Looking for outdoor lighting ideas to make your outdoor space glow?
Gone are the days when the last rays of evening sun signalled a quick retreat indoors as the garden descended into darkness. Today, there are legions of lighting options that allow us to transform what was formerly a foreboding black space into a magical landscape, complete with color, beams and a variety of effects, whilst also providing safe passage down steps and through pathways.
When our summers seem far too short, lighting extends the time we can spend outside on those precious warm days and a suitable scheme might include anything from well-placed lanterns of flickering candlelight to a state-of-the-art digital system controlled by your mobile phone; there is something for every budget and any garden, be it a small urban courtyard or large country property. No space is too small to light; even a window box can be given a nighttime makeover with a small spotlight or outdoor fairy lights woven through the planting.
Discover our outdoor lighting ideas below for more advice, tips and outdoor lighting inspiration.
See: Backyard ideas – decor inspiration for outdoor spaces
How do I light my backyard or garden?
When choosing outdoor lights, consider the overall look and your practical needs. Do you need occasional lighting to illuminate a seating or dining area, or are you looking for a garden nightscape with equal impact to the daytime view?
Alternatively, you may simply need to lights steps and pathways through the garden, or security lighting to protect your property. Look, too, at different design effects, and select features, such as trees and fountains, that can be enhanced with lights. When weighing up your options, remember to factor in the cost of installing an outdoor power supply by a qualified electrician – a basic requirement for most lighting schemes.
- See: Small garden ideas – clever designs for maximizing a compact gardening space
1. Know when your outdoor lighting ideas are too much
When it comes to exterior lighting, James Bassant, who is co-founder and design director at Astro, says that quality and clever placement is far more important than quantity.
A more considered use of lighting for a specific feature can have much greater impact. Whether picking out the route of a path, a gentle wash of light over a surface or highlighting a distant object to draw the eye, it can be surprising how little light you may need to create a sophisticated look.
2. Highlight different zones
When asked about creating different light zones outdoors, designer Charlotte Rowe told us that these don't work in the same way as with interior lighting.
If there are zones or separate areas in a garden or backyard, we might perhaps treat them as such but it is difficult as light leaks out across the space. It would be better to look at how certain garden elements can be lit.
For example, uplighting trees or lighting the trunks – more on that below – and underside of a tree canopy, you create a delineated and defined space within the garden.
3. Light a patio
Sally Storey, lighting designer of John Cullen, recommends you start by looking at features immediately outside your house, such as a plant, walls, and the paving or decking. 'It is important to draw the eye out, especially when viewing your backyard from a window or conservatory,' she says.
LED spotlights set into decking or paving create a starry effect, while defining the outline of a patio also helps prevent accidents, especially on raised decks.
4. Highlight a tree
A small spotlight in a plant pot or in-between a tree will also provide a focal point, or, in a modern scheme, try an illuminated container, such as a battery-operated LED Illuminated plant pot.
Walls can be lit, too, using a technique known as ‘washing’, where a light is placed at the top or bottom of a wall, with the beam grazing the surface, picking out colors and textures, and creating patterns of light and shade.
'Hedging is hard to light successfully,' adds Charlotte Rowe. 'Instead, plant trees within an enclosed hedge space and uplight them.'
- See: Front porch ideas – the best ways to create a strong first impression
5. Illuminate the main garden
Focusing on the garden itself, you can use lighting to dramatise trees, highlight sculptures and transform fountains into dynamic sparkling features. Award- winning garden designer, Janine Pattison of JPS Landscape Design uses a range of techniques to achieve these effects.
'We employ uplighting, downlighting, silhouetting, and spot lighting, which, combined with careful use of color, add a touch of lifestyle chic to a garden,' she explains. Uplighting is often used to illuminate special features, such as a sculpture or tree. The beam from a single spotlight, placed at the bottom of the structure, is focused on the object, making it sing out against the darkness.
Downlighting produces a similar effect but the spotlight is placed up high and the beam focused down. When used in a tree, it creates a dappled effect similar to moonlight. Backlighting a feature will throw it into silhouette and, when combined with these other techniques, contributes to a theatrical 3-D effect.
6. Light water
Reflective pools, contemporary cascades and fountains will all be enhanced when illuminated at night. Underwater lights can be halogen, LED or fibre optics, but they must be encased in waterproof, IP-rated fixtures.
Sarah Jane Rothwell of London Garden Designer uses lighting to enhance water features. Light is given movement as the flow of water reflects dancing shadows at night-time. Corten steel can be a stunning choice as it creates a warm glow that bounces off the surface.
'For small cascades, direct underwater spotlights onto the plinth of flowing water, or run a color-changing LED strip along the rill from which the water emerges,' suggests Sally Storey.
'Fibre optics can also be fully integrated into a cascade or fountain, making the water look like it’s illuminated from within, while locating a fibre optic within the jet of a bubble fountain gives the impression of a night light glowing inside.'
You can also light up swimming pools, introducing a slab of color into the night garden, but avoid underwater lights in planted ponds, as they will highlight weeds and roots. Instead, direct a light onto marginal planting or a sculpture beside the pond, which will then be mirrored in the water, producing dramatic reflections.
