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Making Light
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Making Light



Those of us who are designers and builders of full-scale outdoor environments (you know who you are) face a distinct challenge: In our work for our clients, we are expected to provide the outline and details for a huge range of project elements, from watershapes and patios to plantings and walkways and more.

That list, at least so far as clients are concerned, also includes appropriate lighting, but that is not always something on which we focus. Indeed, lighting design is seen as a specialty even by those who tackle almost every other project feature – and there’s no problem with that unless

it inclines you to make lighting an afterthought.

As I see the grand scheme of things, lighting is an increasingly important component in overall exterior environments. Many of our clients these days have their disposable income because they are two-income families who work long hours to earn their keep. At times, it seems as though they’re throwing cash away by investing in exterior design, basically because they aren’t home during the day to reap the benefits.

That’s where landscape lighting comes in: With good lighting design, our clients can enjoy their yards well after dark in settings that can be quite magical. To facilitate that benefit, we all need to be engaged in lighting design on some level, however rudimentary it may be.


Quite often, consideration of landscape lighting happens only at the end of a project – so it’s often the first plan component that gets cut out when budget concerns arise.

I would argue that both those conventions are wrong – that is, lighting should never be an afterthought and should never be one of the details deleted from the punch list. I say so because I think lighting is far more essential than most clients and designers know and believe it should be considered and planned for from a project’s inception.

Yes, lighting can be installed at the end (and usually is, for all sorts of practical reasons), but it’s very important to have a plan of attack almost from the beginning so you can run wires below hardscape and place transformers sensibly.


My frequent goal in establishing exterior lighting programs for my clients is to give their surrounding a different look after dark. In this case, for example, a short daytime shrub casts a larger-than-life shadow on an adjacent wall.

And yes, lighting is a specialty often best left to the experts, but it’s always been my belief that more of us should get involved – basically because so many of our projects are budget-driven and paying for such expertise at the end of a project is often a stretch even for clients with good intentions. My thought is that nighttime enjoyment of the spaces we design and build is too important a factor in clients’ long-term satisfaction and that to walk away without having addressed lighting on some level is just plain wrong.

For grand projects, bringing in specialized lighting designers can make sense and the results can be spectacular. On a practical level, however, if the choice is between spectacle and darkness, I personally want to find a middle ground that lets me serve my clients in appropriate ways.

In approaching these tasks through the years, I’ve become pretty well versed in what it takes to create a spectacular lighting design and now work with three basic solutions to the lighting challenge.

First, there’s mood or effect lighting, which is meant to make various components of landscapes look good after dark – by uplighting a tree to show off the beauty of its branch structure, for example. Second, there’s lighting to indicate elevation changes – as with steps or slopes – and mark entrances to walkways or define the edges of watershapes. Third, there’s lighting for safety, as by highlighting the edges of sweeping driveways or eliminating reasons to fear dark places. (As a rule, I don’t design lighting for security reasons. If there are reasons to worry about security, we recommend motions sensors and larger lights (or a big dog!) to deal with the possibility of intruders.)

In some cases, these functions overlap, as when uplighting reflected from the bottom of branches and leaves (or downlighting out of trees and other overhead structures) serves to illuminate a pathway. Indeed, in most cases lighting takes all three of these functions into account simultaneously – although it’s safe to say that most of the visual drama comes from deliberate effect lighting.


As I see it, working with these functions even in basic terms is better than not providing any lighting at all. And as I’ve worked with these systems, I’ve come to feel more and more confident that I’m delivering real value that completes the package of services I offer my clients.

In some cases, I set up systems that imitate natural lighting, in effect bringing day to night. In these cases, I focus on two forms of lighting not mentioned above – that is, downlighting and backlighting.

With downlighting, I picture what a site looks like under a full moon, placing fixtures high up in trees to create subtle, shifting shadows on the ground and structures below. With backlighting, I picture a tree on the horizon with the sun setting behind it, creating a vivid silhouette against a bright background.


This statue is quite fine by day, but with a thoughtful bit of uplighting against a background we deliberately left dark, it becomes the star of the show when the sun goes down.

For other projects, however, my goal is not to mimic nature, but instead to create a whole new nighttime landscape. In this realm, you can take daytime’s five-foot-tall shrub and turn it into a tree by uplighting its shadow onto a tall, blank wall. Using this technique, you can take a piece of sculpture that’s basically hidden during the day and turn it into an evening focal point.

Similarly dramatic effects can be achieved by uplighting trees with interesting structures, such as Japanese Maples or Dogwoods. I’ve also shone spotlights across waterfalls to shadow the moving water on adjacent stonework. At the same time, I avoid uplighting waterfalls at all costs: This creates a “hot spot” on the water’s surface that detracts from the effect of lighting the falling water.

