Originally published: “Light Up Your Life,” August 3, 2002. Globe & Mail.

Glossary ? Costs ? Suggestions

The first year we had lighting in the garden I could barely wait for the winter light to plunge us into darkness. I’d trudge outside, flip a switch and the play of light and shadow on snow was our dinner entertainment (we’re simple folks). Then I’d trudge back outside and turn them off when we were done. We’re a little more high tech now since all switch flipping takes place indoors. This is an investment I’ve never regretted. And though lighting seems to come last when creating a garden, I’m of the mind now that it’s as important an element, as necessary a part of garden furnishing as table and chairs.

Lighting used to be strictly for safety and home protection. Light up the alleys, the porches and decks as intensely as possible to repel interlopers. These days however, lighting has become an integral part of even the most humble of garden designs-an easy way to turn a run-of-the-mill space into something amazing. Light is trickery of the very best kind and lights in the garden have become a sophisticated business, not just a bunch of moonlights scattered about willy-nilly.

Kent Ford is one Toronto landscape architect who loves to use clever lighting in all of his designs. He sorts out the hardscaping and the planting plan as the first stage of his design, but right after that comes the lighting plan. It’s an essential layer on top of the two. Here’s his guidelines to consider in garden lighting:

  • What needs to be lighted for safety reasons? Safety is very important and anything that could be a liability: stairs (especially dark stairs which can be very dangerous), alleys, paths, dark hedging.
  • Work out just how much already spills out of the windows of the house, the buildings around, the soffit lighting, the neighbour’s houses and street lamps and figure out how much contrast you actually need. Ford uses the example of a dark stair way which seemed to be properly lit but was lost altogether once the street lights came on. “If you have halogen lights fighting with sodium lamps of the streetlights,” he cautions, “the streetlights win every time.”
  • Next comes the aesthetic or ambient lights: uplighting is a light shining upwards usually at a focal point. When you decide what trees you want to light up remember that if you have too much lighting you essentially light nothing at all. It’s just a washout. Downlighting (which he seldom uses) will place a large light in a tree and create almost a moonlight effect.
  • Figure out where the transformers are to be placed, where there is easy access to outlets and how the lights will be controlled. The ideal I’ve found is just having a switch indoors so I don’t have to go slogging out in the snow. But this is expensive. Decide if they will be controlled at the transformer (that was our first solution); or whether they will be set off automatically (decided against this because I only want my property lit only when I’m around to enjoy it-security is not the issue here.) Decide if the switches are to be manual or automatically programmed to go on at sundown and turn off at a pre-fixed hour. The more complex they get the more likely things will be to go wrong.

One of the exciting new concepts of garden lighting is that it’s becoming more carefully though out and dramatic in much the same way indoor lighting has these past few years. Ford says that when they light a seating or dining area it’s more likely to be similar to interior lighting. In fact one manufacturer, Rudd, has track lighting for outdoor rooms, which allow maximum flexibility and will almost sculpt the light in a difficult space. He recommends that a pool, a cabana and the garden should all be on different switches. “You don’t want to look at a pool cover filled with leaves all winter.” he says. He uses what’s known as MR16 halogen lights which give maximum light and require the minimum amount of voltage.

Gerry Cornwell, a lighting designer and consultant who has done major work in museums as well as gardens informs us that new things are coming our way: Light emitting diodes (LEDs which you’ll recognize from your calculator), HIDs and fibre optics. LEDs can light up paths and driveways and not be damaged by snow or being driven over. In Europe, he says, they are being used to illuminate pedestrian walkways, or crosswalks at intersection. Another new lighting trend is metal halide which belongs to the family of HIDs (high intensity discharge). These white lights are similar to incandescent bulbs but with a life of 6,000 to 10,000 hours and are great for lighting big objects such as trees and flag poles. And then there’s the whole new world of fibre optics. They require only one source of light and from this several things can be featured. The added advantage is that it can be hidden in the basement or a garden shed.

