WHEW! Sure glad that spring is over! What a horrible, wet, yucky, gloomy (well, you get the picture) season it has been. I’m ready to get outdoors, not just to work in the garden and make it pretty, but to sit in the garden, have a cocktail, and enjoy the company of my husband and our friends. Since our house is teeny-weeny, bringing the party outdoors is necessary and that makes lighting the garden for those wonderful evening parties, essential. We’ve always considered our outdoor spaces an extension of our indoor spaces and want to make them equally comfortable.
Because my husband and I have been remodeling our outdoor spaces over last summer and this spring, we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on outdoor lighting. And, as this is a topic that is currently running around in my head, I thought I’d share. There are many advantages to outdoor lighting: beauty, accent, task, and security. A well lit outdoor space is a whole lot safer than one without lighting.
Lighting an outdoor space is just like lighting an indoor space. You’re working with exactly the same principles. Space is space. Unfortunately, in design, whether indoors or out, lighting always seems to be the forgotten element or at least the very last consideration, when it should be part of the original design process. It’s that important.
When planning lighting for your outside spaces, the first thing to do is to evaluate your space and ask a few questions. What are you trying to light and why? Do you want to light a walkway? Are you accenting an architectural element (or several elements) or a plant (or several plants)? Do you need general illumination for an area you will be entertaining in? Are you lighting a pond or a fountain? Are you lighting a dark step or a stairway? Will you be using low-voltage or line-voltage lighting? How large is the space? So many questions!
Task lighting is providing enough light to accomplish a specific task in a space. For example, enough lighting to safely walk down a path or providing enough light to have dinner by or illuminating your barbecue so that you can see the food you’re cooking. Accent lighting could be accenting a plant or washing a brick wall with light or perhaps up lighting a tree.
Once you’ve identified what needs to be lit and why, it’s time to educate yourself on low-voltage outdoor lighting fixtures, the most commonly used outdoor lighting. Low-voltage lighting uses halogen bulbs, which makes for bright and sparkly light. Low-voltage means that the 120 volts from your outlet is converted down to 12 volts with an external transformer. You buy transformers by the number of watts needed.
Some low-voltage lighting kits come with a transformer, that only workes with what comes in that box and you can’t add more lights to the system. I recommend buying your transformer and your lamps separately as you are probably going to use several types of lamps (fixtures) on the same transformer. You should also buy a larger (higher wattage) transformer than you think you need. You would be surprised how quickly the wattage adds up.
When choosing a fixture, look at the voltage the fixture puts out and what the fixture does and match the fixture to the task. There are spotlight and floodlight fixtures, there are path lights, stair lights, up lighting lights . . . the choices are endless; which is why I truly believe in educating yourself before jumping in. We were surprised recently to find a four-watt fixture with a very wide flood lens that seemed brighter and more effective than an 18-watt fixture.
There are, of course, other choices than just low-voltage halogen fixtures. Solar lights have become very popular lately for obvious reasons; you don’t need electricity to make them work. I just don’t find them very effective. A solar light requires a strong eight-hour charge in order to optimize its use, and that is harder to get than you might think. If it works for you, great, but I just can’t seem to make it work for me.
I love using commercial outdoor party lights strung between my outdoor spaces. That always feels so festive. And don’t forget the beauty of candlelight and torches! Nothing makes a space feel cozier than a few beautiful hurricane lanterns with huge candles flickering in the evening. What I am really getting at here is to layer your lighting; use the fixture or fixtures that best meet your lighting needs.
You can also use line-voltage outdoor lighting in the form of post lamps, sconces, or motion-activated lighting. I have a courtyard in the back of my house, and it is lit with five galvanized French down lights layered with commercial party lights with galvanized shades. Again, layering is the key.
My last tip on outdoor lighting is to be careful and not overlight your space. Know when to stop. Too much is just too much. Obviously, outdoor lighting is a vast subject, too vast for this article, so there are many, many books covering the subject for you to read. This article is just meant as a beginning conversation, perhaps piquing your interest enough to tackle your own outdoor lighting dilemma.
Here’s to dirt under your nails and a well lit garden. Cheers!
JJ De Sousa is the owner of digs inside & out, located at 1829 NE Alberta, Portland. She can be reached at 503-460-3447 or firstname.lastname@example.org.