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Design Tips for Landscape Lighting

Posted May 16, 2008
Updated May 22, 2008

There are few things quite as pleasing as an artfully lit landscape, but it can be a surprising challenge to make it relatively natural. Sure, you want a little drama, but you don't want pathways that look like landing strips and annoying glare coming from every tree.

Here are some designing tips for landscape lighting:

  • Although you will eventually want to draw a rough plan on paper for a shopping list, the best way to try out different effects is to go out to the yard at night with a good flashlight. You won't be able to see the total effect, but you will get to try individual situations. Manufacturers of fixtures are also a good design source.
  • You don't want to light everything, so start with safety. Walkways and stairs are critical. There are small fixtures made for each of these situations.
  • Then move on to accent lighting. Pick out features-a group of trees or a big rock-that would stand out when lit. Remember that low voltage lighting brings out shape and texture. However, resist the temptation to light every tree in your yard.
  • It's common to use too many fixtures. On walkways, just light one side of the path or stagger the fixtures, alternating between sides. On curved paths, just light the inside of the curve.
  • Pick fixtures that do the job that particular location calls for. You can purchase well lights that bury in the ground for a nice uplighting effect in bushes and ornamental grasses, spot lights that are used to focus on a particular feature, down lights that put light on the ground around them, tier lights that give more general lighting, and many others. So, choose an edge fixture or down light for a path since you don't need to light the area around it or above it.
  • Consider these effects, which can be achieved with one or more lights:

    • Uplighting - often used to accent a tree with the fixture at the base
    • Downlighting - same idea only the fixture is up high and shines down
    • Spotlighting - creates a focal point by turning a spot light on it
    • Backlighting - the feature is silhouetted by putting the fixture behind it
    • Crosslighting - using two fixtures from different directions to give even more dimensionality to a feature
  • If this all sounds a bit complicated, remember that even after you have laid the cable for the fixtures, you can try an effect out in a location and still change your mind since this low-voltage cable is "self healing." You can merely disengage the fixture and try it in a new location.
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