Today, landscape lighting is no longer optional in most yards. With the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic cancelling travel plans this year, many have invested those unused vacation dollars into creating private backyard resorts. Entertaining is now being done outside more than ever—and new exterior kitchens and fireplaces are used all day and well into the evening. But there’s one necessity to keep the party going well after dark: well-designed landscape lighting.
When designing the outdoor built environment, whether it be private living spaces or more formal front yard landscapes viewed by the public, there are many facets to consider—and we all know the best results come with proper planning and attention to detail. The same applies to lighting.
Formally trained in landscape design, and now an award-winning lighting designer, I use my knowledge of horticulture to inform and elevate my lighting projects. Knowing how plants change, not only with the seasons, but over time; how they react to light; and their various textures (such as exfoliating bark) adds greatly to the outcome of lighting designs. The question is whether you have the time, knowledge, and commitment to provide the same quality and artistry to lighting as you do the landscape design.
Tackle Yourself Or Outsource?
If you’d rather not tackle the lighting design, consider working with someone who specializes in it. A Certified Outdoor Lighting Designer (COLD) in your area will often be willing to collaborate as a member of your design team, regardless of who may be installing the lighting portion of the project.
First, you need to separate the “wheat from the chaff.” There are many companies who do lighting on the side and would be happy to “throw in” a few path lights for you. Don’t be tempted. Your clients deserve the best. And, not only is the work of the lighting designer a reflection on you (no pun intended), it also determines how your beautiful landscape will be viewed at night. And the nighttime is an opportunity to create a totally different, yet equally enticing picture.
On the other hand, if you feel comfortable illuminating your own projects and want to learn more, the first stop should be the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals (AOLP) site at AOLPonline.org. There you can download several helpful documents, connect with member manufacturers for training, or find a certified pro in your area should you decide to outsource. If you’re serious about lighting, really serious, consider joining the association and pursue one or more certifications yourself.
Next, a quick search on Amazon turns up quite a few good books written by industry leaders and gurus, ranging from the easy (don’t believe it) to the in-depth, with several stops in between. I own most and use them for reference to this day, 15 years after starting out in this industry.
The Design Process
Professional landscape lighting designers use a design process similar to yours. They start by gaining an understanding of the property and how the client utilizes the space, only in this case—specifically at night. Next, they create a conceptual design which is then presented to the client. The design is then finalized, and installation begins. To complete the project, an after-dark evaluation is completed with the client present and final “tweaks” are made.
It’s critical to think about lighting at the very beginning of the landscape design process—and talk to your clients about it as you are discussing the goals of the project. This is the single most important thing to keep in mind whether working with a lighting designer or tackling this phase yourself. Just like many construction details, some things that are very easily accomplished during the process become time consuming and expensive when they must be dealt with after the fact. It’s best to bring up the topic of lighting with your client when your landscape design is about 90% finalized. This gives him or her a good idea of what will be required, but still allows you time to make minor adjustments if necessary.
Tips For Function
Here are a few more helpful hints I’ve discovered over the years that are worth planning for at the outset. These mostly relate to placement and space:
- If you hire a lighting designer, provide them with a copy of your design. Think about how happy you are when you are given an accurate survey. It saves time and effort.
- Think about the fixture layout in advance and provide proper places for fixtures. For example, path lights should often be staggered in an alternating pattern, yet most residential landscapes only have planting beds on one side of the walkway and fixtures (particularly pathlights) should never be positioned in the turf where they are susceptible to damage from lawn maintenance equipment.
- The most common lighting installation challenges are created by hardscaping and can often be avoided. During construction of the decks, steps, and patios, the simple addition of a pipe or sleeve under a walkway can save hours of labor and headache.
- If you are including a specimen tree as a focal point, make sure the plant bed or mulch ring around it is large enough to place the fixtures that will illuminate it.
- Provide enough plant material to hide fixtures effectively, such as ground cover and woody plant material that will shield fixtures through all four seasons.
- Consider all seasons. Think about winter and what will be left to light—and also still hide the fixtures?
- Try to keep foundation plantings, especially a hedge like boxwoods, far enough away from the building so light fixtures can be located in the space for architectural illumination.
- Make sure the lighting installation is scheduled after the plants are installed, but before the mulch. Bonus points if you can coordinate irrigation and lighting together!
Tips For Form
Of course, the best landscape lighting is more than just functional. It’s an artistic play of light and dark, focus and balance, to create the most harmonious effect, just like the landscape planting selection. Apply this same creative mindset with your horticultural knowledge of plant textures, sizes, and colors to lighting design and you’ll discover some great combinations for success. It may even come to affect what you decide to plant where.
With a certificate in landscape design, my own horticultural knowledge has helped me elevate the level of my business. I always keep in mind the effect light has on various plants—are they dense? Lacy? Do they have a silver or dark underside to the leaves? Most lighting designers have their favorites. Some of mine are: River or Jacquemontii birch; Japanese maple (almost any cultivar or variety); and Paperbark maple, Kousa dogwood, Stewartia or anything with interesting bark. Also, any tree, shrub, vine, or groundcover that flower in white will look spectacular under moonlighting.
On the other hand, some of the more challenging plants I’ve encountered are: Southern magnolia—unfortunately, that beautiful brown velvety underside can look dead when uplit. Very dense, fastigiate varieties of oak or hornbeam are also tough to light from below, so provide space to locate light fixtures well outside of the dripline. Additionally, almost any dense evergreen planted in the middle of a lawn, extending beyond its bedlines or hanging out over a driveway, is tough.
So many of the plants we are challenged by break the “right plant, right place” rule. If it’s too big to light properly in that garden bed, it’s probably just too big for that space!
Yet a few other considerations include:
- Consider the height needed to add the effect of moonlighting, where light fixtures are secured high in a tree’s canopy and directed downward to simulate moon light, creating a natural and romantic feel. Don’t “limb up” trees unless absolutely necessary. We try to mount the fixture well above the lower limbs for a dappled effect.
- Keep in mind the way a plant will change through the seasons and how it will grow over the years: A young tree may only require two fixtures with low powered LEDs today, but wire for future additions and more powerful lamps.
- We have also installed certain fixtures (such as lights that accent planted holiday urns) that can be removed and stored for the winter or vice versa.
Outdoor lighting will require maintenance to ensure the lights go on night after night, year after year—yes, even with low voltage LED systems. Someone will need to make the adjustments required as the landscape plants change and grow. As a full-service outdoor lighting firm, we design, build, and maintain projects. If your landscape firm doesn’t want to maintain a system, be prepared to supply accurate as-built documentation for the folks that will come to service the system.
Well designed and properly installed landscape lighting can make all the difference in your client’s outdoor world, not to mention helping your work shine after dark. Look into some (or all) of the above materials and consider the tips. Begin to incorporate lighting into your landscape designs and soon enough you’ll be hooked too.
Deo is the Founder and President of NatureScape Lighting in Millington, NJ. An award winning lighting designer and educator, he currently serves as President of the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals. He is also a member of the Designer’s Lighting Forum of NY and the International Dark Sky Association. He teaches lighting design at Rutgers Home Gardener’s school and appears as a guest lecturer in residential garden design classes at both Rutgers and the County College of Morris in NJ.
(All photos provided by author.)