How to plan your garden lighting

Enjoy your outside area all year round with garden design expert Matt James' advice on the most effective ways to illuminate your outdoor space. Including advice on powering garden lights, which lights to choose and how to position them.

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Enjoy your outside area all year round with garden design expert Matt James’ advice on the most effective ways to illuminate your outdoor space.

You might not spend much time outside in winter, but a few lights will highlight all the best garden features, plus there’s something quite exciting about looking out into the dark from a cosy living room to see the transformative effects lighting can create.

During the day you see everything in your garden, both good and bad, so the best thing about garden lighting is that you can focus attention on special plants and sculptures rather than unsightly sheds and bins. The secret, however, is not to overdo it – only light the best features in your garden as a little light goes a long way in the dark.

What you’ll need

Garden lights either work directly from the mains or through a transformer that provides a 12 or 24 low-voltage current. Both will need a qualified electrician to install them, but it is possible to fit some of the smaller low-voltage sets yourself once the power supply, usually a waterproof socket with an RCD (residual current device), has been fixed outside by a professional. Of the two, low-voltage lighting is best: it’s far safer, there are more fittings to choose from, it’s easier to install and you can move the fittings around more readily. Working out the size of the transformer you’ll need to install is easy. Simply multiply the wattage and number of individual lights (bulbs) you want to use in your new lighting scheme. For example, four 30-watt lamps will require a 120-watt transformer. However, it’s always a good idea to go for a transformer that is larger than you think you’ll need, so in the future you can add more lights or up the brightness of the bulbs without the hassle of upgrading the transformer.

Lighting options

There are lots of lights available, from cheap plastic sets to more expensive lights made from brushed steel, aluminium and copper, where the lamps themselves look attractive during the daytime too. Your local garden centre or DIY store will stock a few, but for the biggest range it’s best to search online.

Fluorescent lights are the most common lights for gardens. Most designs have 12-volt halogen reflector lamps that use less energy and are therefore more environmentally friendly. For flood lighting and security, choose large halogen beam spreads, but go for one with a PIR (passive infrared) sensor that can be turned off manually so that it doesn’t waste energy or ruin garden get-togethers.

LEDs (light emitting diodes) are popular as they are particularly useful for long cable runs, and can be used almost anywhere: in step lights, as recessed spots in paving and decking, even under water spouts and fountains. Some LEDs come in different colours and there are others where you can programme the colour to suit the mood. You will pay more for LED lights than standard fittings, but the bulbs last a lot longer and the fittings are more discreet.

Fibre-optic lights for gardens are relatively new and cast a soft ambient glow, making them perfect for highlighting steps or decking. DIY kits are relatively cheap, though if you opt for a professional to fit them it will cost more compared to installing LEDs or conventional fluorescent lights.

Solar-powered lights might be good for the planet and they won’t require any electrical skills to install them, but sadly most don’t deliver in terms of performance as you’ll get little more than a soft glow of light for about an hour a night.

Design ideas

To work out which areas of your garden will look best lit up, take a torch out at night and experiment by shining it on different features, such as trelliswork, statues, pots and plants with an architectural form. All of these will look different when lit from various angles.

I like uplighting trees, especially those with interesting bark, like the Tibetan cherry and silver birch. To create maximum impact, position a 50-watt spotlight close to the base of the trunk so the beam creates a play of shifting light and shadow up through the branches of the tree.

For another novel lighting idea, try positioning a spotlight at the base of an old brick or stone wall and see how the light grazes the wall above and throws the texture into sharp relief.

A plain wall at the back of a border can be transformed into an outdoor projector screen by positioning a spotlight in front of big architectural plants like New Zealand flax or tall ornamental grasses (Miscanthus ‘Flamingo’ is a cracker). When the wind makes their silhouettes shimmy against the wall, you’ll have your own black-and-white movie.

Temporary solutions

It’s also worth experimenting with temporary outdoor lights, whether it’s for a garden party or a way of extending the festive Christmas spirit to your outside space. I’m not suggesting you illuminate every available inch of your house and garden, but you’ll create an immediate party atmosphere if you use them creatively. Wrap twinkly ones around arches and arbours, or drape them through trees or even pots and baskets. A warning, however, as although some party lights can be left outside all the time, others need to be brought in when it starts raining.

Improvised lights can also look far better than you might think, and what’s more they cost mere pennies and are very environmentally friendly. Tealights in old baked-bean cans or jars look great when used en masse. You can even paint the outside of jars with special glass paints for a stained-glass effect if you wish (try hobbycraft.co.uk), and DIY stores stock bags of 100 tealights for less than £10, making them an easy and affordable way to enjoy your outdoor space throughout the winter months.

Matt JamesAbout the author…

Matt James is a university lecturer, landscape designer and author, best known for ITV’s Love Your Garden and Channel 4’s City Gardener. He works on projects both here and abroad and is Real Homes magazine’s garden design expert.