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Lighting the Residential Landscape

Just like architectural style, lighting in a residential landscape can speak volumes about the inhabitants of a home. When considering the exterior lighting, most people want to ensure that paths are well lit to avoid tripping hazards and that if spaces are monitored by security cameras that they are illuminated to allow the camera to effectively capture security threats. We often see motion-activated lighting that is too bright and too cool sold in home improvement stores. However, security lighting doesn’t have to be brash or bright to be effective. By layering different types of lighting, you can create curb appeal, drama, and safety at the same time by taking advantage of our collective human psychology.

Types of Landscape Lighting

Landscape lighting, when designed well, is aesthetically pleasing and provides enough light for all desired activities. Landscapes can be broken down into three major elements: wayfinding, vertical surfaces/features, and overhead enclosure.


Wayfinding: First identity the important locations you want to highlight, typically the property entrance, primary door, special features, and entertaining space(s). Next link those locations together with clear paths. Your most important features should be brighter than the pathways connecting them, and pathways should be brighter than the surrounding planting areas. The art comes into the execution of these simple steps. Let’s break it down so that you can do it up.

  1. Property entrance: A lamp post at the end of the driveway or lighting at the address can signal the property’s entrance. Address numbers can be backlit or front-lit to aid in visitors’ and delivery people’s ability to find the property entrance. Unless there are budget constraints, it’s best to partner this type of signal with additional landscape lighting to allow for optimal curb appeal.

  2. Primary door: Sconces on either side of the door, or a light in the overhang above a door are two commonly adopted methods for signaling entry to the home. It’s best to remember that people will be naturally drawn to the brightest element in the exterior lighting, therefore it is critical to get some amount of lighting at the doorway. Doorway lighting can double as security lighting for camera monitoring and trip avoidance. It feels more luxurious to have intentional entry lighting that provides security than to have a motion-activated light at the home’s doorway.

  3. Pathways: Critically important to avoid tripping accidents and to ensure property safety. The light fixtures typically used for longer path lighting are low decorative lanterns or medium-sized bollards/posts. If you want a wash of light instead, you can consider tree or post-mounted lighting up high that shines down over the property. The choice comes down to aesthetics. If your property is compact enough, your property entry or primary door lighting can provide all of the light you need. Here are some advantages and disadvantages to each type.

  • pole light – lamp posts or other lights mounted above 5’ high will provide a wide wash of light that can help illuminate paths. Pole lights tend to require space around them and a larger property to avoid being too dominant. Long driveways have the benefit of scale to allow for multiple fixtures, which can create a sense of grandeur in addition to providing enough lighting for safety. Smaller properties can still implement pole lights but should be strategic and might consider one light to serve multiple purposes. An artistic technique in the pole lighting family is called moonlighting. This technique faces one or multiple lights in the same direction above foliage to create dynamic shadows and create the illusion of moonlight. Low output lighting in multiple locations is the best way to get this soft naturalistic effect.

  • low bollards/posts – waist-high lighting provides great, low-glare lighting for pathways. Depending on the plant selections around the lights, they can double as landscape lighting by illuminating the “vertical” plant surfaces around them. Lights mounted on railing posts can also provide low-glare lighting, but these fixtures are more often decorative with clear panels or globes around the sides. Post-mounted lights can be used to signal entry, can illuminate stairs, and can shed light onto surrounding vertical surfaces. This strategy is a workhorse in a lit landscape.

  • lanterns – small solar-powered or wired lanterns lining a path can add a delicate touch by providing multiple small sources of light in a relatively small space. This is a popular choice for people with small properties or short paths. Lanterns can be used on larger properties too; they help to delineate outdoor rooms, like patios, or fire pits. Lanterns can also be used to create ethereal or playful experiences, like lining the path to a treehouse.


Vertical Surface/Feature Lighting: Feature elements can include building face lighting, illuminating plants/landscape elements, sculptures/water features, etc. The same rules of identifying hierarchy apply as with wayfinding the most important features should be the most dominantly lit, and the supporting features should be more dimly lit. You should also identify if you want to highlight the texture of materials (such as stone/brick walls, leaves, etc.) or if you want to wash lighting for a softer more even appearance. Water and fire features have their own unique qualities since they allow light to sparkle.

  1. Building faces/fences/walls: lit from above or below, providing a wash of lighting on a building face can help to articulate the architectural detail of the house or can simply add curb appeal. Providing a subtle wash of light behind brighter landscape features helps create a backdrop for an important feature that helps to ground it in the landscape.

