Garden Design; Lee Bestall of Bestall & Co Landscape Design; John Davies of John Davies Landscape
Beginning your garden project? Read How to Start a Garden Redesign
“First, we establish if there are any paths or stairs that need lighting for safety and practicality,” Karen Rogers says. “Then we concentrate on lighting the focal points of the garden, such as water features and sculptures. We keep the rest of the lighting subtle.”
Lee Bestall agrees and adds, “The first phase is often based on a client’s lifestyle – for example, whether they keep a bike they use for commuting in the shed, have chickens that will need feeding in the dark winter months, or have wheelie bins at the bottom of a dark driveway.”
Lee adds that the second, decorative layer of lighting could include back-lighting strong topiary shapes, and ‘washing’ lighting over steps, driveways and paths.
“It’s really important not to overdo it, as less is more in many instances,” John Davies says.
“Garden lighting is as much about what you don’t light as what you do,” Lee says. “In an open country garden, for example, we never illuminate boundaries, as it makes the garden appear smaller. Also, if you can’t figure out where your land ends, it adds a sense of mystery to the scheme.”
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Avoid leaving lights on overnight. “It’s important to restrict the lighting to only when you’re sitting outside or you’re inside and want to light up the garden for ambience,” Karen says. “Artificial light can disrupt animal behaviour, especially breeding and hunting, and can disorientate nocturnal pollinators.”
A good tip is to choose downlights rather than uplights to reduce light pollution and look out for fixtures with hoods and shields that direct light onto surfaces where it’s needed.
More: How to Design Garden Lighting That’s Good for You and Wildlife
“A garden can be lit using either mains or low voltage lighting [where a transformer reduces the number of volts needed],” John says. “Mains voltage may be cheaper, but I’d always recommend the use of low voltage on account of safety.”
Lee agrees and says, “Low voltage is quick and easy to install, especially if you use a plug and play system. Don’t opt for a cheap one, though, and make sure the transformer is an external one, as these usually come with a simple plug that you can place into an outdoor weatherproof socket.”
As for the fittings, Karen recommends ground and mounted lights. “Mounted lights can be installed on trellis, walls and trees to cast light across areas underneath,” she says. “However, most of our lighting is ambient plant lighting using spike spots or ground-fixed spots.
“LED strip lighting can illuminate dark gaps beneath stairs, and inset lighting in paving can highlight objects such as pots,” she adds. “Step lighting can be recessed into the side walls, so the tread is well lit for people to climb.”
Lee isn’t convinced by solar lighting, though. “I’ve yet to find one that works for longer than two years, so I’m not sure how eco-friendly that is,” he says.
“It needs to be planned in from the onset, especially if you’re modifying the house, too,” Lee says. “Don’t underestimate the importance of thinking through how to control the lighting.”
If you’re hiring a landscaper, Karen explains, “They will need to know where the lighting cables are to go and whether there are any other features that need an additional electric feed, such as a water feature, gas fire or shed.
“We review the lighting plan once the planting plan has been agreed, as very often the planting plan will differ from the original concept,” she adds.
“If you’re renovating, conduits from the building into the garden should be prepared prior to the completion of building work,” John says. “You don’t have to decide which features you want to light or how many at this stage, but you do need to think about what type of lighting you’d like and also how you want it to be switched.”
More: How to Choose an Electrician
“An electrician will liaise with the client about the exterior source or outlet for the lighting,” Karen says. “They will then connect an armoured cable to weatherproof junction boxes around the garden. The cable is usually laid along the garden boundaries or below ground [750mm deep] along a trench.
“The junction boxes are usually secured against an outside wall or post,” she says. “The light cables from these junction boxes are then fed through plastic ducts under the paving or through raised bed walls to the planting beds.”
Karen advises you should always hire a garden lighting expert or electrician, and pay particular attention to the earth connections and any waterproof seals, as it’s vital your units are weatherproof. “Check all finished work with a socket tester, or a voltage tester for lighting circuits, before using them,” she says.
Retrofitting garden lighting can be tricky. “Nobody likes to see ugly cables running over garden features,” John says. “Laying and preparing cabling could then involve chasing out and repairing walls, and lifting and relaying paving, which can be disruptive and costly.”
Lee says it’s possible to retrofit lighting, but advises, “I’d always plan it in if you’re doing a transformation. However, there are so many different types of lighting available now, and if you just can’t manage it, use festoon lights – they cosy up even the darkest garden.”
“If you can only afford one or two lights, illuminate the front door and a focal point,” Lee advises. “For a medium budget, I’d say keep the lighting close to the house and layer it, just as you would in a kitchen.”
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“Definitely, we do it all the time,” Lee says. “It’s fun, too, to use products such as a smart bulb, which is an easy retrofit to existing lights.”
You can also connect programmes to your voice-activated technology indoors, Lee says, and extend an indoor lighting system to incorporate the lights outside.
“Smart systems allow wireless switching, which is incredibly convenient,” John adds. “This can be to a wall-mounted switch, a fob or, even better, via an app on your smartphone. In the same way you can now unlock, de-ice and warm up your car via an app, you can control your garden lighting from any location, so long as you have internet access.”
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