If there was one landscape design element that could make your garden safer, more secure and aesthetically pleasing, would you buy it? More people are doing just that these days.
With the advent of high-quality, low-voltage systems, landscape lighting is becoming popular. There are many low-voltage lights from which to choose. The systems have come a long way since the 1950s, when they were made up of automobile lamps powered by car batteries.
Accent lights are low wattage--from 10 watts to 40 watts. So unless you're lighting the canopy of a tall tree, a little goes a long way. Transformers usually will handle hundreds of watts, so if one is strategically placed on the property it might be possible to run front and rear lights from one unit.
I prefer low-voltage systems that are safe to install and can be buried under mulch without needing to run the wire through a conduit or hire an electrician. In fact, if the pooch digs up the wiring, or even chews it, it won't harm your pet. It won't even "blow a fuse," except perhaps in the vernacular.
Fixtures that hold the light source come in every size and shape, as do the lamps. They can be spotlights or floodlights in many beam widths, and lamps come in halogens or incandescence. I have in my office probably five pounds of catalogues offering hundreds of choices in everything from small round plastic deck lights to the fanciest of carriage and path lamps.
Good low-voltage lighting doesn't imply low cost: It can cost about $200 for a high-quality ornate fixture, and the overall job can range from $4,000 to $5,000. It depends entirely on the number of lights and the difficulty of running wires and mounting fixtures. But today's generation of lighting is built to last. You just have to use some common sense during installation.
My basic rule, aesthetically, is to set lights so you will see the effect and not the bulb. Any size lamp is unpleasant to stare at, so the bulb should be shaded from view.
While landscape illumination can enhance safety, it should not be confused with security lighting, which sprays the property with brightness. If you use lights for security, put them on a separate switch, so they don't wash out the ones you're using for aesthetics.
Security lights can be turned off except when needed. Equip bright lighting with motion sensors for an immediate response to an intruder. Photo cells or timers on low-voltage systems that light your plants will achieve the same effect of giving the appearance that the house is occupied at all times.
To determine the best lighting effects, I ask clients to go into the yard at night. You can be master of your lighting design and create a tapestry across the property, balancing light and dark areas. Light a walkway and a tree, for example, but let a shed disappear in the darkness. Look at the design from every angle to make sure that you like the motif you have created; move the fixtures around until you do.
A pitfall of path-lighting is overdoing it. The light only needs to illuminate the walk. Use restraint. You don't want your garden to look like an airport runway. You can alternate the lights or place them all on one side. Plan it out and decide which way looks more balanced and requires less maintenance.
Keep fixtures off the lawn. They could be hit and cut during routine grounds management. Instead, put them into your beds to blend with the plantings and be as unobtrusive as possible.
The easiest way to light a deck, patio and steps is with an even, soft glow from above avoiding hot spotlights or glare. You may also consider recessing lights into stairs or walls to hide the fixtures. Or mount fixtures under handrails of a deck to tuck lights out of view.
The time to ensure that you have low glare is while you're playing around with various illumination techniques. There are fixtures made with grates or shades that keep the beam aimed in the right place where it's aesthetically pleasing to you and not an annoyance to neighbors. Some jurisdictions are developing codes to enforce this concept.
While the sky's the limit for choices of lighting techniques, here are several of my favorites.
* Up-light the trunks and canopies of trees with in-ground well-lights or bullet-type fixtures to give a dramatic, theatrical effect.
* Down-light trees by attaching fixtures in their canopies at strategic locations and drenching the area with soft light. It will serve to illuminate, cast shadows through branches for movement and mimic the moon. It can effectively illuminate paths, driveways, stairs and slopes.
* Front-light to show flowers, foliage and bark of a plant. A crapemyrtle, for example, will look handsome front-lighted because of its colorful exfoliating bark in winter, and flowers and deep green foliage in summer.
* Side-lighting can cast the silhouette of a small plant to fill an entire wall or cast the shadow of a tree across an expanse of lawn. This can have eerie effects. Grazing will bring out rich textural quality or contours of a stone wall, brick facade, tree bark or other surface.
* For the grazing effect, position a fixture just a few inches from the surface to be illuminated and shine it up against the object.
Resources for landscape lighting are as close as your fingertips. On the Internet, go to the American Lighting Association Web site at www.americanlightingassoc.com and click on "Links to Related Sites." Click on "Landscape Lighting" to get a brochure on the subject. You can also go to the Yellow Pages and look under the heading "Lighting Consultants."
Since low-voltage landscape lighting can be installed any time, do it now. Whether you install it yourself, or hire a professional, it will be in time to turn a blanket of snow into a winter wonderland by night.
Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org