Glow in the dark: night garden illumination

Lighting and landscape designers are collaborating to bring gardens to brilliant, alluring light long after dark, says Emma Crichton-Miller

Boat house on a natural pool at private house in Dulwich, garden designed by Kristina Fitzsimmons and lit by Mike Shackleton of Ornamental Garden Lighting
Boat house on a natural pool at private house in Dulwich, garden designed by Kristina Fitzsimmons and lit by Mike Shackleton of Ornamental Garden Lighting | Image: Ornamental Garden Lighting

Twenty years ago, lighting artist Bruce Munro took a road trip across Australia’s Red Desert. Driving along the Stewart Highway, every night he would stop at a different roadside campsite, each one a brightly lit, surreal oasis of sprinkler-fed green. The contrast fascinated Munro, as did the miraculous transformation of the desert whenever it rained and the dormant seeds in the apparently barren soil burst into colourful life. In 2004, the dormant seeds of that trip, a combination of the dream-like surreality and natural efflorescence of a desert landscape, became a lighting installation – Field of Light. Part of the V&A’s Brilliant exhibition of contemporary lighting design, it consisted of hundreds of acrylic stems topped by frosted spheres that were threaded with fibre-optic cables and lit by projectors on wheels, so that the blossoms seemed to breathe as they changed colour. Magical, poetic, the installation transformed the floor of the V&A into an enchanted garden. It was when the idea was transferred to the 10-acre Long Knoll Field, near Munro’s home in Wiltshire, however, that the Field of Light really came into its own. It had a public footpath running through it, and walkers were thrilled to stumble upon this fairy landscape at dusk, with its thousand flower stems glowing pink, then purple, blue and yellow. Munro has since recreated the Field of Light many times, in both private and public locations, including outside the Eden Project in Cornwall and in the garden of the Holburne Museum in Bath. In every context, these lights, with their soft‑coloured rippling, seem to work in unison with the garden or landscape they inhabit, coaxing the night spirits to come out and play.

Bruce Munro’s Field of Light at the Holburne Museum, Bath, 2011
Bruce Munro’s Field of Light at the Holburne Museum, Bath, 2011 | Image: Mark Pickthall

This is perhaps the most ideal manifestation of garden lighting, placing it at the opposite extreme to the municipal blaze in which every last vestige of the secret life of plants and pathways is exposed to glare. It is no wonder that Munro has found himself increasingly commissioned to create not just one‑off bespoke luminaires but entire lighting installations for both private and public clients. This summer, Munro, in his first one-man show, has filled the 23-acre historic public gardens at Longwood, in Pennsylvania, with eight large-scale installations. “The right kind of lighting can transform the subconscious perception of a space entirely,” he explains.

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Munro’s growing status as a light artist has coincided with a tremendous growth in the commercial business of lighting gardens. Robert Webber, of Scenic Lighting, one of the many companies dedicated to garden lighting, suggests: “The garden has become another room in the house. People want theirs to include an outside kitchen and other dedicated spaces.” But as well as utilitarian lighting to enable people to use the garden as a room, nocturnally as well as during the day, what clients increasingly seek is something more ambitious and creative, something that conjures up at night a specific poetry that is not possible when the sun is up. Clients want “something that has one life during the daytime and another after dark,” explains Rebecca Weir, of Light IQ.

Charlotte Rowe used LED lighting and Swarovski crystals in the courtyard of a Chelsea house
Charlotte Rowe used LED lighting and Swarovski crystals in the courtyard of a Chelsea house | Image: Light IQ

Weir has undertaken projects in London, at rural locations around the UK and in the Caribbean – where it is “very competitive” – working closely with garden designers to a very high technical specification. “A lot of things can go wrong if you do it yourself,” she points out. “In the country, we tend to use much softer, more naturalistic lighting. But the closer you get to the city, the more impact light needs to have. People are bolder in an urban setting – they treat the project as an architectural part of the house.”

A water feature with lighting by Robert Webber in a garden designed by Philip Nash
A water feature with lighting by Robert Webber in a garden designed by Philip Nash | Image: Philip Nash Design

That is certainly the way that garden designer Charlotte Rowe, with whom Weir often works, looks at it. “We design an outdoor space that would work on its own without plants, and we do it off the house, as if it were another room.” Rowe is known for her lush plantings – there are no barren patios – but she also integrates lighting right from the start. “We have never done a garden without lighting,” she says. “On the other hand, the worst thing you can do is over-light.”

Tom Stuart-Smith’s Moon Garden at London’s Connaught hotel
Tom Stuart-Smith’s Moon Garden at London’s Connaught hotel | Image: MMGI / Marianne Majerus

In the business now for eight years, following a career in PR and marketing, Rowe also works with John Cullen and Rob Clift, and reckons that in a classic 5m x 5m London terraced garden, you should assume that a sixth of the budget would go on lighting design and installation – perhaps £5,000 of a £30,000 landscape. For somewhere larger, the proportion will be smaller. In the country, you might just light “major trees, sculpture and water features”. One of the projects Weir and Rowe have done together is a tiny courtyard, which is central to the home it is a part of. “It was very important that the lighting tied in with the contemporary kitchen,” Weir explains. “However, the client was also up for a little fun and thought the addition of Swarovski crystals to the canopy would provide the necessary wow factor for luxury entertaining. The crystal stars sparkle and change colour, emulating those in the night sky above.” There are many layers of light within the garden – low-level step lights, illumination of a water rill, wall-mounted downlights to accentuate the climbers as they grow, and wall lights framing the view to the sitting room. The lighting is split into separate circuits so that the client can decide at the touch of a button which parts to light and which to leave dark. In another contemporary garden, dark charcoal trellising provides a dramatic backdrop for specimen trees, lit from beneath, while a recessed hot tub glows in the dusk.

