Daylight saving time is over (finally!), but it is still getting dark earlier every day for the next month and a half. In ancient times, folks lit candles and fires after dark but retired pretty early to their beds in winter to dream of brighter times. In these more modern times, electricity has beaten back the darkness and, in industrially advanced nations, even creates its own form of pollution (but that’s another topic).
This luxury comes at a price, of course. Energy is not free, and turning off the computer and the light switch and lowering the thermostat are good for the environment. That being said, the need to provide illumination does exist, not only in homes and offices but outdoors, as well. Candles and fireplaces are still some of the most satisfying ways to light up gardens after dark.
Other imperatives exist, however. Welcoming home the family after dark and providing a well-lighted pathway to safely convey guests from the curb to the front door are but two good reasons to light the garden after dark. Lighting outdoor spaces can also enhance the experience of their indoor counterparts. The view from inside to out after dark can provide a warm, shadowy scene instead of a blank, black wall. Outdoor lighting can be dramatic with spotlights drenching architectural trees from below or floodlights bathing a pool in perpetual moonlight. It can also be a subtle glow warming the face of a wall or a delicate shimmer backlighting a lacy shrub.
The good news is that many outdoor lighting options utilize very energy-efficient, low-voltage systems that normally run as low as 12 volts. Coupled with the also marvelously efficient LED technology, it is possible to shine a light on almost any garden situation. Low-volt lights do have one design consideration: They need to be fed electricity from a transformer that steps down the normal voltage (in the U.S. this is 110 volts) delivered by the power company. The circuitry will be engineered to supply power to a limited number of lights per transformer, but the wiring is simple and can be easily concealed among the garden shrubbery or buried in shallow trenches.
The transformer is not large, but it will need to be sited somewhere near the source of a regular 110-volt outlet. Low-voltage lights can easily illuminate pathways, provide mood lighting near ponds, and even be strung on wires in trees or under arbors. A number of options exist to activate the lighting system, including manual switches and timed controllers or photocells that turn the system on when it gets dark. Most home-improvement centers will have a variety of options from off-the-shelf kits to customizable components.
Solar-powered garden lights are also hitting the market, but they are mostly incapable of delivering many lumens (the official measure of light intensity), especially in spots that don’t get much sunlight. So don’t rely on them for really dark corners.
For that special after-hours party, there are temporary lighting options, too. String lights, which once only graced holiday decorations such as Christmas trees, are proliferating. Chili peppers, butterflies, Chinese lanterns, and all manner of shapes are now available to festoon doorways, eaves, hedges, and more in the garden. Even all the standby candle options from luminarias (remember the brown paper bags filled with sand and glowing with a candle?) to battery-operated tea lights (with or without the flicker effect) have been electrified and are readily available now.
Low-cost, low-voltage, low-impact electrical outdoor lighting options abound, but somehow it doesn’t seem like a few wax candles or an aromatic wood fire will be entirely supplanted to light up the dark night, and that is a good thing.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.