If you think your outdoor plants, trees, and shrubs are only viewable during daylight hours, you're missing out. Easy-to-install options for landscaping lights can increase the viewing enjoyment of your outdoor space, adding a brand-new vista for your flowerbeds and borders. Here's expert advice on how to integrate lights outside.
When it comes to trees or large, stand-alone shrubs or plants, it's easy to narrow down your options for landscaping lights. That's because the type of light you choose depends on the size and structure of your plant. "The rule is that if you have a narrow, tall plant or tree, you want to use a narrow-focused spot beam," says Jeffrey Dross, corporate director of education and industry trends with Kichler Lighting. "If you have a short, squat, wide, fat plant, you want to use a flood light to light the whole thing."
For example, if you have a tall palm tree, there's not much going on at ground level. But go up 20 feet, and there's some greenery, which means your option for landscaping lights should be a slim profile. "A narrow spotlight is going to keep light narrow at the bottom," Dross says. "Once the light goes up, it'll widen out a bit so that it will light that umbrella top on the palm tree."
Contrast that with options for landscaping lights for evergreens: The tree is wide on the bottom and narrows to a point. "If you have a spotlight that is wide to begin with, it's more likely to illuminate the full width at the bottom, and touch the little point at the top of the tree," Dross says.
Your options for landscaping lights may change based on how your yard changes with the seasons. In the spring and halfway through the fall, your trees -- partially devoid of foliage -- will have a completely different profile when lit then during summertime and even winter. "A tree with no leaves may cast a shadow on a nearby wall that's really appealing," Dross says. "You'll get different designs as you move through the seasons."
Color is another consideration when deciding on landscaping lights. An annual flowerbed that's filled with yellow, orange, and gold marigolds in the growing season may look ablaze when lit up in summertime. "Color at night can be kind of fun," Dross says. "Play with the type of flowers you put in a bed; brighter colors are the ones that are going to pop. Trees like the cut leaf maple turn a really beautiful purple red in the fall, and landscape lights can grab a hold of that color and pop it out of the garden."
Many flowerbeds border walkways, making them a natural option for landscaping lights that both accent and provide safety. But resist the temptation to place the lights at a specific center-to-center dimension. "You'll end up with an extremely boring look," Dross says.
Another option for landscaping lights along a pathway is to place them where you're going to get some visual interest, which will benefit the garden and illuminate the steps or a walkway. "You don't have to fully illuminate a path; the eye is going to understand that there is a path there," Dross says. "A light near a step is going to illuminate that step enough so that when guests come in, they're going to see it."
If you have beds separated by grass but near a walkway and don't want to place lights in the lawn, there's another option for landscaping lights. "Put lighting in the bed at the front, at the middle, and at the house, and your eye will fill the space that might be dark in between with light," Dross says.
There are plenty of options for landscaping lights that are pretty, like a lantern style or ones focused on a bulb. But those are choices that don't work as well in flowerbeds or for trees and shrubs. "When it's direct, you see the bulb or source of light and that causes quite a bit of glare at night, which may make it difficult to see a nearby path," Dross says.
Instead, go for lights that have a metal hood, for example, with a lace cutout pattern and a decorative dot of light. "It's a lot easier for the eye to process when it's not getting poked with light," Dross says.
Many people are mistaken that their options for landscaping lights should be accompanied by high wattage bulbs. That's not the case. A full moon, for example, is 1/10 of a footcandle -- not much light at all, but enough for you to see really well at night. "When you are outside at night, your eyes get acclimated to a low level of light so they do not need a huge amount of supplemental light," Dross says. "Don't feel you need to 'overwatt' landscape lighting. Low levels are comfortable and do a real nice job."
With the exception of blue tints on evergreens, outdoor lights should remain fairly colorless. Look for lights that provide illumination in a typical incandescent color range, which is around 2,700 to 3,000 kelvins (denoted on the lightbulb box). "Anything above that is going to look too blue, and if it hits nearby architecture, such as a building or a wall, it gets offensive looking," Dross says.