Using Outdoor Lighting to Enhance Garden Designs

The same four functions of light that we use inside play a role in outdoor lighting as well.

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outdoor lighting
Photo: Randall Whitehead

As we continue to sit stewing in our homes for the safety of ourselves and others, we look for activities that will give some meaning to this very strange time. I’ve divided people into groups. There is no science behind this. It is purely empirical on my part. There are the Organizers, the Bakers, and the Gardeners. This does not include everyone who’s in their twenties and thirties. They are all making videos for TikTok, which I am enjoying way too much.

The Organizers have taken spring cleaning to a whole new level. They are going through drawers and closets, attics and basements. They are looking at every item and deciding whether it brings them joy (thank you, Marie Kondo). Baseboards and cove moldings are being cleaned for the first time in years…or ever.  Paper bags and plastic bags are being sorted and recycled.  The dead bugs are getting cleaned out of a ceiling fixtures and light bulbs are being upgraded to dimmable LED versions. If you are in this group, then OCD is A-OK.

The Bakers have created a shortage of flour and yeast. Suddenly, everyone is baking bread and posting pictures of said bread on Instagram. Cookies, cakes and pies were followed by tarts and cobblers. These households are like stationery cruise ships where there was always a display of desserts. Because of the bakers, America has been growing incrementally larger. 

I did go through the Organizer phase, but I got tired of that after the first few months. Then I turned my eyes to the garden, which many other people have done as well. It makes sense. We have the ability to create these outdoor rooms which are an extension of our homes. We don’t feel so trapped when we can go outside, even if it’s just a balcony. The garden centers are doing a land-office business.  Ficus and ferns are flying out the door. Boy, I do love alliteration.

Once these outdoor areas have been updated or created, we want to enjoy the fruits of our labor after sunset, in addition to the daytime hours. This, of course, is where lighting comes into play. The same four functions of light (task, accent, decorative, and ambient) that we use inside, play a role outside as well.

Task lighting gets us safely from one area to the other. This encompasses pathway and stair illumination. 

Accent lighting is used to highlight foliage, sculpture, water features and architecture.

Decorative lighting includes the lanterns installed on the house, as well as hanging fixtures in a pergola or gazebo

Ambient light is a little more challenging. If you have outside structure with a roof, then you can bounce light off of the ceiling. If there is no ceiling, then you can create one by using strings of lights.  They offer a welcoming glow for these newly updated outdoor rooms.

Layering these four functions together is what creates a cohesive design. It’s OK to let the decorative fixtures add a little sparkle but don’t let them visually overpower the garden.  Keep their lumen outputs low and shield the accent lights. You can then focus on the plantings and seating areas.

outdoor lighting
Photo: Dennis Anderson. Lighting Design: Randall Whitehead

This backyard actually comes alive at night. The terracing adds some depth and dimension to the landscaping. A curved wall with a fireplace surrounds the seating area. Adjustable well lights (accent lights that are recessed into the ground) project light up onto the wall.  They offer a visual hug of ambient light.  Color changing LED lighting in the whirlpool tub invites people in for a dip.

outdoor lighting
Photo: Dennis Anderson. Lighting Design: Randall Whitehead

You can see what the yard looks during the day.  It is fantastic while the sun is out, but it becomes truly magical at night

outdoor lighting
Photo: Randall Whitehead

LED string lights can do a wonderful job of creating a secondary ceiling line. This helps make the outdoor seating area feel cozier, as does the portable gas fire pit. A triangular piece of outdoor rated cloth helps diffuse the light and offers a little protection from a sudden shower.

outdoor lighting
Photo: Randall Whitehead

Pathway lights by themselves will make your yard look like an airport landing strip. The house itself, completely disappears.  Other layers of illumination need to be added in.

outdoor lighting
Photo and Lighting Design: Randall Whitehead

Planting hostas, like we see here, or other types of low-level plantings, give the task lights something to illuminate besides the pathway. These copper fixtures will weather over time into a verde gris finish which blends quite nicely into the plantings. Other accent lights are used to highlight the taller plantings and trees, along with the façade of the house. 

outdoor lighting
Photo and Lighting Design: Randall Whitehead

Use the taller trees to install accent lights on the branches pointing downwards to illuminate the plantings below, along with the pathway. They should have a color temperature of 3000 K with a CRI of 90. This cooler hue will keep the plants looking crisp and green.

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. It is due out August 2021.

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


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