Garden Lighting How To: What Is Highlighting And How To Use It


Outdoor landscape lighting is an effective way to show off your garden after dark. One good way to get ideas for garden highlighting is to take a stroll through the neighborhood at night. You will see some lovely nighttime landscapes. People light up just about everything– paths, trees, buildings, sculptures, patios, and driveways. Where does one begin? There are many terms for landscape lighting and some of them overlap and can be confusing. Below is a brief garden lighting how-to guide.

Highlighting Techniques in Gardens

The term highlighting can mean two different things. Sometimes people use the term highlighting when they are talking about uplighting. Other people use the term highlighting to describe general landscape lighting.

  • Path lighting– Of the many highlighting techniques in gardens, path lighting is most common. Path lighting creates a sense of safety along a walkway. Alternate the lights on either side of the path and place them 6 to 8 feet (around 2 m.) apart for the most effective visibility and ambiance.
  • Wall washing– Wall washing is a technique where a light is placed in the ground and angled toward a building wall to create a soft, gentle glow.
  • Down lighting– Down lighting accents landscape planting beds or other garden features from above. Down lights can be attached to garden walls or put under eaves. You can add glare reducers to create a softer feel. Moon lighting is a form of down lighting or garden lighting for trees. You can attach multiple lights high up in a tree and create the effect of moonlight by the mix of light and shadow from tree’s branches.
  • Uplighting– Uplighting is where you place a light a few feet (about 1 m.) from the base of an object to show off its form from below. Play around with the distance between the object and the light to create different angles of luminescence. Silhouetting and shadowing are two forms of uplighting. In each technique, you place a light behind an object or plant and point the light toward a nearby wall to create a shadow or silhouette. This effect can be quite dramatic.

Garden Lighting for Trees

The most common garden lighting for trees is uplighting or highlighting. Larger trees look best with two or three lights shining up into them. If you have a tree with a beautiful trunk and branching adjacent to a wall, you can also silhouette or shadow the tree.

As you can see, there are many options and ideas for garden highlighting. If you find this overwhelming, hire a good electrician who will show you the various lighting fixtures and demonstrate options for your landscape.

Landscape lighting is like frosting on the cake. It makes your landscaping more tasty and appealing.

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Landscape Lighting Design Tips

A Brilliant Impression Begins Outside

That house. You’ve driven by it. You’ve walked past it. It’s warm and welcoming, safe and secure. At twilight it starts twinkling. And after dark, it’s the house that casts that beautifully warm year-round glow. Kind of like a neighborhood night light on par with the moon. With the right landscape lighting most any house can be that house. Whether you hire a landscape lighting pro or you do it yourself, well-designed landscape lighting is well worth the investment – both in the traffic-stopping curb appeal of your home and in the value of every moment you spend enjoying it.

The Color of Your Light Sets the Tone

Did you know that not all white light is created equal? Many of our integrated LED fixtures and LED drop-in lamps come in a variety of color temperatures – from warm white to pure white to cool white – that can enhance the colors in your home’s exterior and landscape. Known as Kelvin (K) temperature, consider these suggestions for placement:

Warm/Soft White

  • Surroundings with warmer colors, like brown or cedar
  • Natural-colored walls or stonework
  • Foliage with red, orange or yellow tones (ex: highlighting oak trees)

Beam Spread: the Thin and Thick of it

Beam spread is all about width. How wide are the trees, plants or other focal points you’d like to illuminate? A tall, thin tree requires a narrower beam spread. Don’t think about beam spread without considering LED lighting. It offers a sharper, more precise beam edge and keeps the light focused where you want it.

How to Calculate Beam Spread

Based on the width and height of what you’re lighting, do this:

  • Use a 10 or 15 degree beam for tall, thin structures or foliage like grazing trees or porch columns
  • 25 - 45 degrees for medium height and width, such as a prized tree. This beam spread is also ideal for general accent lighting.
  • 55 - 60 degrees for short, wide items like broad trees or shorter, wider structures
  • 120 degrees is ideal for wall washing and grazing wide objects

Last But Not Least: Lumens

Formerly referred to as wattage. Lumens is the new way lighting is expressed. It’s the amount of light and the way it’s measured – it’s the unit of measurement for the brightness of light. It’s important to know that LED bulbs and fixtures provide the greatest light output for the least amount of electricity. If you do choose LED, make sure the lumen output complements the object you’re lighting.

Tip: Kichler’s LED lighting with Variable Lumen Output has fast become the new standard in landscape accent lights. With three easy-to-use adjustable lumen outputs and a crisp beam spread, these fixtures offer amazing versatility and personalization.


Decide Where Landscape Lighting Should Go

Match the reason for lighting to specific locations in your backyard. You may want to illuminate a bench along the path with a pole-type lamp placed behind it. A soft mood can be achieved by hiding landscape lighting under shrubs. A path may require a series of short stake lights along its border on one side or on both sides (Image 1). A water fountain can be enhanced with a spotlight (Image 2), and a pond can have soft lighting around its perimeter.

Path Lighting

Landscape lighting is an important safety element for any outdoor space. In this garden, a series of path lights illuminates the meandering walkway that leads to the destination terrace.

Detailed Water Feature

Resembling a Corinthian capital, this ornately carved stone water fountain is lit from below.