And again, there’s the possibility of combining approaches within single designs, mimicking nature while setting up special highlights. Personally, I lean more towards the latter than the former, but I still find myself climbing up to the tops of trees to place fixtures and set up moonlighting effects. (Actually, the moonlighting touch is almost irresistible where I live and work: When there’s snow on the ground, the appeal of light shining down through bare branches to cast rippling shadows across vast blankets of snow is impossible to ignore!)

So what do you need to know to start shaping light in the same way you do water and hardscape and landscape materials? For purposes of this discussion, let’s focus strictly on low-voltage lighting systems, which have come to dominate what I do because they are reliable, economical especially with respect to energy costs and well within the realm of most landscape installers’ capabilities. (Moreover, where I work these installations do not require working with a licensed electrician.)


For the most part, the low-voltage fixtures I work with fall into three categories: path lights, spotlights and specialty lights.

[ ] Path lights are used, as the name implies, to illuminate walkways and paths. In most cases, these fixtures are outfitted with simple bayonet-style or wedge bases for easy placement, and I use them to lend texture and interest. (In doing so, I always avoid lining fixtures up in the dreaded “runway effect” – unless, of course it appeals to my client. Like the awful “string of pearls” effect too often seen with stonework around watershapes, this is almost always a look to be studiously avoided.)

[ ] Spotlights are quite versatile and can be used for virtually any lighting purpose, whether it’s uplighting, downlighting, backlighting or highlighting. Generally speaking, these fall under the heading of effect lighting, but as mentioned previously, fixtures up in trees can serve a secondary function by lighting a path or seating area below.

[ ] Specialty lights are really just variations on path and spotlights, but they’re meant for mounting in specific places for specific purposes – as with fixtures intended exclusively for mounting in steps or on walls, where they typically serve as path lighting. There are also special fixtures to be mounted under deck railings (these show off the railing’s details while casting light on shrubs or planters below), in strips (as with holiday lighting) or under water.


Exterior lighting often serves multiple purposes. Here, for example, the railing lights play up nice architectural details in a purely decorative function while also allowing for safe, secure passage between the house and yard.

There is, of course, plenty of blurring of functional boundaries among these basic types – spotlights to light pathways, path lights to highlight sculptures, rail or step lights to cast light on sculptures or mark paths. Getting to know these fixture types and how they’re used is a straightforward matter of working with them for a while – a learning curve I would not suggest inflicting on your clients. In many cases, your own backyard is the best experimental ground: Pick up some fixtures and be diligent in figuring out those situations in which they work best.

Finally, I never rest with what I’ve seen or what I think I know. To this day – after more than 20 years of installing landscape lighting systems – I still move fixtures around in my backyard on at least a monthly basis, just to see what effects might show up.

My point is, every client who asks you to do a full-scale exterior design will expect lighting to be part of the package. If the budget isn’t large enough to hire a lighting-design specialist or if there’s a chance that a project will be completed without any lighting at all, I see it as our responsibility to do what we can to ensure nighttime enjoyment of our work.


When you really get into lighting (as I have), you’ll find yourself thinking about the finer points of lighting selection, including lamp types, the angles at which they cast their light and the odd details of color temperature and how light makes objects it shines on appear to the human eye – but that’s a subject for a different column.

As I see it, the key to making things work, no matter who designs or installs the system or when, is anticipating the need from the start of a project, making some early judgments about where lighting connections are likely to be needed, and then placing sleeves and conduits where they’ll be most advantageous.


In certain settings, decorative illumination becomes a wonderfully playful design tool, creating festivals of light that welcome homeowners and their guests to spaces that have entirely different daytime appearances.

That’s the real problem with treating landscape lighting as an afterthought: Nothing bothers me more than the thought of all the cutting of flatwork, digging up of flowerbeds and awkward accommodation of wires and transformers that goes on every day because lighting isn’t on the agenda from the outset.

To use an analogy that should make sense to watershapers everywhere, it’s a bit like forgetting about the need to put a light in a pool or fountain until after all the finish work has been done. The thought of going back in, digging from the equipment pad and core-drilling the shell to accommodate a lighting niche would be more than enough to incline anyone involved to leave that watershape in perfect darkness.

All it takes is simple accommodation of a lighting system’s needs at the planning stage to make watershape lighting a relative breeze, and I would argue that the same is true with landscape lighting whether it’s installed first, last or even some years after other work has been completed.

The readiness is all.

Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky & Associates, Inc. a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, Bruce also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens – and labyrinths, too. You can reach him at [email protected].

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