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Creative Landscape Lighting Ideas

Updated on April 7, 2010

Implement the right outdoor landscape lighting techniques in a garden design and you can take mundane to extraordinary with literally the flip of a switch. That wonderful leap, however, can come with a fairly hefty price tag. Fortunately, do-it-yourselfers have options in the form of relatively easy to install landscape lighting kits. And low-voltage options make the installation safer than ever. Unfortunately, the will and the wherewithal don't always translate into good results.

Before you start any landscape lighting project, it pays to know your options and objectives. Not every feature in you garden will benefit from being lit at night. In fact, overdoing it is the most common mistake the DIY crowd makes. So let's cover some key lighting approaches and a bit about the do's and don’ts for each.

Accent lighting is the most common objective in decorative lighting. Your objective here is to call attention to prize garden elements. Here in particular the warning about what to light comes into play. Ideally, you want to accent featured objects and elements and nothing more. You want the object to "pop" against an otherwise muted and darkened background. A prize plant or tree, a relief carving or a statue come to mind as good candidates for accent lighting.

Accent lighting requires careful positioning of your light fixture. That means you'll actually use several techniques we'll be covering shortly such as up, side and down lighting. Directly lit objects run the risk of being over lit and appearing washed out. To gain the most benefit from accent lighting, experiment a bit in advance with a flashlight in a darkened yard to find the position and light angle that will best accent your intended target.

Tomb of Hafez - Iran
Tomb of Hafez - Iran

An example of a don't when it comes to landscape lighting is improperly up-lighting human-form statuary. Beginners often make the mistake of planting their light fixture near the base of a statue and aiming it straight up. In an effort to get as much of the statue lit as possible, they point the light at an extreme vertical angle. Why is this bad? Grab a flashlight and stand in front of a mirror in a darkened room. Now hold the light at your chest with the bulb facing straight up to your face and turn it on. Welcome to the show, Boris Karloff. You've just recreated the classic monster movie look. That's not what you want for your statue.

That's not to say that up lighting isn't an option with statuary. It's just that it has to be carefully employed. As mentioned before, the use of a flashlight to test your lighting angles before you plant your lights is a good idea. For plants and trees, however, you have a bit more flexibility and up-lighting can gain wonderful results.

A few more rules about up-lighting – ensure the bulb is well blocked from viewing angles. Nobody will appreciate your accented plant if they're blinded in the process of viewing it. Also ensure the light illuminates the object, not the background or surroundings. Remember, with accent lighting, you want your objective to "pop" and that requires isolating it from its surroundings.

More forgiving when it comes to statuary is angled or side lighting. Use of this technique will allow you to create dramatic shadows on statuary or to pull out texture on other objects. Side lighting is a great way to lend depth to a textured wall, for example. Again, if you are trying to accent a single object, avoid letting the light spillover onto unintended surroundings.

Down, or spot lighting, is another good technique but one that requires a conscious awareness of the fixture's placement. Spot lights mounted on the eaves of a house can create pools of light around seating areas or to bathe a central feature in a beam of light. Spotlights are great for overcoming challenges of distance, where a spike mounted light might be undesirable or safe.

The combination of the various lighting techniques above can be employed with stunning results. By illuminating objects, for example, but leaving a pool of water unlit you can accomplish a stunning result as shown in the first picture of the Tomb of Hafez in Iran.

In another example, outdoor tree lights placed in trees and aiming down (known as moon lighting) can result in an amazing enchanted forest feel. Though probably one of my favorite effects, heed my warning if you choose to employ this technique; not only most you carefully plan your fixture mounts to best hide the lights while illuminating branches, but you want to also light the trunk (from above or below) lest you have a very unusual look of branches floating on nothing. Also, yearly maintenance will require you to climb your tree again. But the end result, with dappled shadows cast on the ground by a tree's leaves and branches, is more than worth the work in my opinion.

Another option in the world of outdoor tree lights is string lighting. Done right, this technique can earn you wonderful results. Done wrong, you create a circus in your backyard. There is definitely an art to using string lights in landscaping. If it's something you're interested in, consider that this technique is easily one of the most difficult to implement, implement well and keep maintained.

Two more techniques, silhouetting and shadowing, are often confused by beginners. Shining a light on an object so that its shadow is cast on a background is shadowing. This is a two-part effect in that you are also accent lighting the object. This technique is often confused for silhouetting. The difference being that with silhouetting, the viewed object is lit from behind so that it appears black but outlined in light.

Intended only as a cautionary primer, we haven't touched on all the tricks and techniques that go into well planned landscape lighting scheme, but hopefully this has given you some good ideas with which to start. I'm going to wrap up with a recap of things to remember (and maybe toss in a few new items too).

  • Don't overdo it. Pick out special items and plants to accent so that they pop.
  • Watch your angles. If accenting an object, avoid illuminating its immediate surroundings and background.
  • Test and plan your lighting angles to avoid ugly or sinister shadows.
  • As much as possible, angle your fixtures so as not to blind viewers from the most common intended viewing angles.
  • Outdoor torches or tiki torches can help cut costs and are certainly easy to relocate on the fly, but do not offer as much flexibility or control in lighting techniques.
  • Avoid or seriously limit your use of color lights. These look garish far more often than they look good.
  • Several flashlights of varying strength can help you plan your lighting ideas in advance of purchasing your kit.


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    • hitechlandscaping profile image

      hitechlandscaping 8 years ago from Spanaway, Washington

      I have to agree, that pool photo is very amazing!

    • profile image

      Turf Queensland 8 years ago

      The landscape is really wonderful and with the lighting it has become terrific. The mesmerizing beauty of the landscape gives immense pleasure to person enjoying this site.

    • Cygstarz profile image

      Cygstarz 8 years ago from Maryland

      Connie - that pool layout is absolutely exceptional. You and your husband do amazing work! Would you mind if I featured your company on my blog?

    • profile image

      Connie Palcowski 8 years ago

      Loved your pics, check out my website and let me know what you think.


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