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




Fall Alfresco Table Setting


“By all these lovely tokens September days are here,

With summer’s best of weather

And autumn’s best of cheer.”

Helen Hunt Jackson

When summer’s sultry heat has abated and the leaves have just started to turn is a wonderful time to enjoy some fall alfresco dining.  Take a cue from nature and highlight autumn’s gorgeous jewel shades in your table setting.  Start dinner a bit earlier to catch the setting sun and share some easy conversation around a table set under the early autumn sky.  Bring in some candlelight and break out the sweaters to stretch the evening under the stars.

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Fall Floral Centerpieces from the Garden


“Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the mind.” Luther Burbank

One of my favorite challenges is to create floral arrangements out of what is blooming in my garden, no matter the season.  Come fall, the selections are fewer but no less interesting.  I was hosting a large group recently and needed several floral arrangements to place throughout the house. I went foraging in my garden and this is what I was able to find to work with:

  • persicaria ‘Red Dragon’, for its pretty purple and green foliage
  • hydrangea, in various stages of colors from green to deep pinks
  • astilbe in its post flowering seed stage
  • a few yellow annual dahlias still blooming in a planter
  • hardy begonias both for their delicate pink flowers and for their striking heart-shaped leaves
  • sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, still in its green stage
  • a single ‘Pierre-Auguste Renoir’ rose

I will show you half a dozen way I used different combinations of these flowers to create beautiful arrangements, all a bit different from one another.  Even when I didn’t think I had very much to work with and I was ready to run out to buy flowers, I managed to create seasonal centerpieces and hope to give you ideas to do the same.

For the bar area I created a tall arrangement in a birch bark container using astilbe, sedum, hydrangea, upside down begonia leaves and feather clusters in autumnal colors.  I started with a tight bundle of astilbe. I then wrapped sedum around their stems. Next came a crown of hydrangeas just beneath the sedum. I finished the arrangement with upside down begonia leaves for their striking pink color. I just gathered the flowers in hand and tied the stems together with an elastic band to keep the arrangement tight. I stuck the feathers in last. This is my favorite creation by far.  Doesn’t  it look like it came from a high end florist? Continue reading

Wild Purslane Salad in a Lemon-Mustard Vinaigrette


Come late August, I have usually thrown in the towel on my garden because the heat and humidity of Pennsylvania is just too much for this Canadian girl and I’ve let the weeds win my constant battle with them.  This year I have an additional excuse for the sorry state of affairs!  A garden snake startled me in early spring and took up residence in my garden.  I know, I know.  They are beneficial.  They consume a lot of bugs and vermin.  But I threw in the trowel right then and there and decided that this would be the year I let the weeds grow with wild abandon alongside their little friend.  However when a garden party looms in your near future, one must tend the garden and tame the beast.

One of the weeds happily growing in profusion was purslane.  

I remember reading about its nutritious value and decided I would find my inner foraging spirit and harvest it to eat.  With its plump, soft, succulent-like leaves, purslane is high in beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, low in calories like most leafy greens, and rich in dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins and anti oxidants.   Dr. Strum natural skin care out of Germany uses it as a star ingredient in their line of products(WSJ Style Issue, September 2018).  But I cannot tell a lie.  I pulled the purslane up and was still hesitant to consume it.  I am after all new to this foraging business.  What if this was something bad for me?  I photographed a patch with my favorite plant identifying app, PictureThis, and it confirmed the weed as being common purslane. (The app is a free download and is very easy to use.  You take a phone picture through the app and it identifies the plant).   Reassured, I took the purslane into the kitchen to come up with a recipe to eat it in.  But truth be told, I was still dragging my feet, foraging whimp that I am!
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How to Throw a Summer Crab Boil Party


“The best way to eat crabs, as everyone knows, is off newspaper at a large table with a large number of people.” Laurie Colwin

A crab boil is one of the easiest summer entertaining parties to host.    Low on stress and high on fun, I make mine even easier by ordering the crabs already cooked, encrusted in Old-Bay style seasoning and picked up piping hot, right before guests arrive. Where we live these red-shelled beauties are Maryland blue crabs from the Chesapeake.  Their Latin name, Callinectes sapidus, means beautiful swimmer. Their flesh is sweet and succulent and they are in season now.  Aren’t they gorgeous? Continue reading

Keukenhof Gardens


Are you dreaming of spring?   Let me take you on an escape to the most beautiful spring garden in the world: Keukenhof.  I had long dreamed of seeing the famous Keukenhof gardens in Holland which seemed to have seas of flowering bulbs.  A few years ago I did make the dream come true and Keukenhof was truly an unforgettable experience.  It is still one of my favorite trips.  The garden was designed in 1857 as an ornamental garden for Castle Keukenhof.  It has been open to the public since 1950 and features more than 7 milion bulbs in bloom with more than 800 varieties of tulips to dazzle one’s imagination.  The garden is set in 32 expansive hectares in beautiful established woods with 15 kilometers of foot paths meandering throughout.  Large swaths of flowering bulbs enchant in gorgeous woodland vistas with centuries old beeches. In 2018 the show is open from March 22nd to May 13th and this year’s theme is “Romance in Flowers.”  Keukenhof is an easy 45 minute commute on public transit from Amsterdam.  On the short journey, you will pass by the bulb farms with field upon field of tulips planted in large swaths of one color.  That sight alone is worth the trip.  Join me for a visit to Keukenhof!

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Longwood Gardens Christmas 2017


No holiday is complete without a visit to see the seasonal display extravaganza at Longwood Gardens in Kenneth Square, Pennsylvania.  The crown jewel of the gardens is the conservatory.  This year’s theme is “C’est magnifique!” and the décor is done in a French style reminiscent of Versailles.  The floating display is designed like a French parterre garden with thousands of floating Granny Smith apples, cranberries and walnuts arranged in a deconstructed fleur de lys design.  A Christmas table is set as if in a palace with its adjacent winter wonderland outdoor terrace garden. At every turn, there are surprises that delight every sense.  Trees are decorated with fleur de lys, giant castle keys and mirrored sun ornaments, a nod to Louis XIV, Le roi soleil, who was known for his vanity.  Towering Christmas trees made out of succulents are spectacular creations.  Another tree constructed of 400 fragrant orchids takes the breath away.  Giant pointsettia topiaries are nothing short of stunning as are the towering pointsettia trees. It was difficult to edit my photos for this post, it was all so magical.   Join me for A Longwood Christmas! The enchantment continues to January 7th.  Check the website for details. Continue reading