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




Valentine’s Day Wreath: Key to my Heart


“There is only one happiness in life:  to love and be loved.” Georges Sand

This little Valentine’s welcome at the front entrance comes straight from the heart.  A heart wreath flanked by planters decorated with dangling red hearts is a charming and sweet welcome for February. Continue reading

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

Transitioning the Front Porch into Fall


“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

F Scott Fitzgerald

When I lived in Canada, the air would turn crisp starting on August mornings. In Pennsylvania, we’re still enduring sweltering heat.  It’s just too early for mums and cute pumpkins.  There’s still plenty of porch-sitting weather to enjoy.  In fact, some of the best porch weather is yet to come.  With a front porch that is styled in blue and green, I wanted to give it some fall flair but didn’t want to go all pumpkin orange on it yet.  Enter  transitional fall decor that ties in with the porch colors where late summer and early fall combine. Here’s how to bring in some fall decorating without the classic mums and pumpkins, yet!t

1-  Add an autumn wreath to the front door in porch colors:   Continue reading

Punch Bowls 2.0


“When life throws you a curveball,  give a punch.”

Dr. Peter Hunt

After a quarter century of marriage some wedding gifts fade from popularity and lose their shine.  One of our most surprising but delightful wedding gifts was an antique English sterling punch bowl given to us by one of my professors with the witty quote above.  I look at that punch bowl every day as it corrals our outgoing mail right by the front door.  Once upon a time, a punch bowl was a wedding registry staple.  Today, not so much. That is unfortunate as there are so many novel ways to use a punch bowl.   Perhaps you’ve got a punch bowl gathering dust in the back of a cupboard or maybe you’ll come across a beauty available for a few dollars in a yard sale.  It is time to reimagine the punch bowl for today’s lifestyle.  This post will give you some ideas of how I use some of our punch bowls and inspire you to show yours some love.

In summer, I heap sea shells in a punch bowl on a hall table for a no-fuss, no-maintenance seasonal vignette.  The punch bowl is three quarters  filled with crumpled newspaper first which is then topped with the sea shells.

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Creating Shade in Outdoor Spaces


“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree long ago.”

Warren Buffet

Some seek the sun. I prefer a respite from the sun, yet still spending a lot of time outdoors.   I took shade for granted until neighbors cut down mature trees between our yards and we lost the shade we had designed a patio around.  Overnight, we stopped using this patio which had been a favorite spot for reading and dining next to a peaceful water feature.   It made me sad to be unable to enjoy this beautiful space anymore.  We recently came up with a solution for this dilemma which gave me the idea to write about shade.  More on that later.

Offering shelter from the sun creates cooler, comfier spaces and enhances existing outdoor spaces for maximum enjoyment. It is possible to let the sun shine and enjoy being outdoors without soaking up the damaging UV rays.  Designing pockets of shade is just as important as the plantings in your garden.  Shade also reduces stress on plantings and decreases watering needs.  Here are some ideas to help you create nice shady spots, shielded from harsh rays and sizzling temperatures.

1) Garden Umbrellas

The easiest way to create shade is to add an umbrella over your outdoor table.  Obvious.  Near our dining table we had created an outdoor seating area to lounge and read.  The problem was it could not be enjoyed for 90 percent of the day because it was in full sun.  Enter the off-set, free standing umbrella. I fought my husband on this one.  I thought 2 umbrellas near each other would look tacky.  I thought it was gimmicky to get one of these giant umbrellas with adjustable positioning. Boy, was I wrong.  This seating area is now one of my favorite places to enjoy the garden and entertain. It gets used daily and is shady almost all day long.  To minimize competing umbrellas, we matched their colors.   Our umbrella, a special-order from Home Depot,  came equipped with a canopy-top solar battery that powers a series of mini lights that run along the umbrella’s ribs and cast lovely whimsical star-like lighting at night as an added bonus.

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