Outdoor Garden Lighting: General Principles, Tips and Ideas

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Summary: Outdoor lighting continues to be a popular “addition” to the both commercial and home landscape design. However, there are areas in the world of outdoor landscape lighting which need more “light” (no pun intended) shed on them.

In this article we will look at some general principles of lighting your outdoor garden and some landscape lighting ideas.

How Much Light Do You Need?

A friend of mine was complaining recently that he was blinded every night by a battery of flood and spotlights which a neighbor had mounted on his house. “I figure,” my friend said, “that the only thing I can do is mount the same kind of lights on my house and point them in that guy’s direction. They’ll blind him and help to equalize the glare.”

My friend’s neighbor had obviously violated two underlying principles of outdoor lighting:

  • Do not aim lights at your neighbors’ (or your own) windows or gardens
  • Do not use too much light

Now, of course, if you are lighting a backyard play area, you do need lots of light. But this is the one and only instance when you do.

Party Light Outdoors

For example, when we have summer parties, we often light our 40 by 80-foot lawn with nothing more than six candles in brown paper bags. There are two candles in the borders along each side, and two candles at the far end.

The flickering flames add to the magic beauty of the night. And they give just enough light for people to see that it is a lawn surrounded by shrubs and flowers, for them to make out people at the far end and to avoid the croquet wickets.

Obviously, the amount of light required outdoors depends on what is to be lighted and why. But right here I want to emphasize that, except when play areas are lighted, too much light is bad.

Years ago a residence lighting specialist for GE, said:

“Merely flooding a garden with light in an attempt to disperse the darkness defeats the artistic purposes of light and its applications in creating glamor, enchantment and pictorial associations in the garden.”

Another home-lighting expert from Westinghouse, said the same thing but differently:

“The night-lighted garden is not supposed to duplicate the garden by day. In fact, a skillfully lighted garden will present a completely different – and sometimes more alluring – appearance by night.

Therefore, no attempt should be made to ‘whitewash’ the entire garden in imitation of nature’s sunlight. The result may be flat and monotonous, and the natural colors may become lost.

Actually, the most satisfying ‘picture’ comes from contrasting areas of light and shadow, or from highlighting choice landscape effects or silhouetting trees.”

These two experts were talking primarily about lighting the garden proper. But what they say applies to other outdoor lighting projects, too.

What Color Light To Use?

It is fortunate that people have not taken up the lighting manufacturers’ occasional suggestions to use colored lights as a decorating medium.

In the hands of some experts, colored lights can create marvelous effects; but the amateur is likely only to come up with an unholy horror. This applies also to the use of colored lights outdoors.

Experiment with them as you like (after all, it doesn’t cost much to substitute a colored bulb for a white one or to slip a colored lens or piece of tinted transparent plastic over a fixture with a white light), but remember that colored light is best used for:

  • Discouraging bugs
  • Accenting special garden features, such as flowers or statues
  • Creating an exotic or party effect
  • Mood-lighting trees in the background

What Color Lights For What?

Bear in mind… the effect of lights or different colors on plants:

  • White is safest. It produces the most nearly natural effect, brings out colors best.
  • Yellow makes green foliage look sickly and dead.
  • Red turns foliage brown.
  • Green brings out the color of foliage and grass, but it is an unnatural green.
  • Blue particularly the blue of mercury-vapor lamps – gives a somewhat mysterious, unearthly look to things; but the effect on blue spruces and plants with pale green foliage is interesting.

In other words – again – go easy with colored light. If you do use it, use pale tints rather than concentrated hues.

Beating The Bugs

Those pesky insects are the greatest drawback to outdoor lighting, and no one has come up with a perfect method of combating them. However, you can protect yourself in three ways:

  • Use yellow “bug lights” in those areas where you are likely to sit or work. They do not kill bugs, but they attract fewer than white lights do.
  • To draw insects away from where you are sitting, install blue lights at the far end of the garden. Blue is a color that seems to be particularly attractive to bugs.
  • Install the powerful white lights you need for flood and spotlighting as far from the terrace as possible. The higher they are mounted, the better.

If bugs are a fantastic nuisance, you may want to install at a distance from the terrace one of the electric insect traps or lights on the market. These kill as well as attract.

What Bulbs To Use?

The mainstay in outdoor lighting for many years has been the PAR-38 bulb. This is a tough, heavy incandescent light that is not affected by water, snow, ice or changes in temperature.

Some PAR bulbs are designed for floodlighting; others for spotlighting. The 75-watt and 150-watt bulbs have clear glass lenses; the 100-watt bulb has a blue, blue-white, green, red, pink or yellow lens.

Also available are 100-watt mercury-vapor PAR-38 bulbs that give a blue-white light, but these require a ballast.

PAR bulbs, because of their weather resistance, need only to be installed in weatherproof sockets that are sealed with gaskets to assure a watertight connection.

It is often advisable, however, to install them in bullet-shaped reflectors. These concentrate and direct the light beam, hide the source of the light and are themselves more attractive than simple bulb-in-socket units.

