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Lighter Side Of Landscaping


Suburbia at night often alternates between gloom and glare. But it needn't, say landscape lighting experts. Homeowners today have many options for lighting their yards and gardens that avoid those extremes.

"The night scene could be a wonderland," says David Hertzberg of Allied Lighting in Costa Mesa. "Twinkling lights in trees, uplighting on dramatic plants, walls washed in light to show off their texture. Homeowners could do all those things. And what a difference it would make in the landscaping."

Frank Berry of Southwinds Landscaping in Fountain Valley shares the sentiment:

"Homeowners put hours of labor and tons of money into their gardens, yet they're totally in the dark about how to enjoy them once the sun goes down," he says. "And that's a shame. Because that's when most of us have leisure time."

If few suburbanites have seen the light regarding garden illumination, perhaps it's due to lack of exposure. Landscape lighting, after all, is a fairly new phenomenon.

It wasn't that long ago that only palatial estates had landscape lighting, according to John Lomeli, lighting specialist for DSA, an association of manufacturers' representatives. And, even in those cases, he says, garden illumination was usually restricted to highlighting statuary.

Landscape lighting as we know it today didn't emerge until the '50s and '60s when barbecue grills, swimming pools and other accouterments of outdoor living came into favor, Lomeli said.

In the early stages of landscape lighting, homeowners' options were extremely limited--cheap "Malubu" kit lights or pricey institutional-caliber fixtures. "There was nothing in between," Hertzberg says. But in the last few decades--and last few years, in particular--outdoor fixtures in mid-range prices have become plentiful.

Competition has brought improvements, such as more corrosion-resistant materials and refined photometrics. One of the most exciting improvements, in Hertzberg's opinion, has been the adaptation of low-voltage halogen lamps for the outdoors. Though the fixtures required for these lamps are small compared to regular incandescent fixtures, halogen bulbs are able to project intense light over distance.

"They're extremely precise," he says. "So instead of flooding a large area with light, you can narrow in on what you want to highlight and leave the rest in shadows. And that's nice. You want contrast. That's what adds mystery to landscaping at night."

Low-voltage halogen fixtures are ideal for accent lighting, and deciding what you want to accent should be the first step in devising a landscape lighting plan.

"Take an inventory of your plant material and architectural features," Lomeli suggests. "Do you have a tree with interesting bark? Or great roses? Or a beautiful birdbath? Or a collection of handsome pots filled with seasonal color?

"Embellish your accents and mask what's not so attractive by leaving it dark."

Once you decide what to accent, determine how . For that tree with the interesting bark, for instance, you might want to place a fixture so that its light will shine directly across the bark, creating shadows on its surface and emphasizing its texture, a technique called grazing. For the birdbath, perhaps spotlighting is the way to go. And for the roses, possibly moonlighting. In this last technique, fixtures are placed high in trees or on buildings to cast soft, diffused downlighting.

Alternative techniques are silhouetting, shadowing, uplighting, and cross-lighting.

After you've made these decision, and only then, consider fixtures.

"People tend to buy fixtures based on their appearance, but this is one time when function really is primary," Berry says. "In fact some of the best fixtures are the ones you don't see."

The second stage in landscape lighting, Lomeli says, is deciding what areas need further illumination for safety. (Accent lighting will spill over into these areas and fill some of that need.) Walkways, changes in elevation and bodies of water should all be adequately defined through lighting.

Walkways can be illuminated in a number of ways. A series of path lights (on-line or low-voltage incandescent or compact fluorescent) on either side of the path is a common solution. Eave-mounted downlights or fiber optic cabling outlining the pathways are alternate ideas.

Downlights, mounted in eaves and/or under handrails, also provide good lighting for stairs. Step-light fixtures, which usually have faceplates or white acrylic lenses to deflect glare, mounted under the nose of stair treads are another option. A strip of mini-lights under the rail caps is a third possibility.

Though most swimming pools, spas and hot tubs already have underwater lights, you might want to further define their boundaries. Mounting fiber optic cabling under the pool coping to create an outline is a glamorous alternative. So is rimming a hot tub with low-voltage mini-lights. Don't forget to illuminate koi ponds, bog gardens or other bodies of water for safety.

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