Garden lighting: how to make the most of your outdoor space after dark

City Living by Kate Gould won Gold and Best Fresh Garden at Chelsea 2017 Credit: Helen Fickling Photography

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W hile the evenings are warm, spending time in the garden after dusk becomes more enticing – but is your garden as alluring at night as it is during the day? During the working week, evenings are usually the only time many of us spend at home, so it makes sense to think about how your garden could look in the dark as well as in the light.

For designers, lighting a space, highlighting planting and bringing a scheme to life after dusk is a given. Matthew Wilson has always made a point of beautifully lighting his gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, even though most visitors don’t get to see it: “You don’t get any extra points but I wanted to do it anyway just to show what could be done,” he says. “Without lighting, a garden is just an inaccessible, black space the moment the sun goes down. It’s rather like having a room in your house from which you’ve removed all the light bulbs.”

H e’s currently installing lighting on a project in Essex, illuminating a series of beech cubes and a grove of multi-stem trees – simple designer tricks that anyone can use. “I love lighting multi-stem trees and shrubs, as the interplay of light and shade on the stems is gorgeous. A hedge lit from beneath with regularly spaced lights can look very effective too – like cathedral columns.”

F or Wilson there are a few things to avoid: coloured, harsh blue or bright white lights can look garish rather than adding warmth also, think carefully about how fixtures will look in the daytime. “There isn’t much point in having a beautiful lighting effect if the fitting looks like a carbuncle by day,” he says.

G ood garden lighting doesn’t even need to be all that hi-tech. Matthew is also a fan of fairy lights strung through trees. “There’s something magical about their simplicity.” And with the improvements in solar-powered lights this is something you can do without mains electricity – Lumify fairy lights (£34.99 for a string of 100 at thesolarcentre.co.uk) give a wonderful warm glow when strung up through trees or wound through a pergola.

T hey can also be charged with a USB lead, although after an initial charge and with the small solar panel in a good position this shouldn’t be necessary. Strings of festoon lights strung between trees or structures can also instantly uplift a night garden. John Lewis has 30ft (10m) long sets – choose black cables which will disappear in the darkness (£60, johnlewis.com).

I t’s worth considering a permanent mains-powered lighting scheme if you want something more dramatic.

“I think many people now realise that good lighting cannot only make a real difference to your garden at night, but it can add a lot of value to your property,” says lighting designer and qualified electrician Eleanor Bell, who works on both commercial and residential projects and with artists including James Turrell. “It’s not just about sitting out on a summer evening. I lit a garden with two wildlife pools part of the brief was that it also looked good from the kitchen window in winter.”

P lants that look good in winter are often the ones that look best lit at night, too, because the focus is on their structure – multi-stem trees, for example.

“You need to think of your garden as an extra room,” says Eleanor. “It’s almost like looking at a stage and you want to draw the eye to focal points – trees, planting, a sculpture – and also way-finding (paths, steps and security).”

A professional scheme can cost from around £3,000 and up to £10,000 for more elaborate designs. It would normally require mains power around the perimeter of the garden, which has to be buried to a depth of 2ft (60cm). Clients often get a contractor to do this. Once that is installed, with junction boxes, the additional low voltage cables can be wound through planting at ground level.

F or smaller spaces this might not be necessary – LED lights cables can now run for 50 or 60 yards from the mains power point, allowing you to install some spikes to uplight trees without the need for expensive excavation.

Night-scented plants for a seating area

I f you want to invest in new planting to create an area for summer evenings, focus on white and pale blues, which look beautiful by moonlight position the most scented plants along path edges and around seating areas.

A drought-tolerant perennial stock (above) that lines the paths in Sissinghurst’s White Garden. Heavenly scent.

P hlox paniculata‘Franz Schubert’

Wonderful in evening light with its soft lilac blooms (above) and one of the best perfumes will give late-summer colour.

L onicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’

Train it around a seating area or pergola. It has cream flowers that turn a deeper yellow (above).

The tobacco plant, a half-hardy annual, wafts its heady fragrance all around and flowers from July until first frosts.

T rachelospermum jasminoides

A really useful evergreen climber (with a lovely red flush in winter) and in August its white flowers have a jasmine scent.


Garden lights range from the delicate, like the teapot with fairy lights, to the bold and dramatic, like the oversized globe planters. Many of the garden lights are easy to install, with just a little hanging time and some extension cords. Solar lights are even easier to install and can be obtained at any home improvement store.

Some of these lights are concealed in the landscape, like the recessed lights along the brick pavers. Another clever lighting idea is to purchase lights that look like garden stones and scatter the lights among the natural stones for a subtle effect.

Many of the built-in lighting ideas are great safety enhancers. These keep your family and guests from tripping when it gets dark outside. A little lighting goes a long way in enhancing the safety and beauty of your landscape at night.


Set Up the Lighting

If you wish to highlight a single item in your garden like a statue, gazing ball or fountain, you should consider using a few landscape lighting fixtures with lower intensity bulbs. Place these at various angles and distances. A single bright light shining directly on the object will create harsh shadows.

Landscape lights that make soft spots of light are good for garden paths. Space the lights at equal distances along the path you want illuminated.

Blue tinted lights allow for a moonlight-type mood in your garden landscape.


Landscape Lighting Guide

Let your landscape lighting illuminate every occasion and invite people into your home by highlighting walkways, architectural elements, gathering spaces, water features and more.

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