Lighting The Way

By Sharon Naylor

February 19, 2010 6 min read

When the sun sets on a summer's night, your backyard space can transform into a wonderland scene that invites you to enjoy your terrace, gardens and pool areas long after darkness falls. All it takes is a fabulous lighting plan.

Beyond the functional accent lighting you might have set in your garden beds and along walkways already, there's a world of additional lighting effects that can turn your backyard living space into a more beautiful -- and more entertaining-ready -- space.

Achieving the perfectly lit backyard area calls for the trained eye of a lighting specialist, who can assess your space and educate you on the newest technologies and innovations in lighting effects. Tom Kretzschmar, president of Houston-based Illuminations Lighting Design, says that he starts off by assessing what your backyard area looks like when viewed through your windows, looking from the inside out. "I can then plan lighting outdoors to overcome the reflections on the glass that come from your inside lighting, which gives your backyard space more depth for you to enjoy," he says.

What's Kretzschmar's secret to planning the best lighting for different areas of your yard and garden? Knowing the unique special effects achieved by different kinds of lights. "Mercury vapor light is most complementary to trees, leaves and foliage by casting a blue-green light onto your landscaping elements, bringing out their various textures. Halogen lights are most complementary to the people who are enjoying your backyard scenery," providing a brighter white light, which most often is provided on a dimmer switch, to give that warmer glow that flatters their skin tones, Kretzschmar says. He says a dimmer switch is one of the most effective tools for flattering lighting in your entertaining areas.

*Lighting Decks and Seating Areas

In addition to dimmer switches, plan for direct brighter light in the cooking areas of your terrace. For a portable grill, Kretzschmar suggests surface or pendant lights. For a stationary cooking area or a bar, direct, brighter light is necessary so that you can see what you're doing -- and judge whether meat is cooked to perfection. This would call for ceiling-mounted spotlights or deck-mount lights custom-selected to illuminate your food prep areas.

For seating areas, hanging pendant lights are attractive and flattering to those who enjoy your space. David Beaulieu, a landscaping expert for, says, "Candlelight provides overtones of romance and serenity." So main dining tables and end tables are the perfect locations for safe hurricane lamps encasing flickering natural candlelight. Large gourd-shaped chimineas and portable fire pits allow for that "fireplace" effect of burning wood and add to your ambiance with that wonderful smell of real burning logs.

*Lighting Trees

Kretzschmar designs two different types of lighting to show off your trees. "Up-lighting," a single or series of two or three small lights set on the ground surrounding the base of the tree, "shows off the shape and form of the tree," he says. When you have a tree of unique shape or coloring, such as a red Japanese maple with a bright red bark, this type of lighting provides a wonderful focal point, preventing each gorgeous tree from disappearing into the darkness. Up-lighting, then, is for decoration, increasing the value of your landscaping dollar when your most beautiful trees come alive at night.

"Down-lighting out of the tree provides interesting shadows and provides the added benefit of extra security," Kretzschmar says.

Beaulieu says that using shepherd's hooks -- found at the garden supply store -- is an easy way to hang safely ensconced candles in your trees for added effect during parties.

*Lighting Water Features

Pools, ponds and spas might have their own underwater lighting systems already, providing a pretty glow at night. But if you're creating a new plan to light your water features, Kretzschmar advises using expertly placed spotlights -- mounted on various structures aboveground -- around your water accents for a better effect that's easier to maintain.

*What About Solar Lights?

Many homeowners have staked their lawns and gardens with solar lights. Kretzschmar says that's a quick, easy DIY solution that doesn't require any wiring. But with solar lighting systems, the nighttime effect may be dulled if a particular day was short on the sunshine needed to charge each solar fixture. "And I'm not sold on LED lights," he says. "The lighting industry is still in the development stage with LED technology," and many homeowners find that LEDs and solar lights produce only a weak glow.

Hiring a landscape lighting firm is most advisable because lighting specialists can illuminate your grounds and terrace dining spaces in ways you never dreamed possible, and -- perhaps most importantly -- they handle the wiring installation so that it is electrically safe and conforms to your area's legal codes for home improvements. An expert team also can hide any wiring or gear for the safest and most attractive finish to your design.

The result is a vast improvement on the beauty of your backyard living spaces, the gift of more hours to enjoy your home's prettiest and most relaxing areas, and an increase in the value of your home. Now, that's illuminating!

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