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Nightscaping: Award Winning Outdoor Designer Shares the Magic and Mystery of Outdoor Lighting

by Elizabeth Lexau

Soft outdoor lighting in a dark environment is nothing short of magic. It provides a warm, inviting ambiance that beckons us further into a scene. It creates mood, romance, and drama. It adds interest and intrigue to any setting. A growing number of homeowners are capturing this magic in their backyards through "nightscaping," one of the hottest trends in home landscaping today. "Garden lighting is one of the most important aspects of landscaping, yet it's often overlooked," says Scott Cohen, supervising landscape designer of The Green Scene, a Los Angeles based outdoor design and construction firm.

Cohen, an award winning designer whose work has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, on Home and Garden Television, and in numerous other national media, is known for his unique artistic use of outdoor lighting, color, and texture in the landscape. In Cohen's landscapes, outdoor countertops embellished with recycled wine bottles come alive with shimmering color when illuminated from below with fiber-optics. In his swimming pools, cascading waterfalls and fountains send streams of white light into the pool where it dances on the surface like scattered diamonds.

While these are some examples of the aesthetic appeal of outdoor lighting, Cohen also emphasizes the practical side of using light in outdoor design. "People invest a great deal in their landscapes but these days many homeowners don't have a chance to use their yards until after dark. At night, the only elements you see are those that you accent with light. With little extra cost, outdoor lighting can give you much more enjoyment out of your landscape."

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Outdoor lighting can be used to enhance safety and security, to accent special trees or plantings, and to create a festive atmosphere for outdoor entertaining. We include a lighting plan in all of our landscaping designs and we model the effects for clients using the computer, says Cohen. Often people aren't aware of how garden lighting can enhance their landscape until they see it for themselves.

Homeowners are often surprised at how little outdoor lighting costs. We use low voltage lighting, which is very economical, says Cohen. In an average landscape it will cost about $15-$18 per month to use an outdoor lighting system front and back for about four hours per night. According to Cohen, outdoor lighting should emphasize safety, atmosphere, function, and fun.

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Safety and Security

The first thing I look at when designing landscape lighting is safety,” says Cohen. “I look at lighting the steps and paths and I pay special attention to where the shadows will fall. I always want to light from the side or from below to make sure shadows don’t obscure vision. On the steps, I prefer to use eyebrow or niche lights because they enhance safety and look great too.”

The next thing Cohen looks at is security. “I look for places where people could hide. Not only does lighting deter prowlers, it creates a feeling of comfort as well. Dark pockets in a yard can present an undertone of fear whereas a well lit landscape provides a more relaxing environment.”

Landscape lighting can enhance security even after everyone has gone to bed. “Many lighting systems offer the option of a timer that includes an override system operated by remote control,” says Cohen. “If you hear a critter in your yard or someone walking across the lawn, you can turn on your landscape lights right from your bed.

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Painting with Light

With safety and security issues covered, Cohen turns his attention to the myriad of artistic effects that are possible with creative nightscaping. He recommends a variety of techniques and fixtures that can work together to paint a breathtaking nighttime scene.

Up-Lighting – This technique uses brass or glass fixtures with halogen bulbs that light a tree from the ground up to show off its shape and trunk structure.

Moonlighting –Fixtures are placed high in a tree and aimed downward. Multiple fixtures can be used to crosslight an area creating interesting shadows and patterns.

Silhouetting – For this effect, a spread light is placed between plant material and an adjoining structure. The effect is a planting silhouetted in black against a soft white background.

Grazing – To highlight an interesting texture or stone work, spread-lights or up-lights are placed right next to the wall with beams directed upwards. This casts shadows that delicately capture the texture of the wall.

Down-Lighting – Down-Lighting can be used in a number of ways. Cohen frequently installs down-lighting fixtures in outdoor kitchen countertops. During the day, fixtures are hidden beneath the counters but at night their light defines an area with a surrounding glow that draws guests in.

Color and Motion – Color changing pool lights are used to provide both motion and color in the pool or spa. Cohen also integrates color using cast glass mosaics, wine bottles, and other innovative materials that he lights with fiber-optics. Using a sparkler wheel with the fiber-optics adds gentle motion to the colorful scene for a relaxing effect.

These are just a few of the creative techniques Cohen uses. With a little imagination there’s no limit to the number of ways you can add magic to your nighttime yard through nightscaping.

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