Various other kinds of bulbs may also be used to meet special requirements.

Over the past few years new LED lighting, fixtures and bulbs have entered the landscape lighting market, offering move light while consuming a lot less power.

The LED lighting market continues to grow, in use, selection, power and availability.

What Outdoor Lighting Fixtures To Use


The types of fixtures in which various bulbs are used is almost too numerous to describe. Some are ornamental – made to look like flowers, large leaves, birdhouses, tree stumps, rocks, frogs, over-sized toadstools.

Most are strictly utilitarian, though this does not mean that they are not generally of attractive design.

Outdoor fixtures differ not only in design but in the way they are installed. Some are portable – they can be moved anywhere in the garden without effort – for example, solar garden lights.

Low voltage landscape lights need to be plugged into and electrical outlet and comes wth a transformer to lower the voltage.

Most outdoor fixtures (of which there are 1,000’s) are supported on bases which sit on the ground or may be mounted on a vertical surface, on legs, or on sturdy metal spikes that stick into the ground.

Other fixtures are designed for permanent installation. They are wired directly into a permanent wiring system and are permanently installed in the ground, or on a tree, post, the house eaves, or wherever needed.

No matter what the type of fixture used, if it is exposed in any way to the weather, it should be made of material and with a finish that will withstand the sun, abrasion, and corrosion. And it must be designed to protect from moisture the base of the bulb (and the bulb itself if it is not weather-resistant).

Placing and Aiming Lights

Let me repeat one basic rule: Do not aim a lamp so that it shines into your neighbors’ or your own eyes.

Another rule to bear in mind is this: If at all possible, conceal the source of light, that is, the bulb, from direct view.

Garden lighting is unlike Christmas lighting in this respect. In Christmas lighting, the bulbs themselves are usually the decoration. You want to see them. But when you are lighting trees or paths, you are interested in what is lighted, not in the light itself. You do not want to be distracted and annoyed by the glare of an exposed bulb.

In most instances, it is easy enough to conceal a bulb.

For example, if you are lighting flowers in a border, the bulbs can be hidden amongst the foliage; shielded from view by a bullet-shaped reflector or simply by a piece of metal; or they can be recessed in unusual ways using flower pots or clay drainage tiles sunk into the ground.

If you are lighting a tree, the bulb can be hidden up in the branches. If you are lighting a walk with low down-lighting fixtures (rather than lighting it from a tree), the bulbs can, and should, be covered on top with reflectors which not only hide them but direct the light down onto the paving.

On the other hand, total concealment of the light source is sometimes undesirable. For instance, a post light by the entrance to your front walk is made to be seen.

This does not mean, however, that you should be able to see the, bulb itself. If it is enclosed in a clear glass fixture, the glare is quite objectionable. Therefore, it should be shielded by some translucent material that diffuses the light.

In only one case that I can think of is it difficult to conceal the bulb in any way at all. That is when you are flood- or spot-lighting a large treeless area.

What to do? Just mount the lights high enough above the ground so that they are not in the normal line of vision.

You may wish to light a large area, not with the idea of beautifying it, but simply for the purpose of providing light to see by. Such general lighting might be needed, for instance, on your driveway, parking area, backyard play area, or swimming pool.

In mounting these lights, however, it is not enough simply to install high wattage lights above the normal line of sight. Under certain circumstances, they should be way above the line of sight.

Why is this? Because the lower the light, the longer the shadow of whatever is in the path of the light’s rays.

Suppose that you want to light a barbecue area that extends 50 feet behind the house. One 150-watt PAR bulb will do the job reasonably well.

But if the light is mounted on the side of the house only 10 feet above the ground, the shadows of people walking in front of it will be grotesque.

If, on the other hand, the light is mounted 20 feet above the ground and directed downward at a sharper angle, the shadows will be of more normal size.

Of course, shadows are not a very serious problem. You probably will not give them a second thought when you are lighting a driveway.

But when you are floodlighting an area in which people are moving around, shadows can be disconcerting and ludicrous. They can even cause accidents.

So the general rule for good floodlighting is to mount the lights well above ground level-15 to 25 feet. And if you want to eliminate shadows almost completely, use two floodlights and place them facing each other on opposite sides of the area.

Local Lighting

As the name implies, local lighting is the lighting of specific objects and small areas such as garden statues, a gnarled apple tree, the front steps.

It may be more intense than general lighting, and then again it may not be. It all depends on the effect you are trying to achieve.

You can use a wide array of fixtures and bulb types for:

  • Lighting a garden pool and statuary group from a distance
  • A floodlamp mounted at ground level for lighting a small clump of trees
  • Outdoor lighting in mushroom-type fixtures for lighting a path
  • Outdoor Christmas tree bulbs for lighting a flower border, and so forth.

No rules (except for the one that bulbs should not be visible) can be given for the placement of local lighting units. You just have to experiment until you get the right effect.

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