De­sign ideas

In the first of a new series, de­signer Matt Keight­ley looks at how a con­sid­ered light­ing scheme can bring your gar­den to life af­ter dark


In the first of a new series de­signer Matt Keight­ley looks at how a light­ing scheme can bring am­bi­ence and drama to your gar­den

One of my favourite times to spend in the gar­den is the golden hour – that bliss­fully tran­quil, yet fleet­ing mo­ment when day meets night and the light trans­forms and en­hances ev­ery ele­ment in the space. That sense of ex­cite­ment, of watch­ing evolv­ing shad­ows dance across a path doesn’t have to end once the sun has set. You can cre­ate the same en­ergy, move­ment and depth with a light­ing scheme, pro­vided you treat it with sub­tlety.

When I’m plan­ning a gar­den, I spend hours con­tem­plat­ing its as­pect and ori­en­ta­tion to es­tab­lish how the sun tracks around the space, and how this will cre­ate light and shadow in the gar­den through­out the day. Light­ing should be given the same con­sid­er­a­tion. Crit­i­cal to the bal­ance of any light­ing scheme is the in­ter­play be­tween light and shadow and how this af­fects our per­cep­tion of a space. Light­ing can cre­ate depth, ma­nip­u­late per­spec­tive, and en­hance tex­ture, colour and struc­ture. What mat­ters is how you chose to do so.

If you look to na­ture for in­spi­ra­tion you’ll no­tice how the sun’s shad­ows vary de­pend­ing on how high it is in the sky, whether there is water to re­flect its light and il­lu­mi­nate sur­round­ing ar­eas, and the tex­ture of a plant­ing scheme. The same is true of ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing. You’ll cre­ate a very dif­fer­ent ef­fect if you place a light at the foot of a tree than if you po­si­tion it a me­tre away. In fact the same light and tree can be com­bined to con­jure up an al­most end­less ar­ray of ef­fects de­pend­ing on whether you choose to up­light the tree, back­light it or di­rect the beam to­wards the crown and each can be var­ied by chang­ing the an­gle of the beam or the wattage of the bulb. It’s worth ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent ef­fects and tri­alling dif­fer­ent fit­tings be­fore you fi­nalise your scheme. As with many as­pects of gar­den de­sign, it re­quires de­tailed and care­ful plan­ning to make a light­ing scheme seem ef­fort­less.

There are two prin­ci­ples that should guide your choices. The first is func­tion­al­ity. Af­ter dark you need lights sim­ply to en­sure you can move eas­ily and com­fort­ably around your gar­den, and keep you safe when it comes to nav­i­gat­ing steps or even cook­ing out­side. These don’t need to be the kind of flash­ing lights that help you find the near­est fire exit, they can, and should, al­ways be treated with as much sub­tlety as pos­si­ble so they ef­fort­lessly blend with the wider scheme. Rather than mark a path with lights along its length con­sider light­ing nearby shrubs or trees in­stead. The de­flected light will cast suf­fi­cient light for you to see where you’re go­ing but in a more at­trac­tive way, which brings us to the sec­ond prin­ci­ple: am­bi­ence. This is cre­ated by light­ing that has a purely aes­thetic pur­pose. It’s the type of light­ing that can evoke an emo­tional re­sponse and bring your gar­den to life. Am­bi­ent lights can be used to high­light key fea­tures, such as a spec­i­men tree, or draw at­ten­tion to dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the gar­den invit­ing peo­ple to ex­plore and dis­cover more, or sim­ply pro­vide the light to sit and eat at a ta­ble.

The type of lights you choose will de­pend on which of these prin­ci­ples is your pri­or­ity, but the more dis­creet and sub­tle your light­ing the more at­mos­phere and drama you will cre­ate. What you want to avoid is find­ing your­self or your guests sit­ting in the harsh glare of a lamp. Oc­ca­sion­ally, you will need to have a light fit­ting on show, but these should be kept to a min­i­mum; any light­ing scheme should be less about the fit­ting and more about the ef­fect.

Turn the page for more ideas on light­ing.


A ground-level strip light be­hind the statue sub­tly washes the back­drop in light cre­at­ing a strik­ing sil­hou­ette and high­light­ing the statue’s form and struc­ture. Dis­creet LED strips mounted in a be­spoke track un­der the stone cre­ate a beau­ti­ful ef­fect and pre­vent the glare often seen in sur­face­mounted fit­tings. The warm wash pro­vides just enough light to help il­lu­mi­nate level changes with­out be­ing too harsh. Spike lights placed at the base of trees are typ­i­cally the most ver­sa­tile choice of fit­ting. They work for many rea­sons – cre­at­ing a warm glow at the base of the tree, sil­hou­et­ting sur­round­ing fo­liage tex­tures, high­light­ing char­ac­ter­ful stems and pick­ing out the un­der­side of del­i­cate fo­liage in the crown of the tree. In­tro­duc­ing can­dles, lanterns or a fire place adds the fin­ish­ing touch to a light­ing scheme. The flicker of flames cre­ates gen­tle shadow move­ment, which in turn en­hances the am­bi­ence.

Ad­just the an­gle of the beam un­der trees, to cast dra­matic shad­ows around the sur­round­ing space and cre­ate depth in the gar­den at night. The move­ment of leaves in the breeze can be truly mes­meris­ing. Re­peat­ing your light­ing tech­nique down the length of the gar­den (in this case us­ing spike lights to up­light the trees), pro­vides rhythm and di­rec­tion, sys­tem­at­i­cally draw­ing at­ten­tion to the light source and en­cour­ag­ing vis­i­tors to travel through the gar­den.

Matt Keight­ley is an award-win­ning de­signer and two-time win­ner of the Peo­ple’s Choice Award at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. He is head de­signer at Lon­don­based land­scap­ing firm Rose­bank.

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