One of my favourite times to spend in the garden is the golden hour – that blissfully tranquil, yet fleeting moment when day meets night and the light transforms and enhances every element in the space. That sense of excitement, of watching evolving shadows dance across a path doesn’t have to end once the sun has set. You can create the same energy, movement and depth with a lighting scheme, provided you treat it with subtlety.
When I’m planning a garden, I spend hours contemplating its aspect and orientation to establish how the sun tracks around the space, and how this will create light and shadow in the garden throughout the day. Garden lighting should be given the same consideration. Critical to the balance of any lighting scheme is the interplay between light and shadow and how this affects our perception of a space. Lighting can create depth, manipulate perspective, and enhance texture, colour and structure. What matters is how you chose to do so.
If you look to nature for inspiration you’ll notice how the sun’s shadows vary depending on how high it is in the sky, whether there is water to reflect its light and illuminate surrounding areas, and the texture of a planting scheme. The same is true of artificial lighting. You’ll create a very different effect if you place a light at the foot of a tree than if you position it a metre away. In fact the same light and tree can be combined to conjure up an almost endless array of effects depending on whether you choose to uplight the tree, backlight it or direct the beam towards the crown and each can be varied by changing the angle of the beam or the wattage of the bulb. It’s worth experimenting with different effects and trialling different fittings before you finalise your scheme. As with many aspects of garden design, it requires detailed and careful planning to make a lighting scheme seem effortless.
There are two principles that should guide your choices. The first is functionality. After dark you need lights simply to ensure you can move easily and comfortably around your garden, and keep you safe when it comes to navigating steps or even cooking outside. These don’t need to be the kind of flashing lights that help you find the nearest fire exit, they can, and should, always be treated with as much subtlety as possible so they effortlessly blend with the wider scheme. Rather than mark a path with lights along its length consider lighting nearby shrubs or trees instead. The deflected light will cast sufficient light for you to see where you’re going but in a more attractive way, which brings us to the second principle: ambience. This is created by lighting that has a purely aesthetic purpose. It’s the type of lighting that can evoke an emotional response and bring your garden to life. Ambient lights can be used to highlight key features, such as a specimen tree, or draw attention to different areas of the garden inviting people to explore and discover more, or simply provide the light to sit and eat at a table.
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The type of lights you choose will depend on which of these principles is your priority, but the more discreet and subtle your lighting the more atmosphere and drama you will create. What you want to avoid is finding yourself or your guests sitting in the harsh glare of a lamp. Occasionally, you will need to have a light fitting on show, but these should be kept to a minimum; any lighting scheme should be less about the fitting and more about the effect.
9 garden lighting ideas for 2023
From contemporary outdoor lighting to quirky statement pieces, here are a few ideas from Gardens Illustrated on how to bring your garden to wonderful, illuminated life. You can also take a look at our list of the best portable outdoor lights.
Create a silhouette with ground-level lights
Ground-level lights can be used to subtly create a lit backdrop to features in your garden. They can create striking silhouettes of trees, plants, statues and other objects, and highlight their form and structure.
Create a glow around trees and foliage with spike lights
Well-placed spike lights can make all the difference in gardens, particularly if they are placed at the bases of trees. Not only will they create a warm glow at the base of the tree, they will silhouette surrounding foliage textures and pick out other delicate details of the crown of the tree.
Add lights with discretion
Lights can be tucked away throughout your garden, and will help create a beautiful ambience when it gets dark. When in direct display, these lights can often be a little harsh, but when installed with discretion, will help add a gentle illumination. These mini mushroom stake lights, for example, can be pushed into your lawn, where they sit snugly among the grass.
Add cosy atmosphere with flames
There’s little that’s more welcoming or intimate in a garden than a flame, or indeed a series of carefully placed flames. This can be easily introduced with candles, lanterns or even a firepit. But we love the scattered shadows that a Moroccan-style lantern can produce.
Use repetition to welcome visitors through your garden
Repeated lighting brings a lovely sense of rhythm and direction to your garden. You can use these interval light sources, such as this four-light set from Sol Outdoor 72, to encourage visits to travel through the garden, either by illuminated paths or tracks, or alternately creating an informal once.
Make use of shadows
Lighting can create a wonderful sense of theatre in your garden, by casting dramatic shadows and creating depth at night. You can also do it far more subtly, such as with this Moroccan-style set of string lights, which will create a series of dappled shadows across the space you’re illuminating.
Add overhead lights with festoon bulbs
On the subject of string lights, these can be simply and cleverly deployed in many places in your garden: along fences and decking rails. But they really come to life when wrapped through the branches of a tree, addinFestoon Golf Ball Lightsg both character and a lovely sense of cosiness. These festoon bulbs from Garden Trading are a simple and understated option.
Use lights to bring colour and texture to your garden
Garden lights can bring far more than just illumination to your garden: they can also be used to bring accents of colour and texture. These silk lanterns, which are ethically sourced from a traditional lamp-making shop in Vietnam, would do a lovely job - they come in a range of colours, from fuchsia to cyan. Admittedly they aren’t permanent features - but what a talking point, for when you can invite visitors to your home again.
Add personality to you garden - and make sure it’s your own
People often think of lighting as a somewhat peripheral aspect of their garden, rather than a feature in itself. Which is a real shame, since it can add character of its own, and is just as much an opportunity for you to display your own personality. We loved this hen-themed set of lights, which are available at Wayfair. They won’t be to everybody’s taste - but that’s exactly the point.
Find more outdoor lighting options in our round-up of the best solar garden lights to buy online.
Matt Breen is a digital writer for the tech section of RadioTimes.com. He writes buying guides, product reviews, how-to, explainers and news stories about everything from flagship smartwatches to bendable televisions (no, really). He keeps a beady eye on all the latest news in the consumer tech world. Matt has also written for Expert Reviews, BikeRadar, Coach, Gardens Illustrated, Gathered.how and The Week. When he's not obsessing over the latest tech products, you might just find him painting and drawing - anything to limit his screen time.