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Magical Garden Night Lighting

By Steven V. Philips –

As I view the Philips Estate’s vast land holdings, I see areas needing a touch of work due to winter frost. OK, total resuscitation. But my garden still looked passable on winter nights. “At night, as in-the-dark?” say you, thinking me (more) daft. Pay attention say I.

The Philips Estate’s family room plus the living room has 16 feet of sliding doors opening to the pool area, with views of the garden beyond. When we first moved in, the garden view was wonderful during the day.

But at night, the garden was a black hole. From inside it was like looking into a mirror. The garden vanished. And even when entertaining or dining on the pool deck, the darkness prevailed. Fun stopped at the edge of 100-watts.

So, the first thing I did was to install (on a timer) flood-lights high up, pointing outward. They go on at full intensity for an hour at dusk, dim down for four more hours and then shut off. Long enough to enjoy the garden before nighty-night. If my mother-in-law, or a raccoon, prowls by, the motion sensors cause a re-light for 10 minutes. But while these lights illuminate the big and tall, other plant specimens are minimized in the shadows. I observed that I needed more and different kinds of lighting. A little low-level romantic illumination, oui? So the next thing I added was low-voltage (12-volt) lighting.

Now a brief commercial message. There are (literally) five million Internet sites that discuss and/or show higher-quality solar plus low-volt wired, as well as regular powered (110 volt) garden lights. These are in addition to what we peasants find in local big-box stores. Since 110-volt lights require actual electricians, the following are some thoughts for my fellow big-box-store peasants regarding the systems that we can buy and install ourselves. What follows is the do-it-yourself part.

 

Solar. Buy ’em and stick ’em in the ground wherever you desire. Anywhere. Quick, easy and no wires to limit your flexibility. But if no sun today, no light tonight. However despite that due-to-nature blackout, if you go solar stick with the metal fixtures. The plastic $4 ones are worth no-dollars. They die before your credit card statement arrives. And solar gives out pretty much the same glow – no brightening these candles’ output. Yeah, and the ambience simulates airport runway lights.

12-volt lights.  These have a long wire, starting at the black box (transformer) which is plugged into your outside electrical outlet (110 volts). Lay the wire along the ground, wherever you want, in your garden. You then attach the light fixtures (spots, various path-lights) to that wire.

There are kits that come with everything included, but if you get creative, or need to illuminate a larger area, you’ll buy the pieces separately. This is where you ask for advice from the nice person at Big Box. Wire size, fixtures’ specifications, transformer wattage, etc., now become important.

Why do I favor the safer 12-volt lights? I can install them. So can you. 110-volt lighting needs a pro installation, unless you like electrocuting wildlife, watching your house burn or desire hot wires in your begonias. But the real reason is that the low glow of 12-volt lights way in the back, give an illusion that your garden goes on and on. With spots, you can define certain plants that bend into the landscape by day. Same holds true for pathways and water-features. So lighting your garden, at both levels, lets you enjoy it all of your waking hours. Unless you nap a lot. Think about your lights forming layers that go from a soft moonlight wash to a brighter stage where you need to see to eat, pour a drink, etc. If you have white flowers in your garden, you’ll see that night lights make them look magical.

Here are my tips for success with your garden night lights:

  • Manufacturers of 12-volt products vary in their quality as well as in details of construction. Go metal, not plastic. Check the ease of re-lamping fixtures or spring for after-market long-life xenon bulbs. And make note of the type/number of the bulb when new, are they fade with age and vary widely. Or go to LEDs and eliminate bulb changing.
  • To get your lights’ positions just perfect, string out the wire first. Duh. Then temporarily clip on the fixtures. Grill lightly in your creative brain as to how they appear at night. Then saute to taste for a week. Obviously, move them if necessary. Lastly throw some mulch over the wires. (This will cause you to forget where they are and probably cut them later for future garden fun and excitement but you won’t die)
  • The connectors that link the fixtures to the wire also vary. Some are easier to attach than others. In cold reality, hard-wiring the joints works best. That means cutting the main wire, cutting off the connectors that come with the fixture, then twisting the bare wires together and using special waterproof outdoor connectors for each joint. Sounds complicated but a chimp can do it. And by doing this, you’ll employ our simian friends and later the fixtures won’t go out ka-flooie due to failed connections.
  • After deriding solar, I still think it’s fun to see them perched up high, or hither and yon, and glowing. Just know that sun has to always hit them to recharge them daily. But, solar lights can reward a garden with random and changing surprise.

7 Responses to “Magical Garden Night Lighting”

  1. Cyndi says:

    Too funny my husband just installed these wonderful low voltage LED lights out on the dock. They fit flush with the post and have these wonderful slates that put the light right where it is needed. Down on the dock. They are about the size of a quarter. Amazing light! I totally agree with the solar issues.
    Thanks for enlightening our knowledge on lights!

  2. Eleanor Sage says:

    Well, isn’t this just the cutest little idea since using Picky Stardust, sprinkled in MY garden. We need lights on three foot posts up here in the North, to get above the snow blanket. Lighting a winter garden could be very attractive.

  3. Elmer N Columbus says:

    A truly illuminating story full of exciting enlightenment.

    My backyard (much smaller than the Phillips Estate) is very urban. Even though I only need 2 or 3 lights for the entire area I feel that I’m now better equipped to make intelligent illumination choices! I guess that it’s time to retire my flashlight too when I retire at night!

  4. Dori says:

    Reading Mr. Phillip’s description was very “illuminating”. I think I need to spend more time upgrading my own garden both with new plantings and lighting. His article made garden lighting sound so fun and rewarding.

  5. Lynn says:

    Lots of good info! I can’t wait to have a garden someday. Mr. Philips – do you help with landscaping too?

  6. Meredith says:

    The Philips Estate sounds wonderful. I hope to see it one day in person to get some more ideas.

  7. Lindak says:

    Not the gardener in the family but will pass the article to the person who is. Interesting for a lay person!

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