Designing Outdoor Spaces for Evening Enjoyment with Outdoor Lighting

“While we often think of plants as giving a garden definition, it may be more accurate to say that light holds its complete identity.  Without light, there is no color, no line, no shape, no form.  Darkness swallowing a garden whole, enfolding its shadowy depths, where it lies in wait to be reborn in the morning.” P Allen Smith

During long winter months, gardeners itching to get their hands dirty are often going through garden catalogues dreaming of what to plant. With a barren landscape to ponder, take your armchair garden designing in another direction this year.  Look at your space with a fresh, critical eye to study its structure, flow and function. Think of how many hours you actually enjoy your garden space. For many of us, daylight hours are spent away from our outdoor spaces. Ask yourself what would make it easier to use the garden at night?  What would make your garden come to life after sundown? How can you extend the use of your garden by adding lighting? How can you make your outdoor spaces an inviting destination after dark? In hotter climates, being able to enjoy a garden at night when it is cooler is of utmost importance.  Is your goal to dine al fresco more often? Do you want to sit quietly in a mood lit corner after dark to enjoy a glass of wine or a coffee?  Your outdoor spaces can enchant by day and seduce by night when adding the right kind of lighting.

Simple fixes in lighting can improve esthetics, boost ambiance, direct focus to a feature such as a water fountain, a pond, an architectural structure or to a special plant or tree. Years ago when we first moved into our home, one of the first improvements we did was design the outdoor spaces.  Because we would be adding hard scaping, we hired a designer.  A large component of the design included lighting.  Prior to this, I had not given much thought to after-dark lighting.  Now it is my favorite time to be in my garden thanks to the magical night lighting.

In this post I will discuss both hard wired lighting and temporary lighting.  Always consider the impact of the lighting on neighbors and do not direct light at them.

Functional lighting is necessary for safety and to light paths and gathering areas.  The best lighting looks natural .  Be selective: less is more.  If ovelit, you will sacrifice ambiance and mystery.  Think of defining/limiting the space that is used after dark with targeted lighting. Create a sense of enclosure in a private, envelopping space by using lighting creatively in the garden design.

My back patio, lit up at night. Note down lighting on garden walls, path lighting, feature lighting of a wall fountain and uplighting of a maple tree. More detailed, close up views to follow.

If you are planning a water feature in your garden, consider underwater lighting when designing it. If it’s already in place and no lighting consideration was given, you can always add temporary lighting by floating candles on the surface or candlelit orbs.

Spotlights can be used as up-lighting of trees. Uplighting is dramatic, unexpected and focused on a feature. Downlighting of a feature such as a pond or a pergola for example, is also lovely and will seem most natural, like moonlight. Light should be flattering, subtle and not blaring or bold. Open foliage shrubs such as Japanese maples can cast lovely shadows when under lit. Layer. Get your functional and task lighting installed first, then add lighting to create a mood. Think dual purpose. Choose fixtures that are functional but also add flair and a sculptural quality to the yard, even when they’re turned off. Our wall lights are artisan-made perforated copper enclosures that are lovely in the daytime but truly magical at night.

By day, the perforated copper lights are suble accents that are still attractive.(Escort Lighting).

Timers are a must with low voltage lighting. Our outdoor patio lights go on at dusk and off at midnight whether we are entertaining or not. We enjoy looking at our garden lit up even from indoors as it expands our sight lines and highlights features. We never have to think about the lights.

Appealing to other senses in the night garden is also key to enhancing your enjoyment. Consider adding plants that release scent at night. One of my favorites is my fringe tree which releases a jasmine-like perfume after dark for about a month each spring. Star Jasmine vine is another fabulous choice. Plant white flowers (Angel’s Trumpet, Daturas) that can reflect moonlight or other garden lights. Think of sound: gentle rustling of leaves in a breeze adds another dimension of enjoyment in an evening garden. Although plant selection is not the goal of this article, there are many great references available to guide you in planting design. Excellent ones include Peter Loewer’s The Evening Garden, Liz Leendertz’s The Twilight Garden and Scott Ogden’s The Moonlit Garden.

Temporary Lighting:

When entertaining, get creative with adding additional light sources that are temporary. Candlelight is easily managed and directed where needed. It can also used to create some mystery and intrigue and bring in more intimate light sources.  String lights across a patio area.  There are fun novelty lights available now and you can even find strings of lights that are battery operated giving you options to hang them where you want, regardless of electric sources.  Wrap rope lights around tree trunks you want to highlight.

These mini hurricanes on a stick serve to both provide additional candlelight during a party but also to highlight the edge of a garden retaining wall to keep guests safe.

Party lighting is fun and can really set the mood.  Path lighting can be created with luminaries, tiki torches, lanterns or hurricanes-on-sticks like those above.

Lanterns are easy sources of instant lighting and spark an enchanting glow.  They are helpful in ighting paths, welcoming visitors to the garden after dark and can be directed for practical task or safety lighting.  Ambiance can be created with a hanging candelabra above a table. A similar effect can be achieved by hanging mason jar hurricanes or hanging lanterns off garden structures, from shepherd’s hooks or off tree branches.  To make them worry-free, consider flame-free, battery-operated candles. I often group several small hanging lanterns off a pergola near a dining table for extra lighting during entertaining.

No lanterns?  Any open top glass vessel can be transformed into a lantern.  This dramatic hurricane light was created by seating a berry wreath on top of a garden urn and placing a glass hurricane on top to hold a large pillar candle. The candle light is both functional and enchanting. Metal wire baskets can corral flame-free candles and serve as a makeshift lantern that can be hung or rested on a table or garden wall.  Battery-operated fairy lights are versatile and can be hung anywhere or bunched up in a glass vessel to give the same effect as a hurricane or lantern.

A candelabra above a dining table sets a lovely mood.

A string of dragonfly lights lights up a floral centerpiece for a big dose of whimsy.

For an Oktoberfest party, I set votive candles in large glass beer mugs on the bar for a fun take on the party theme. (Sorry I could not crop this pic.)

Gathering around a firepit is always a big party hit.

Lanterns are movable and can direct extra lighting where needed.

This snowflake novelty string of lights is strung between 2 palm trees in a Florida garden, a nod to the vacationers fleeing the winter weather. They are on a timer and come on at dusk.


The next time you are in the market for a patio umbrella consider one with built-in lighting. This one has a solar battery that keeps them charged. The lighting is subtle and magical at night.

By day, the umbrella provides shade.

I hope this post has been helpful to have you look at your outdoor space with fresh eyes and consider night lighting to maximize its enjoyment after dark.

Garden Design by Brad Groff at York, PA firm, Rivervalley Landscapes

Copper landscape lights by Escort Lighting