15 Jun 2021

How to Light Up Your Outdoor Spaces

In this article, Sally Storey, Creative Director at John Cullen Lighting, offers her professional advice on choosing a lighting scheme for outdoor spaces.


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Garden lighting follows similar principles to interior lighting. Think about adding layers of light and then building up different effects to create a balanced design. However, the solutions are different. In small gardens, one tends to light the whole area like a room, and the outdoor space is treated as an extension of the interior space. With extensive gardens, knowing what to light and what not to light is essential. Consider the terrace immediately by the house as more of a room and then decide what to light beyond.

A little light can go a long way at night, so select key focal points to be lit – ideally features that look good whatever the season. Sometimes these features can be surrounded by darkness, and in other situations, they can be illuminated by linking elements. These focal points could be sculptures, pavilions or trees. Evergreen trees are best for year-round focus, but some deciduous varieties can look pleasingly sculptural even once they have shed their leaves in winter. How they are lit will depend on their shape and size.

What is essential in all gardens is to light something close to the house so that the eye is drawn outside the glazing. Then gaps are filled in with light to link the features. In large gardens, one concept is to light the immediate garden and then allow darkness to be celebrated before a key feature – like a sculpture, summer house or impressive tree – is lit in the distance.

When planning a large garden’s lighting, you can break down the key elements to consider into the illumination of paths, steps, sculpture, trees, walls, water and features. Do not be afraid of darkness, as this plays an integral part in a well-lit garden. Understanding the balance of light and shadow is a magical component in all lighting design.

A large garden may have a variety of smaller paths around it or routes to different areas. Sizeable gardens often have various rooms within them: a terrace with a barbeque and dining area, a kitchen garden, a swimming pool, a formal planted area, or a woodland meander, perhaps. These all need treating individually according to what they are like and how open or enclosed they are.

Lighting steps is obviously necessary from a safety point of view, but they can also provide dramatic or soft light for the garden. A path may be lit sporadically as a route finder, and the intensity of light should increase at the steps to ensure they are evenly lit.

Garden sculptures can make a garden. They can be a centrepiece to a formal garden creating the focal point amid an ornamental box parterre garden, or located in a wild planting bed, either incidentally or as the central point. Whatever the style and position, lighting the sculpture by night is essential, as one can create a permanent lighting effect. When lighting up planting, you must adjust this by seasons, but a sculpture remains the same year-round.

The small garden or courtyard in an urban environment should be considered an extra room and entertainment space. They provide a welcome extension of the interior space by day but can be forgotten at night – unless they are lit. They can act as an extra room, with exciting features to look at, so why block them out at night with curtains and blinds? A well-designed lighting scheme draws the eye outside to enjoy the garden features in a new way by night. And if the interior has large expanses of uncurtained glazing, lighting the exterior close to those windows will prevent them from becoming a black mirror at night.

Also, consider how your front garden will look at night too. This is the first impression that friends have when they arrive, so it sets the scene. A lantern on either side of the door creates a welcoming effect or a hanging lantern if there is a porch. A big don’t is to avoid security lights that are glary and wash the space with too much harsh light.

Finally, outdoor lighting needs a sound control system. It should be switched on when required and linked to a daylight sensor to prevent daytime operation.

To ensure your design can reach its full potential, you should consider the lighting design at the very beginning of a project before hard landscaping. The key to successful garden lighting, whatever the size, is flexibility.

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