Lighting Up a Garden of Earthly Delights

Lighting up outdoor spaces allow people to spend more time outdoors, especially now when we are sheltering in place.

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The Lighting Doctor, Landscape Lighting
Randall Whitehead discusses how exterior lighting can elevate a space.

I think that with all of this sheltering-in-place is making us re-access our outdoor spaces, at least those of us have a little patch of green. Consider adding some exterior lighting, it has a lot of benefits. The biggest one being that you can create outdoor rooms, expanding the living space.  During this pandemic, we are staying close to home as much as possible, and the walls of our homes can start to feel like they are closing in on us. Having a refuge outside can really make a difference. Some people with sufficient yard space are adding little auxiliary buildings that can serve as offices. This is a good idea, especially as we learn how to work from home for the time being, and most likely into the future.

If you do decide to add one of these getaway spaces, lighting-wise, treat them like a room in your home. Get some ambient light in there, along with task, accent and decorative.  Don’t just plug in a desk lamp.

Randall Whitehead, outdoor lighting
An outbuilding in the backyard can serve nicely as an office space, or just a place to escape. Photo: Randall Whitehead.


This Balinese teahouse (shown above) came as a kit, like  something from Ikea. Its only 10 x10 feet, but because it has a high ceiling and three floor-to-ceiling glass walls, it feels much larger. All lighting was added. The ceiling has four sections that slope inward toward the center apex. A large pendant fixture hangs down from that intersection. A floor lamp adds another layer of inviting illumination to the mix.

Along the perimeter of the pitched ceiling, indirect LED lighting was installed to create calming ambient illumination. A color temperature of 2400 K with a CRI of 93 was selected to warm up the space. It is the color of dimmed incandescent. It enhances the look of the wood. If you look outside, the color of the light is cooler (3000 K) to keep the plantings looking healthy and vibrant. The juxtaposition of the two different color temperatures adds to the allure of the garden. Snow looks particularly good under a cooler color temperature. Nobody likes yellow snow.

For this project, surface mounted directional fixtures have been installed under the eaves of the teahouse, directing light onto the foliage from above. This technique works nicely for snowy areas, as well as homes where there are kids or pets that might knock over luminaires that are installed at ground level.

Speaking of where you install the lighting, it really depends on what kind winters occur in your part of the country. Places that have snow, should not install pathway lighting which is close to the ground. It will simply get buried if the snow is more than 12 inches deep. It’s better to install this task lighting in the trees, under eaves or use tall bollard fixtures which direct light downwards.

Both the lighting for the teahouse and the landscape lighting are controlled by a wireless dimming system. There is a controller installed on the wall next to the back door and there is a hand-held device in the teahouse.

the Lighting Doctor, outdoor lighting
A glimpse through the window shows how creating areas of light and shadow give depth to the garden. Photo: Randall Whitehead.

Another advantage of adding illumination is that it keeps the windows from becoming ‘black mirrors’ at night. This is where you end up seeing your own reflection instead of the view beyond. By adding more light outside than inside the windows become increasingly transparent, like they are during the day. This also increases your sense of safety because you’re not looking out into the inky darkness. Plus, it visually expands the interior spaces at night, so that the inside of the house feels less confining, especially now, while we are sheltering-in-place. Even if you only have a balcony, the feeling of expanded space can really lessen your feeling of confinement.

Randall Whitehead, landscape lighting
In regions where the temperatures are more temperate, the foliage tends to stay green all year long. Don't let all this beauty hide in the darkness. Photo: Randall Whitehead. 

In the image above, wooden steps lead up to a 9-foot tall, framed mirror which is mounted on the property line fence. It gives the illusion of a doorway with another garden beyond. Lighting installed in the taller trees and under the eaves of the teahouse wash the area with an intriguing pattern of light and shadow.

The direction of light also plays a role. Take a look at these three images below. Each shows a different way of illuminating the same section of a stone wall. The change is quite dramatic. None of these are a wrong choice. It just depends on if you want to make it a feature wall or you want is to fade into the background. Plus, do you want to enhance the texture of the stonework or even it out? This the transformative magic of lighting.

Lighting Doctor, external lighting
Here, the lighting is hitting the stone wall from above. Photo: Randall Whitehead.

Lighting Doctor, Landscape Lighting
Here, the lighting is hitting the stone wall from below. Photo: Randall Whitehead


Randall Whitehead, landscape lighting
In this image, the lighting is washing the stone wall from the front. Photo: Randall Whitehead. 


Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead is an educator and author on the subject of lighting design. His work has been featured in many magazines, including Architectural Digest, Home & Garden and Esquire. He has appeared as a guest expert on HGTV, Discovery, CNN and Martha Stewart Living Radio.

His Latest book Beautiful Light outlines how to create successful and subtly beautiful LED lighting designs for homes and gardens. Available through Amazon and Rutledge Books.

You can see his entertaining 1-minute instructional videos at And you can follow him on Instagram:  @randall.whitehead


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