Written by Jennifer Michalik, Outdoor Living Manager, Hydro-Scape

Landscape lighting design is an art. The good news is that you don’t actually have to be an artist, you just need to think like one. That, My Friends, is the intent of this article. You’ll get the basic information you’ll need to understand the canvas you’ll be working with (your landscape), the paint you’ll be using (types of lights) and the brushstrokes you’ll need (the types of fixtures.) Believe me, your world will become a brighter place.

The Canvas – Your Landscape

Lighting may typically be the last element added to your landscape, but it is certainly not the least important. Just as your landscape has different heights and depths, so should your lighting. While that may already sound overwhelming, it’s really not. I usually start designing with the functional light needed in the landscape.  The saying, “Safety first” comes to mind here. Think about driveways, pathways, steps and even barbecue grills for example. Functional lighting is simply that which you must include in your work of art.

Once you’ve determined functional lighting, you can move on to the more detailed form of lighting. Take a look around the landscape and identify elements you’d like to see at night. Typically, those are focal points such as trees, water features, boulders or even architectural features for example. Once you’ve selected those elements, choose only the most important (or impactful) items within that group to light.  For example, if you light every tree, you could lose some of the artistic impact because you’ll actually have too much of the same type of element lit up.

Now comes the really fun part!  You get to mix function with form to create your masterpiece. Look at the functional elements along with the form elements. Look at the different heights and depths (locations) of those elements combined. Imagine those elements being lit up all at the same time to make sure you’ll have a mix of heights and depths lit, and you’re on your way!

The Paint – Types of LED Lighting

We could go on for days about different types of LED lighting (or about any of this, actually), but we’re going to focus on two simple concepts: Beam Spread and Temperature.

Beam Spread: The easiest way to describe beam spread is to think of how wide of a space the LED lamp will light. To explain, a 15 degree beam spread is very narrow and is considered to be a spotlight. It’s probably best to light something narrow and tall, like a palm tree, for example. A 60 degree beam spread is very wide and is considered to be a flood light. It’s used to light something wide but perhaps not as tall, like a tree with a leafy canopy. Landscapes will typically include a variety of beam spreads based on the elements being illuminated.

Color Temperature: So this is where some science comes in. Since we’re talking design, I’m going to omit the scientific explanation and break it down for you. First off, ‘temperature’ has nothing to do with how hot the LED lamp gets.  Instead, think of light as being a ‘warm’ color or a ‘cool’ color.  A warm light has an orange/red hue, while a cool light has a blue hue.  LED lamp temperatures are described based on the Kelvin Color temperature chart.  The higher the Kelvin, the cooler the light. The lower the Kelvin, the warmer the light. Very generally, I stick to the same Kelvin color temperature within a given landscape. There are always exceptions, though, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The Brushstrokes – Lighting Fixtures

LED landscape lighting fixtures come in hundreds of thousands of shapes and sizes. (Sorry, but that’s the truth.) Good news is you don’t need to know them all. Really you just need to know the type of fixture you want to use and then you can select the style that suits your landscape. Here are a few of the most common types of fixtures:

Uplights create strong effects and bold shadows. By aiming the lights up into a tree or on an architectural feature, a contrast of bright light and dark shadows is created.

Pathlights can light a path (no surprise), but can also create subtle downlighting.

Steplights are functional, but attractive, lights that are installed in steps for safety. Steplights have evolved over time.  Now there are choices as to if you actually see the steplight fixture versus seeing more of just the light it produces.

Downlights are very similar in concept to uplights, but you guessed it, are pointed down. Downlights can create a ‘moonlight’ effect when installed in trees, or may work to accent architectural features.

Wall washes are generally flood lights (so wide beam spread lamps) that ‘flood’ a wall with light.

You made it! Now that you understand your canvas, paint and brushstrokes, you can move on to selecting the actual fixtures you want to install. There’s so much to talk about and so little time! I’m really feeling like we need a “Part 2” for that, so perhaps next month we should pick up where we left off. Meet you here next month…