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Top tips for garden lighting

Top tips for garden lighting

In this London terrace, designed by Stephen Woodhams, low-glare uplighting illuminates the columns and recessed uplights highlight the arched trellis, drawing the eye to the end of the garden. Photo: Heiner Orth

Lighting designer Sanjit Bahra offers advice on how to illuminate a garden for atmosphere and drama at night

Gardens are increasingly becoming multi-functional spaces that add to people’s living experience. Within these projects, whether you are dealing with sculptures, water features, dining terraces or paths, each element needs to be carefully considered and given its own lighting treatment in order to create a truly memorable setting.

I view lighting gardens as creating a little piece of theatre. It enhances the outside space and extends the perception of the interior. However, unlike the interior, which always has a general level of illumination, the night-time garden can be viewed as a black canvas onto which you can decide what is seen and what is left in shadow. You can actually direct people through the landscape by the way it is lit. Lighting also offers a unique opportunity to present the space in an entirely new way than what is seen in daylight – you can create a completely different garden at night.

Common lighting mistakes

It pays to consult a professional lighting designer if you are embarking on adding light to your designs, as there are specific challenges in lighting the exterior landscape. I usually take direction from the designer’s vision and design the lighting scheme through a collaborative approach.

One important consideration, for example, is that the eye always goes to the brightest point, so you have to be careful of glare. Point lights away from the general line of sight, and use glare cowls and louvres on spotlights. I like to add half shields to recessed uplights to really reduce the amount of stray light.

A little light goes a long way in the night-time landscape, so ensure that you are aware of both what is being lit and what you want to keep in the dark. In fact, the most common mistake in garden lighting is picking out and illuminating individual features such as a single tree. This often leads to the impression of elements hovering oddly within the space, and can make for a disconnected impression. It is better to place lights along the view to help lead the eye to a focal point using layers of light. When planning to illuminate a garden, you also have to be careful to ensure you don’t end up with a great deal of contrast. Successful landscape lighting builds a scheme using both light and shadow.

The cost of landscape lighting very much depends on the garden design. Often the smaller the garden, the greater the cost per m2 when it comes to lighting. Much like the downstairs cloakroom, the most visible parts of the garden often get the most luxurious finishes, as that’s where all guests will end up at some point. A courtyard off the kitchen or dining room will usually have the most sumptuous lighting effects.

In this garden by Keith Pocock MSGD and Stephen Woodhams, the pleached trees are illuminated, and there is a linear LED striplight in the water feature that directs the eye towards the sculpture

Professional secrets for lighting gardens

MOONLIGHTING - The placement of a spotlight in a tree to create dappled pools of light can be a great way to light a terrace or a path. However, make sure you only point the light downward and don’t try to light across a distance – otherwise what was supposed to be a subtle lighting effect will suddenly feel like a security light.

A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY - With the efficiency of LED light fittings, you can certainly go smaller than you might think. LED fittings generally need drivers, so think about where you can hide waterproof boxes to locate them. Sometimes there won’t be a shed or outside room where you can hide them, so think about concealing them in bushes or behind hedges.

COLOUR MATCHING - Ensure the colour temperature of all your LED light sources match. Warm white can mean different things across manufacturers so check the number given. While I prefer 2800k warm LEDs in the interior of a house, I tend to go just a tad cooler in the garden – 3000k produces a crisper effect and brings out the colour of the foliage.

HIDE CABLES - It’s always a good idea to contain electrical cables within mesh-reinforced tubing. It protects accidental damage when digging or from foxes (who love to chew cables). 

SEAL CONNECTIONS - Make sure your electrician seals all of the electrical connections so that they are totally waterproof. Moisture has a crafty way of travelling up cables, and there’s nothing more disheartening than spending money on a good-quality external light fitting, only for moisture to get in because the connections were poorly made.

AMPLE DRAINAGE - If you’re putting anything in the ground, such as recessed uplighting, make sure there is ample drainage so that water doesn’t build up.

CREATE CONTRAST - When lighting steps, I like to illuminate every other riser. The contrast created allows you to still see each step whilst creating a much more subtle effect. With thanks to and

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