How to Light, Outdoor, Residential

How to Light: Three ways to light a garden

Lux’s technical editor Alan Tulla looks at three ways to approach lighting a garden

A little light goes a long way in a garden. You can light a large garden with just a few watts. 

When designing, think about the effect you want to achieve rather than trying to calculate lux levels. Look for patterns and shadows. Are there particular plants or features that need to be highlighted? 

As ever, safety should be your first priority so think about step lighting and sudden changes of level such as the edges of decking. Wherever possible, try and use recessed luminaires in these areas. Linear lights under stair nosings or recessed in to the vertical sides of steps makes the luminaires a lot less visible. Make sure that the edge of the tread is visible. 

Elsewhere, darkness can be your friend. You can “hide” the less attractive areas such as the bins or compost heap simply by keeping them unlit. In this way, the better features such as flowers and foliage are highlighted even more. 

The permanent features such as steps and paths can be illuminated all the year round. On the other hand, plants are at their best at different times of the year. A great idea here is to use spotlights on spikes. These can then be moved to different areas of the garden depending on the season. You can normally adjust their height or aiming angle. If you have the correct electrical sockets, it should be possible to remove the lights completely. 

We tend to think of garden lights as being at ground level but some of the most magical effects can come from a few suspended lights within tree foliage. 

A lot of garden luminaires are supplied with a plain black finish. Many of the John Cullen ones are supplied in brown or green which will blend in with the garden much better than black. They also have copper luminaires which develop a subtle patina over time. 

One last point is that, as a general rule, white light sources work better than colour. If you want to use colour, it will work better on plain surfaces such as paving or walls rather than flowers and trees. 

Once you have decided what effect you want and get to the stage of producing a drawing, the John Cullen website has a really helpful page where you can download BIM and photometric files.  

The garden shown in the images is approximately 17m long x 12m wide.

Pools of light

Pools of light

Cities are rarely totally dark at night. You might find that in an urban garden there is just enough light from the sky for you to see your way around. 

What we have done here is to provide four separate illuminated areas. The three seating areas use the Copper Wall Light. This is a medium beam spotlight and is available with a tree strap option so it can be hidden away in the foliage – it’s what we have used to light the picnic table. Mounting the wall lights high up means that you get an intriguing mix of shadows on the path and lawn. 

The outside of the summer house is lit with a simple IP rated downlight under the canopy. 

The steps are illuminated using Luccini recessed in the wall.  Although they are only 1W, they give plenty of light on the treads. 

This is a simple, inexpensive scheme but doesn’t have the flexibility of our other two options.

Tech spec
  • Luminaires Luccini 1W, copper Wall Spotlight, 20W T/H
  • Pros InexpensiveConsThe basic option

Shadows and shapes

Shadows and shapes

This is much stronger and dramatic than option A. We have used a variety of ground mounted, narrow beam spotlights to cast shadows on the flat surfaces of the walls and paving.  

The planted areas use the small, Kew spotlight on a spike. We have only used a few to demonstrate the effect. Higher light output is achieved using the Kensington and this is used on the trees. Again, the style of garden will determine how many you would use. 

The base of the fire pit uses the Oslo to produce the striking symmetrical pattern.  This unit is usually used for step lighting but we have also used it in a variety of places to provide low level illumination.  

We have also used some lights in the trees to produce patterns on the lawn.

Tech spec
  • Luminaires Kew 1W, Kensington 8.5W, Luccini 1W, Oslo 1W
  • ProsGives an air of mysteryConsWorks better with fixed positions

Soft and easy

Soft and easy

The main product used here is the Carella. This is a “candle” type light on a spike giving a soft 360° beam.  The light is a Warm 2,700K and is intended to be used liberally in flower beds and low level planting. It works well in clusters or as guidance along a winding path. 

Elsewhere, hanging in the trees, we have used the Starliter. This is a slim copper cylinder with perforations. The light inside gives a twinkling effect to the foliage. 

Bamboo and other tall grasses look great with a low level spike light such as the Hampton. Being portable, it can easily be removed in winter when the grass is cut down. 

The outdoor seating has linear Contour LED strip on the underside giving soft pools of light.

Tech spec
  • LuminairesCarella 1W, Starliter 1W, Hampton 1W
  • Pros Gentle but with some sparkleConsRequires more points of light