A London roof terrace

Night lights for the garden and how they can transform your outside space

Designer Matt Keightley 
looks at how a considered garden lighting scheme can bring your garden to life after dark. Words Matt Keightley, photographs Marianne Majerus

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.

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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.

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.

Six key garden lighting ideas

Strip lights

A ground-level strip light behind the statue subtly washes the backdrop in light creating a striking silhouette and highlighting the statue’s form and structure.

Spike lights

Spike lights placed at the base of trees are typically the most versatile choice of fitting. They work for many reasons – creating a warm glow at the base of the tree, silhouetting surrounding foliage textures, highlighting characterful stems and picking out the underside of delicate foliage in the crown of the tree.

Discretion

Discreet LED strips mounted in a bespoke track under the stone create a beautiful effect and prevent the glare often seen in surface-mounted fittings. The warm wash provides just enough light to help illuminate level changes without being too harsh.

Flames

Introducing candles, lanterns or a fire place adds the finishing touch to a lighting scheme. The flicker of flames creates gentle shadow movement, which in turn enhances the ambience.

Repetition

Repeating your lighting technique down the length of the garden, provides rhythm and direction, systematically drawing attention to the light source and encouraging visitors to travel through the garden.

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Shadows

Adjust the angle of the beam under trees, to cast dramatic shadows around the surrounding space and create depth in the garden at night. The movement of leaves in the breeze can be truly mesmerising.