  2. Plant/landscape features: any plant or grouping of plants can be subjects for illumination. Typically homeowners choose to illuminate mature trees, hedgerows, and planting with unique foliage to avoid over-lighting the plantings. By uplighting a mature tree and its canopy, the indirect light will illuminate surrounding plants and the filtered light can cast dappled patterns onto the house. Post/pole mounted lights can provide large washes of lighting that can either create dramatic shadows or can provide a soft wash of light over planting areas.

  3. Sculptures/water features: highlighting the unique features on your property not only increases your enjoyment of them but provides obvious locations for landscape lighting. Small lights in the side of your pond or fountain allow your water feature to glow and reflect light into the surrounding space. Vertical water elements like waterfalls or fountains can be uplit to help visually activate the features when daylight has left. Sculptures can also be illuminated with up or downlight, depending on the home owner’s goals.


Overhead Enclosure: Some landscapes benefit from a “ceiling”, such as patios and entry doorways. String lights are an easy way to get a wash of lighting evenly spread over your space and provide a feeling of enclosure that can make some spaces feel more inviting. Landscapes with large canopies of mature trees can create overhead enclosure by uplighting the tree canopy. Design preference will determine which solution is best for your space. Architectural overhead enclosure, such as gazebos, pergolas, porch overhangs, etc. can also be lit to help create enhance the experience of being in those spaces and the experience of viewing the structures from a distance.


Decorative: Everyone has different tastes in decorative lighting, therefore the choice to include, or not, decorative lighting in your landscape is based entirely on your own aesthetic preferences.

Techniques to Combine Types of Lighting without Over-Lighting


With so many options and so many choices, one can easily go overboard and take their landscape lighting from glowing to glaring. You don’t want to do that, your neighbors don’t want you to do that, no one wants you to do that. Here are some helpful tips to keep your lighting refined.


  1. Stick to no more than 3 lighting effects per space/scene: background, feature, wayfinding. Some spaces might warrant only one or two effects, so use your artistic eye or consult a professional.

  2. Contrast is your friend. By allowing space for darkness, you will need less light to make each highlight. Get Zen about it: there can be no brightness without darkness.

  3. Determine your hierarchy for the property. We suggest focusing on highlighting entries and special features first, then layer in pathways, finally creating ambient lighting on the building face and plantings based on your aesthetic desires.

  4. When mounting lighting high in a tree or on a post, consider up-lighting or face-lighting that structure to reduce the perceived brightness of the light fixtures. This trick allows you to get a wash of lighting on the ground and vertical feature lighting.

Reducing Light Pollution


Before you begin any project, check local ordinances for mandatory restrictions to reduce light pollution or energy consumption and to confirm what permits your town requires for new electric lighting. Once you know what restrictions are in place, you can manipulate your lighting design accordingly.

Light pollution seems like the least offensive of the pollutions out there, however artificial lighting has an enormous impact on plants and wildlife. For specific information on the impacts light pollution has on our wildlife please feel free to review this and other articles: Light Pollution Effects on Wildlife and Ecosystems - International Dark-Sky Association ( The effects of light pollution do not affect only wildlife, it is also being found to affect humans: Light Pollution | National Geographic Society

Light pollution is not only an environmental and health hazard, but it can also lead to lawsuits. Light trespass is light pollution. Light trespass is defined differently by each municipality; however, the basic idea is that the lighting on your property should not affect the pleasant enjoyment of anyone else on their respective property. What this really means is that when locating your light fixtures, keep them away from your property line to avoid “spilling” light onto your neighbor’s property. Also, consider shielded light fixtures to reduce/eliminate the potential for your light fixture to shine into their windows.

Tips to reduce light pollution without sacrificing landscape lighting.


  1. Aim light down. Floodlights mounted on poles/posts aimed down or low fixtures with shields can prevent light from shining up.

  2. Set uplights away from the subject and aim them diagonally toward buildings to reduce the amount of light that is shining into open skies.

  3. Choose low output lighting to reduce the amount of light in your landscaping. Again, contrast is your friend. When you leave space for darkness and shadow, you need less light to create highlights and drama.

  4. Set timers for non-safety lighting to turn off automatically.

  5. Choose lighting with lower/warmer color temperatures (more yellow, less blue).

  6. Select shielded light fixtures.

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