Lighting The Side Yard

I really don’t have a back yard.  My property occupies a corner.  A front, on two sides-that is a corner lot.  I am sure that lack of a private back yard influenced the original design and configuration of my driveway.  Made of brick, (I have replaced the deteriorating original brick with concrete brick) it is incredibly wide at the street. (picture those 1930’s Packards turning in)  The drive narrows like an hourglass to a little over 8 feet wide, half way up.  That narrow gap was an effort to provide a little privacy to the side yard.  After 16 years of twice daily practice, I am able to get my Suburban out 99% of the time, without scraping the wheels on the retaining walls. 

A pair of cast iron bloodhounds on concrete pedestals are awash in decent sized and fairly mature beds of hellebores-a favorite perennial. I look forward to seeing this every day-coming and going.  This makes it a natural candidate for some landscape lighting of the celebratory type.  I will soon be coming home after dark, and I don’t want to give up the view of my dogs.   

This first pass- the light is too close, and too hot.  The intense light creates shadows that make the dog look threatening. That is not my intention.  The idea is that I get a welcome home.  The winter season would be bearable, but for the gray and the dark.     

A pair of Galaxy magnolias are planted in the narrowest part of the drive.  They have been there long enough to make a green arbor of magnolia branches overhead.  That narrow spot is the darkest spot on my property.  A big stand of dark green Picea Mucrunulatum and taxus densiformis make this moment in my landscape feel like a black hole in the winter.   

I don’t mind some stronger light here.  It helps me to get through the driveway isthmus without incident.  OInce the magnolias have dropped their leaves, the light be be much more subtle.  This landscape lighting helps me navigate. 

A friend found these Arts and Crafts style vintage light fixtures for me-they are perfect on either side of the garage.  They are always on.  Summer and winter.  Day and night.  I never tire of seeing them.  Early on a spring morning, or late on a summer day, they let me know they are there.  

Once the skies go dark, they help light my way.  Good landscape lighting is as much about function as beauty.  Though no light could ever possibly be as beautiful, in all of its variations, as natural light, the invention of electricity did indeed change the landscape. 

A flight of stone stairs begin at the driveway, and end in the upper level fountain garden.  My giant old Norway maple is a benign host to 3 spotlights that light up the drive where I park, and those stairs.  This light from above illuminates my path to the garage door, and to the upper garden, should I decide to go that route.  This lighting is not so much about a favorite landscape feature as it is about safe passage. 

Buck shut the fountain down yesterday.  It is clogged with leaves, and the weather is too chilly to linger here.  This is my most unfavorite day of the gardening year.  Water in a garden is enchanting.  serene.  sparkly and lively.  I hate having to give it up.  Next weekend he will drain the water from the fountain.  I have always disliked the coming of the end for this garden. 

Lighting from high in the Princeton Gold maples makes it easy for me to keep track of the Corgis after work.  The lighting also transforms this garden into another garden particular to the season.  My bedroom has a window that looks out on the fountain.  All winter long I keep the shade half up, and the window slightly open.  The lighting will allow me to enjoy this part of my garden, no matter the weather.

I do have a flight of stairs to the rose garden.  The stone is rough, and uneven.  For months after my knee replacement, Buck helped me walk up these stairs.  My new knee now-perfect.  But I would not walk up there stairs in the dark. 

Buck and I usually have dinner late-7:30-sometimes 8:30.  I take the Corgis out for a final constitutional, after dinner.  Milling around in the complete and utter dark with them-not my idea of a swell time.  I love these downlights in my maples.  Lighting a landscape might help provide more of what you need from a great garden than what is apparent on a summer day.  My idea?  Light, whether it be from the sky, or the end result of an electrical connection, is an important element of landscape design.  The landscape at night-a different sort landscape experience.    



Lighting The Landscape

The landscape lighting I have at home was confined to some path lights along my front walk-nothing else.  The path lights had all but disappeared into the boxwood, given how much it has grown since those lights were installed.  In the summer, it is easy to see and navigate the steps coming up to the front door.  Once the days get shorter and the weather cold, I am not out here.  But every time we have company in the late fall or winter, I worry that someone will trip and fall.  Last winter, two older dinner guests fell into the boxwood.  They thought it was hilarious-I was mortified.  It was time to call a lighting person.  Lighting the landscape serves multiple purposes.  It helps provide for safe passage, it provides security, and it can add another dimension to the late fall and winter garden. 


My front porch is enclosed; their are 4 porch lights on the inside.  This is not much help to someone walking up the steps to the front door.  The glare from the inside light made the porch steps and front door even darker.  My first request-a pair of small spot lights mounted on the underhang which would illuminate the door.  That warm light from these two small fixtures does a good job of saying “we are expecting you”.  Second on my list-the path lights buried in the boxwood.

Path lights direct the light down and to the side.  Light shining into the eyes of someone walking up would make the trip even more difficult.  The metal hats direct the light where it needs to be.  Once the new risers were installed, the front walk was illuminated such that anyone could walk up comfortably and confidently. 

The lighting designer suggested lighting the walls of the front of the house.  That fire brick from the 1930’s is lovely.  Washing the walls with light at night features that architectural detail, and the relationship of the house to the landscape.  These wider fixtures illuminate a wider area than a spot light, or path light. 

Placing the fixture in the right spot can be tricky.  The fixtures in my landscape are strictly utilitarian.  They are only as big as they need to be, and they are black.  I did not want to see them during the day.  Not only do they need to be hidden from the daytime view, they need to be the right distance and angle from the wall so as to wash the wall with light.  A wall drenched with light might be a good idea for a commercial building or a theatre production, but can easily overwhelm a residential landscape. 

I have a container planted with a yew topiary at each end of the house; they  I did want to softly light them.  A pair of fixtures can be seen at the bottom of this picture.  As the fixture needed to be disguised in the boxwood, I needed two lights in order to get the light to cover the pot evenly. 

The light on the right brushes the boxwood a little too harshly.  The bottom of the pot has no light.  For obvious reasons, a landscape contractor has to do the work of the installation during the day.  This makes it very important to contract with someone who is willing to look at the job at night, and make any necessary changes. 

The original path lights on risers solved the issue of lighting the walk.  Though I do not have very many people coming to my front door, how this looks at night is attractive and warm.  The best antidote I know of for the winter blues is some light. 

I also have 4 pots which face the street.  They are perfectly visible in the summer, but I fill them with twigs, greens, and other materials of the season for the winter.  Though I put lights in my pots, an evenly applied landscape light on the face will permit those pots to be seen all winter.  Given that it is dark here by 5pm in the winter, that lighting will be much appreciated.  Though I am not out there in the winter, I drive by my house every day on my way to the driveway.

For some years I have been pruning the yew hedge on the street side of the pots so the entire pot and planting could be seen, top to bottom.  This pair of spotlights are unobtrusive during the day, but will be very effective at night.

On the first go around, it seemed to me that the lights were too close to the pots, and the wattage too high.  This look might be great around the holidays, when too much light is enough to make you smile, but for an average gloomy winter day, it is too bright.  We have since moved the lights further away, and dialed down the wattage.

The light is too strong here too.  There should not be any light pattern on the wall; the light itself should be dim, and even.  The light on the topiary is so strong that the color is washed out.

From this picture I have been able to make changes.  The front porch lights will stay as they are-strong in a downward direction.  The path lights do the job they need to do, in the same downward direction.  The lighting on the walls and pots-much too strong.  A lighting scheme needs as much simplicity as a good landscape scheme.  Subtle and useful lighting takes time and patience to achieve, but I think I am going to be happy with the results.