- See: Garden security lighting – everything you need to know
7. Enhance garden sculpture
A sculpture will have its own character that can be highlighted by good lighting. Award-winning sculptor David Harber explains that when lighting any sculpture it's important to respect the subtleties of surface and texture. Powerfully swamping something in light may destroy all the nuances of the piece and inappropriately placed lighting could create shadows and highlight areas that change the sculpture's personality completely.
David recommends spending 10 minutes with a torch, which will be illuminating in terms of what could be achieved, and says that more often than not, less is more.
8. Use colored garden lights
Introduce color into a dark garden by threading a string of colorful lanterns through a tree or over a pergola to create a party atmosphere, or install LEDs, which come in a wide choice of shades and can be programmed to create color-changing sequences.
The best effects are achieved when colored lights are used in moderation or to enhance a contemporary design. In more traditional settings, Nigel Parsons of Hallam Garden Design, suggests using soft white lights and focusing them on painted walls or plants, rather than using the light source itself to inject color.
9. Instil interest
Make the most of existing structures to create outdoor lighting features. This entrance through a thick laurel hedge is framed by large lit hessian stars, while the path and gate are illuminated by strings of fairy lights creating a mood of fantasy and intrigue.
- See: How to plan and install garden lighting – everything you need to know
10. Create mood lighting
Decorative candle holders and oil lamps cast a soft, romantic light, and are ideal for occasional use on a patio or in a small garden – try Indian Garden Company, Nordic House, and Rowen and Wren.
Table lamps that mirror stylish interior designs are now available for gardens, too – take a look at Kichler for on-trend lights to dress an outdoor living room.
11. Introduce solar lighting
Parasol lights are another option, either as integrated units or lights that clamp on to the top of a parasol pole. Easy to install, many run on AA batteries, such as the LED lights from Target and Best Buy.
Solar lights provide subtle pools of light, but lack the power to produce a targeted beam: 'Solar lighting can be used to define the edge of a drive or path, but you have no control over them, as they can’t be switched on and off,' adds Nigel Parsons.
12. Leave areas of darkness
Luke Thomas, design director at John Cullen Lighting advises that in order to create depth in a scheme, deciding what to leave in darkness is just as important as making a decision on what is lit up. If we were to light all aspects of a feature, for example a topiary box ball, the look would fall flat, but lighting just one side creates a striking contrast.
13. Stay safe and secure
Lighting can be used to enhance the safety of your front porch, illuminating steps and paths, as well as areas around the house to both welcome guests and deter intruders. Consider fitting LEDs on either side of step risers to illuminate the treads, and light paths with small spots or bollards, which can also contribute your garden design by doubling as illuminated sculptures.
Security lights that brighten an entranceway can be spotlights or lamps fitted with a PIR motion sensor that turns on as people or cars approach – adjust the sensor to ensure lights only come on as people enter your property and not when they are simply walking past.
Floodlights are really only suitable for large properties or long driveways.
14. Define objects with outdoor lighting
'Pick out with light the key sculptural elements that define the garden structure, such as sculptures, water features, and specimen trees, adding infill lights to the flower beds where necessary,' says Sally Storey, Design Director, John Cullen.
15. Employ a lighting designer
A garden or lighting designer will create a plan tailored to your particular garden and needs, and also take into account cost, safety and security. Joseph Best of The Light Garden explains the service he provides. 'We always begin with a visit to walk through ideas and designs. We then draw up a bespoke scheme, with costs, and often return for a night visit to demonstrate different lighting effects in the dark to show clients how they will look.'
You can find a designer through the Society of Garden Designers, or seek recommendations by word of mouth.
Ask to see examples of a designer’s work, and ensure the specialist or electrician that installs the lighting is registered with one of the following governing bodies: NAPIT, ELECSA, ECA, or NICEIC, which will ensure the contractor installs to BS 7671 (the electrical regulations) and meets the necessary building regulations.
What are the best lights for outdoors?
'Garden lighting is now regarded as a vital ingredient, adding a touch of luxury and ‘lifestyle chic’ to your outdoor space, whether it’s a small city garden, a large country home or something in between,' says Janine Patterson, Garden Designer.
Running costs should be no bar to illumination. LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) and fibre optics are very energy efficient, while solar powered units cost nothing to run. However, it’s important not to overdo it.
A good scheme works in harmony with your landscape creating layers of light and focal points, there is no need to compete with Blackpool Illuminations, contributing to light pollution, adversely affecting wildlife and masking stars. Turn lights off every night and when you’re not using the garden or viewing it, and do seek advice from a lighting or garden designer, particularly if you’re in a ‘Dark Sky’ area or national park with lighting restrictions.
Jennifer is the Digital Editor at Homes & Gardens. Having worked in the interiors industry for a number of years, spanning many publications, she now hones her digital prowess on the 'best interiors website' in the world. Multi-skilled, Jennifer has worked in PR and marketing, and the occasional dabble in the social media, commercial and e-commerce space.
Over the years, she has written about every area of the home, from compiling design houses from some of the best interior designers in the world to sourcing celebrity homes, reviewing appliances and even the odd news story or two.
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