When the sun goes down, does your garden disappear? If so, you’re missing out. As darkness falls, the garden is the perfect place to unwind. Installing outdoor lighting can transform your yard into an inviting after-dark destination. Think solar lights strung among tree branches, soft lanterns brightening dark corners and LEDs illuminating your pathways, garden art and planting.
But light installation can be intimidating. After all, it’s electrical! And how do you determine how many lights you need and how to hook it all up?
Actually, it’s easier than you may think. Thanks to low-voltage outdoor lighting systems, you needn’t worry about electrocuting yourself.
Photo: © Pam Penick
To begin, you’ll need to get hold of a transformer, low-voltage cable, and a selection of outdoor light fixtures. You can find outdoor lighting kits at home-improvement stores, or you can order exactly the pieces you need and choose from a more extensive selection of styles and finishes by buying from a specialty outdoor-lighting company (search online for highly rated sources). A GFCI-protected outlet is required for plugging in the transformer. If you don’t have one, hire an electrician to install that for you, ideally in a non-prominent location to avoid creating an eyesore.
Experts recommend LED lights over halogen or incandescent fixtures. LEDs cost more up-front, but they last longer and use much less electricity, saving you money and allowing you to put more lights on your transformer. For a stylish and sustainable glow, you could opt for solar lights.
But before you part ways with your cash, walk around your property at night and again during the day to make note of where you need lights and what kind. Using three types of lights will give you the best result: wall washers for the house, path lights, and uplights for trees, sculptural plants, and garden art.
Brighten Your Home
Start with the house itself. Soft wall-wash lighting across the façade makes an inviting glow that welcomes people to your home. In the backyard, wall washers can be used on the house and fencing. Space wall washers 6 to 8 feet apart and 1 to 2 feet from your wall. Don’t place lights directly in front of windows to avoid creating a glare inside.
Light the Way
Downward-shining path lights make access safer and lead the way to the front door or through the garden. It's easy to overdo path lighting, so use a light touch. If you install parallel lines of lights along a path you’ll only succeed in making your walkway look like an airport runway. Instead, place a single light every 8 to 10 feet and stagger them on either side of the path if possible (easy for a gravel path; for solid paving, you may be able to run a cable underneath).
Uplight Trees and Focal Points
Position uplights at the base of trees to illuminate their trunks and canopies. Pick significant trees and shapely ones like Crape Myrtle and Japanese Maple. In Southwestern gardens, uplighting turns Yuccas, Agaves, and other sculptural desert plants into living sculptures. A large planter or piece of garden art can also be plucked out of the darkness with a strategic uplight. For added atmosphere consider stringing up some festoon lights.
How to Install
After calculating how many lights you need, add up their total wattage and purchase a transformer that can handle that amount plus an additional 25% watt-capacity, in case you decide to add a few more lights in the future. A transformer with a timer allows you to set it to come on at dark every day and turn off at dawn, or at whatever time you wish. Mount the transformer to the house next to the GFCI outlet. Check with the light manufacturer to determine what gauge cable is recommended for your distance and wattage, likely 12- or 10-gauge.
Lay out your lights in position, making sure the first one is at least 10 feet away from the transformer. Run the cable from the transformer to each light, leaving a little slack at each light so you can move it around as needed. Hook up the cable to the transformer by using wire strippers to remove a half-inch of insulation from the two strands of wire at one end of the cable. Follow instructions that come with the transformer to connect one wire to the “A” terminal and the other wire to the “B” terminal.
Photo: © Pam Penick
Now connect the cable to the lights. The lights have pinch-connectors that bite into the cable, making hook-up simple. Unplug the transformer and clip each light onto the cable. Plug in the transformer to test if they’re working.
When you’re satisfied that each light works, finish by burying the cable several inches deep. If you ever accidentally cut the cable while digging, you can repair it by stripping the wires of both cut pieces and reconnecting them with gel-filled wire nuts and electrical tape.
Press each light’s stake into the soil. Do not apply pressure to the head of the fixture itself, as that could damage the light. For uplights and wall washers, adjust the fixture head to direct light as desired.
Now when the sun goes down, you’ll have a reason to stay outside and enjoy an entirely different experience of the garden.