Jacob Verkade of Indoors and Out, a dishy Toronto garden store says: that though the price is high now and fibre optics are used mainly for commercial purposes, we’ll all be clamouring for this flexible lighting in the future. We’ll be able to fling them into a swimming pool, change colours at a whim, and they will use little or no electricity. To understand fibre optics think of a thick fishing line through which light can travel from one source called an illuminator. It is the only part that’s plugged in and there can several lines which can be looped through trees or carried along the edge of a path.

Solar lighting is an alternative form of light and a good deal less expensive. Panels draw light from the sun and then shine after dark. These haven’t been all that widely used mainly because, Verkade says, the panels are way too small to do proper collection. Indoors and Out carries German made fixtures which has four solar collecting panels to collect the sunlight and Verkade swears you can read by them. This system uses no wiring or electricity.

I’m a constant experimenter in my garden and I’d like to try everything new that comes along. This is possible with light only if you have a core system that you can add on to. The idea that lights can turn an evening garden into a completely new environment, almost a living sculpture is a wonderful concept. And what other form of entertainment could more engaging for the eye and for the soul?


  • Down lighting: this is very dramatic and with the right combination of lights high in a tree it can look like moonlight. But there are some problems here. First off you’ve got to take your neighbours into consideration because you can’t go beaming light into their gardens. Another is that raccoons love to mangle up the wires. Go into this one cautiously.
  • Up lighting: you can have a fixture on or in the ground and beam it easily on what you want to emphasize. This is the standard form of lighting for focal points.
  • Shroud that would be what we think of traditionally as the lamp’s shade.
  • Hood: another word for the shade. There are so many different styles you can have anything from what looks like a mushroom top, to a tulip to a Chinese hat.
  • Wattage: you’ll constantly have voltage and wattage being tossed about. Pay attention: The lower the voltage the lower the electricity costs, the higher the wattage the brighter the light.
  • Voltage: Low voltage means that it will withstand being wet, and exposed to the elements. If you are switching from high to low voltage you’ll need a transformer (from say 120V down to 12V) comes in little kits.
  • Controls: these can be switches or photo cells with a timer to turn it on and off at predetermined hours.


It’s hard to pin anybody down on just what lighting up a garden will cost because, they all say, every job is different. But to give you an idea of how prices leap, a conventional sized garden might be about $2,000 with incandescent lighting; $3,000 with fibre optic and about the same with metal halide; and about $4,000 with LEDs. You can, of course install just a few lights to pinpoint a tree, bench or something you treasure for a few hundred dollars. You should find out the length of life the unit is guaranteed for. How watertight they are and their resistance to UV rays. Always find out how easy it is or just how difficult to change the lightbulb. If it’s really well sealed this may be a real pain of a job and very annoying. Always check to see if you can really install the units yourself or if you should get a professional.


Here are a few suggestions.

  • Malibu Lights are low 12-volt current; a unit contains a transformer, cable and fixture and they also have 4 watt to 50 watt halogen fixtures as well as outdoor timers. The people who have used them say they last about five years before falling apart and run from about $25 to $35 a unit.
  • Canlet has PARmate (parabolic Aluminum Reflector) lamps which take halogen bulbs. They are guaranteeing the length of life and UV resistance of the shroud along with tight water seals. They are two-way adjustable for easy focusing. Simplicity is the key here. I like the gray hoods the best.
  • Paul Wolf Electric carries Rudd Lighting which is the choice of many landscape architects such as Kent Ford. They also carry Progress Lighting which make all kinds of garden lighting with prices can range from $25 to $60 – $70 depending on the voltage and the type (read quality) of bulb. They recommend the best bulbs as MR 16 and MR 11, which are low voltage halogen bulbs.
    Paul Wolf Electric and Lighting Supply Ltd., 425 Alliance Ave.,Toronto, OntarioM6N 2J1.? 416-504-8194
  • TPL is a marketing outfit which represents BK Lighting which has HID units consisting of a fixture and a ballast. Prices can range in price from $500 to $1500.
  • Sunshine Pools and Spas is a company in Kelowna B. C. which show pictures of how fibre optics can be used in pools.
  • www.classicyardscape.com/waterfalls/sheerdelight.html Of Sarnia, Ont has excellent prices and lots of information. You can order on the web.