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Rowe and Weir both point out the difference that improvements in LED light technology have made. Once, these produced a cold blue-white light; now the colours are much warmer, and while installation costs are higher – all the lights have to be IP68-rated and the wiring has to be properly buried in a channel to avoid squirrel or rat damage – the running costs are much cheaper. “A small urban garden can now consume less electricity as a whole than a single traditional halogen floodlight,” says Weir. “More importantly, there are no lamps to change for many years, creating a hassle-free lighting installation.” All the same, Rowe admits that she also sometimes recommends, for aesthetic reasons, the simple, low-tech expedients of tea‑lights and firepits. “We do a lot of fireplaces and I count that as lighting design,” she says.

Robert Webber also works closely with garden designers, especially Philip Nash of Philip Nash Design. “Lighting is integral to his schemes,” Webber explains. “He even creates terraces that are slightly raised. That way, we can light them from underneath so they look as if they are floating.” He describes their own style as “contemporary lighting, similar to that used inside, with different layers and kinds of lights”. To start with, there is functional lighting, which focuses on terraces, seating areas and swimming pools; then there’s feature lighting, which might take in trees, pillars on the front of a house, statues and fountains; and the last layer is “aesthetic lighting, to create an ambience”. Webber is conscious that, in this country, gardens need to be as attractive to look at from indoors as outside. In general, his clients prefer “cleaner, whiter lighting, and we tend to use halogen for plants, as high-temperature LED lights do not reflect well off them”.

Dave Milsom, of Garden Lighting Design, offers a full lighting-design and installation service, working in collaboration with a specialist electrician. “This is a huge industry that is still pushing forward,” he says. “We work with landscapers and also garden designers like James Alexander-Sinclair.” He also works with Paul Metcalfe, of Light Symphony, to create radio‑controlled wireless garden‑lighting systems that enable the client to remotely determine exactly which parts of the garden should be lit at any given time. Milsom emphasises perhaps the primary lesson of garden lighting: “Gardens grow but lights don’t. You do need some system of ongoing maintenance – not just cleaning the fixture, but adjusting its height and cutting back the rhododendrons.”

Mike Shackleton, of Ornamental Garden Lighting, is a lighting cameraman and commercials director first but now finds his second business flourishing. “Garden lighting came about from renting large country houses for night shoots,” he explains. “A land agent who rented us an empty house asked if I could light the garden like that all the time. We are coming at it from an artistic point of view, rather than an electrical perspective.” One longtime client is Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons. “That is one of those environments where it is very hard to balance safety with aesthetic considerations,” Shackleton says. “There are a hundred and one hazards that need to be lit. It is a very fine and sensitive balance – to ensure that it is practical but not ghastly – and Monsieur Blanc has a very acute eye for detail.” In another scenario, a woman who had lost her parents decided to create a contemplative Japanese garden to remember them by, and this required particularly sensitive lighting. Shackleton often suggests to a client that they start with the infrastructure – the basic safety-lighting of pools, children’s play areas and pathways – before taking the next step. “For many of our clients, it can be a real leap of faith,” he says. “They are understandably scared that their garden will end up looking like the Sunset Strip. You can always add more later or change the intensity of the bulbs. The dark areas are as important as the lit places. The garden can be a very different place at night. A beautiful tree, for instance, is lit from above during the day, so it can create a wonderful effect to light it from below at night.” He can also install different circuits of lighting for alternative uses. In the case of a walled garden with a swimming pool, where the client did a lot of corporate entertaining, he set up a bolder system for public occasions and a discreet one for informal family evenings. While Shackleton says he tends to underdo the lighting rather than overdo it – “In rural locations you have to be particularly sensitive to any neighbours and the surrounding environment” – he is aware that many people with country estates are not necessarily used to rural living. “It can be very dark if you are in the middle of 50 or 60 acres. There is a lot of comfort to be had from knowing where your boundaries are, so lighting the trees is often very important.”  

Leading garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith is rather more ambivalent about countryside lighting. “When I am doing something right out in the country,” he explains, “I try to avoid lighting wherever possible. I feel the landscape should be allowed to go to sleep at night.” However, he recognises that, if people are spending a great deal on their gardens, they may well wish to enjoy them at night as well as during the day. He has collaborated with water designer Andrew Ewing to light water jets with optical fibres, so that they look like flickering candles at night and, in an interior courtyard at the Connaught hotel, a disc of light projected onto a serpentine strip of water is reflected onto a limestone wall, creating the effect of a watery moon. He has also placed Corten-steel box structures amid the planting in a garden. Each evening, they are lit by a hidden strip-light, bringing out the reddish glow of the metal. “Things that are quite abstract like that can be effective, but using lots of gizmos can be oppressive,” remarks Stuart-Smith. “Also, as soon as you start chucking light into a landscape, the other parts become darker, so the temptation is to over‑light to compensate.” In his own garden, at his home north of London, he just has one lit feature. It’s a Corten-steel wall, 6m long and 1.5m high, in the entrance courtyard, which he lights along its whole length in winter. “It does look beautiful,” he says.

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