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