Lighting A Lush Landscape

A “Secret Garden” project focuses on plants as highlights.

By Claire McKay
From the December 2023 Issue


Every once in a while, a particularly special lighting project comes our way at McKay Landscape Lighting — and the “Secret Garden” happened to be one. This eight-plus-acre private residence with walking paths leading to multiple structures has been maintained consistently by our company over the last 13 years. With various phases and additions throughout the years, the end result is a charming and whimsical nighttime jewel.

A factor that sets this property apart from many others is the existing lush and mature landscaping. It’s a project in which the majority of the lighting is truly directed within the landscape. Many projects lend themselves more to architectural and hardscape lighting. But these clients were determined to enhance their outdoor space in the most natural ways possible, and we were happy to make that happen.

Lighting Landscape
This property included a wide variety of trees. The deciduous trees light up easily, while the evergreens take a specialized approach. (All photos courtesy of McKay Landscape Lighting)


As mentioned, this extensive property includes a wide variety of trees and plantings. It was important, then, when creating the lighting plan to correctly account for the various types and sizes of trees. Many of the mid-sized trees required two uplights, positioned side to side, to ensure the trees shone from all angles rather than just the fronts. The larger-sized trees required three to four uplights to help fill out their canopies.

Another unique aspect of this project is its location. The house is set far back from the street. The property needed to be beautifully lit not only from the street view, but from the interior of the property as well.

While our company typically focuses uplighting on deciduous trees, the characteristics of this property offered an opportunity for a few evergreens to be highlighted as well.

Lighting Landscape

One of the challenges with lighting evergreens is their shape. Obviously, they tend to be very full at the bottom and narrow at the top. The key to lighting them well is to have enough distance away from the tree that the angle of light can reach up to the top. This usually requires a larger planting bed to protect and camouflage the lights. When evergreen lighting is set up well, however, it can add another layer of dimension to the lighting design, especially throughout the Winter.

The amount of uplights on a project like this makes maintenance an important consideration. Lights need to be adjusted from time to time to accommodate tree growth. This means ensuring the lights aren’t too close to the tree trunk and have enough space to do their jobs. Through regular maintenance visits, we are able to adjust the lighting to ensure it isn’t hindering tree growth, and the visual effect is appropriate for the growing trees.

Landscape Lighting
Lighting can be just as stunning in the Winter months, with snow cover, as it can be in the lush seasons. New details are noticed at night after the leaves have fallen.


The real star of the show in terms of this project’s lighting techniques has to be the moonlighting. When there are well established trees with some height, we are able to install downlights strategically to provide an effect similar to the moon’s light shining down at night.

Lighting Landscape
Downlighting achieves an effect that is both elegant and practical in terms of using the paths at night.

Landscape Lighting

Moonlighting can create an especially elegant appearance when highlighting special features on a property such as pathways, driveways, patios, and more. The key is to have the right trees in the right positions for this look to be achieved. Luckily, this project was a perfect fit for moonlighting to be used to advantage in several areas throughout the property.


A top priority for the clients was to be able to enjoy their walking paths in the evenings. Crushed granite paths lead to different focal points throughout the property, but without lighting, they are complete dark spaces at night. Once again, existing mature trees on the site were in great locations for moonlighting. Without these trees in good positions, pathlighting would have been the only option.

While pathlighting is appropriate in many situations, we always suggest moonlighting whenever possible since it’s a more natural look and offers more coverage with fewer fixtures. The end result is an atmosphere of peaceful elegance that complements the winding nature of the paths. Today, the clients enjoy nighttime strolls throughout the property without visibility worries.

Patio Lighting

Another client request was adding light to patio spaces, allowing for dinner parties and entertaining into the evenings. Creating a lighting design for a patio space should really be viewed as creating an outdoor room of sorts. We generally want to design some soft overhead lighting, if possible, as well as subtle lighting around the perimeter to help enclose the space.

Lighting Landscape
Downlighting a patio space can create an inviting setting for hosting outdoor dinner parties and gatherings.


In this case, we used downlighting and uplighting. To use downlighting effectively, it’s ideal if trees are dense enough to tuck the lights above branches and create a soft shadowing effect. Uplighting trees behind the perimeter helps to create an edge to the space, rather than a dark abyss. The result on this property is not only a very functional space for use at night, but a picturesque scene to view from the home interior.

Lighting Landscape
The heart-shaped rose garden was a special detail to highlight at night. The trees behind the garden created the perfect backdrop for the scene.

Rose Garden

A particularly charming detail, that was a treat to light, was a heart-shaped rose garden outlined with boxwoods (photo above). This request came from the husband so that his wife could look out from the second story to view this garden at night.

Installing discrete downlights to convey the shape of the garden was a bit of a challenge, but the end result was stunning. Adding a little soft uplighting to the trees behind the rose garden created a nice backdrop. Now, the clients can look out from their Romeo-and-Juliet-style balcony at night to appreciate this special garden.


    • Always begin to design with the end goal in mind. Are the clients looking for architectural lighting, landscape lighting, security lighting, or some combination?
    • The lighting design should work in harmony with and enhance the aesthetic of the property. We often look at lighting as the cherry on top, it’s not the main show, but rather highlights the space at night.
    • Plan for the possibility of additions to the system. Many times, our clients call us again when adding new land- scaping features over the years. As a designer, it’s important to think this way from the outset in terms of the infrastructure of the transformer locations — as well as accurate job notes and as-builts.
    • Always be thinking in terms of serviceability. Accommodating for plant growth over the years is very important. Depending on the property size, routinely scheduled maintenance should be recommended to clients to help ensure the lights are doing their jobs and the plant material has enough space to grow.

Sculpture Lighting

Landscape Lighting
This whimsical elephant statue is enjoyed in the evenings with soft downlighting. It has a perfect home nestled below the birch trees.

Another charming detail of this project is an elephant sculpture nestled below large birch trees. It’s always an enjoyable challenge to be able to illuminate large scale sculptures like this. Ensuring there isn’t too much shadowing so details and color can be seen is a priority. Yet again, we used the combination of uplighting and downlighting to achieve a focal point that can be enjoyed at night. The finished look is certainly a conversation starter with guests.

Lighting design is really all in the details. The best projects seem to happen when the clients are very involved and passionate about their space. As a lighting design team, we strive to build client relationships that allow creativity to shine through. When you combine an experienced lighting design team with a client’s passion and style, the possibilities for lighting are endless.

McKay is the general manager and marketing director of McKay Landscape Lighting. Based in Omaha, NE, McKay Landscape Lighting has been in business for over 30 years, providing high quality and specialized landscape lighting design and installation.

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