By JOE LAMP'L
Scripps Howard News Service
As inviting as a garden is during the day, it becomes a magical place at night if it's properly lighted. Garden lighting can illuminate a patio for entertaining, showcase a dramatic planting or guide the way along a path. But installing landscape lighting can be time-consuming and costly. The lights themselves can be pricey, and a licensed electrician needs to do the installation on all but the simplest do-it-yourself kits.
But solar-powered lights are reasonably priced, simple to install and safe to use. They can be moved easily as your landscape changes, and give a bright, reliable light for most any application.
Technology: brighter, better, longer
Modern solar landscape lights are a far cry from the short-lived little flashlights of yesterday. Their attractive styling, long run-time and wiring-free, out-of-the-box installation make them suitable for most any garden application. And with practical and beautiful landscape lighting, you can stay outside and play in the garden a whole lot longer.
Solar lights of yesteryear used to glow with only a dim incandescent bulb. Today, modern units use LEDs, light-emitting diodes, which are semiconductors that put out light without hot, glowing filaments or fragile glass shells.
They can reliably run upward of 100,000 hours. Today's solar cells and rechargeable batteries are also more efficient, and the prices of both are coming down. Rechargeable solar batteries now use nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rather than nickel-cadmium (NiCAD). NiMH batteries stand up to more charge cycles, last longer and can finally be disposed of without harming the environment.
For best effect, you must match landscape lights to their application. First, walk the property and develop a lighting plan. Consider how you use your yard. Do you entertain outdoors or sit on a deck? Are you concerned about the safety of pathways? Are there a few favorite focal points you want to highlight?
There are three basic landscape uses for solar lights: pathway, accent and spotlighting.
Pathway lighting: Where are you going?
Pathway lighting illuminates driveways, walkways and steps, and marks the edges of areas like ponds and patios for safety. These lights come attached to ground stakes, hang from hooks or are flange-mounted, and primarily focus their medium-bright light downward.
Accent lighting: exterior decoration
Accent lights generally define a place with a muted ambience that shows off nearby plantings, illuminates pergolas and built-in benches, or casts a gentle glow on deck rails or posts. They're usually in the most noticeable locations, so choose a style that complements your overall decorating scheme.
Some use amber LEDs for a warmer luminescence, or even flickerlike candles. Watertight light spheres can float in a pool or pond. There are even solar string lights that can be wrapped around fences or hung like fireflies in trees.
For the spotlight: the art of the tree
Spotlights are the brightest solar lights and usually the most expensive. They cast a focused beam on plants, focal points, statuary, entryways or other special features.
They're not especially decorative like accent lights, so tuck them behind plants, rocks or small structures so they cast light and draw your eye directly to the element you want highlighted. Their solar panels can be mounted away from the unit itself to collect sunshine even if the fixture is in shadow.
One of the most striking uses for a spotlight is uplighting into a tree. I find the branch structure of a mature tree to be like a beautiful work of art. At night, with appropriate lighting, it's even more dramatic. Ordinary branches become exciting shapes and textures when lit from below. Lighting trees along your property line attracts the eye and makes the yard seem larger. When you spotlight a special area, place a few lower-intensity lights around it to create a transition from a bright patch to darkness.
Joe Lamp'l is host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, which runs occasionally on WEDU-Ch. 3. His website, joegardener.com, has complete episodes.