Illuminate your landscape with a variety of lighting techniques

Story by Catriona Tudor Erler  – Catriona Tudor Erler is a freelance garden writer, photographer and speaker who divides her time between SML and Charlottesville. She is the author of nine garden books, including “Design Ideas for Home Landscaping,” “Poolscaping: Gardening and Landscaping Around Your Pool and Spa,” and “Complete Home Landscaping.”

There’s no denying Smith Mountain Lake, with its picturesque waters and scenic mountain views, is a beautiful place any time of day. But evenings at SML can be equally enchanting, especially when your garden is lit to enhance the nighttime scene. By adding landscape lighting, you can create almost any effect you like – from dramatic and theatrical to romantic, mysterious, subtle and subdued. Here are some techniques illumination designers use to create different effects in the garden.  

Moonlighting or Downlighting 

Floodlights pointing downward from high in the trees create the illusion of moonlight,  even on cloudy nights. The technique is particularly effective if the trees have a lacy canopy that will cast an intriguing shadow. 

In large spaces, downlights should be at least 25 feet off the ground. If you have tall trees, it’s worth it to hire an arborist to place the light fixtures as high as 55 feet. Avoid having a large lower limb in the way of the light beam. The chunky shadow it will cast is not as appealing as a lacy pattern of leaves and small branches. Choose fixtures that provide the maximum light spread for an even wash of light over the ground. 

Because downlighting from a high source washes the area with even light, it is also the ideal way to illumine paths and steps instead of the traditional ground-level path lights. If properly placed, the high light source is less obtrusive than pathway lights, shedding a natural-looking, soft light on the area. 


Light focused up from the ground on trees and walls highlights bark and foliage and accentuates textures and forms. Leaves with pale undersides appear to sparkle when they are lit from below, and the inner veins shine forth on translucent leaves. Whenever you uplight a tree canopy, be sure and include the trunk of the tree in the light beam as well. Otherwise you have the uncomfortable sense of a disembodied form floating above the ground.

Different trees benefit from different uplighting approaches. For a tree with a tall, willowy form, fine-textured foliage and an open canopy, use a minimum of three fixtures placed evenly around the tree to show off its full shape. For a conical evergreen, position the light fixture back far enough from the plant and set the angle so the entire side of the tree is washed with light. In the case of trees with narrow, fastigiate forms, place a narrow-beam light directly at the base and aim it straight up (or at a slight angle) so the light grazes the surface of the plant, showing off the foliage texture.

Japanese lace leaf maples (Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’), are ideal candidates for uplighting from inside the tree near the center, so the light shines through the canopy of leaves in summer and shows the branch structure in silhouette in winter.

Grazing the surface of tree trunks and building surfaces with light will emphasize the surface texture and pattern. Place the light at the base of the object and shine it directly upwards.  This technique is particularly effective on trees with interesting bark such as river birch (Betula nigra) and paperbark maple (Acer grisieum), and on stucco, brick and stone walls where you get the textures of the building material and – in the case of brick and stone – the shadows created by the joints and mortar. It’s also great for emphasizing architectural features such as columns.

 Combining Uplighting and Downlighting 

Uplighting larger trees around the perimeter of a garden room establishes the walls and ceiling of the space. If these trees are close to the entertaining area, use downlight from these same trees to provide a subtle, natural and uniform light over the patio or deck area. 

 When a tree is lit with both uplighting and downlighting, the combination is magic. The tree is highlighted by the beam of light focusing along its trunk and up into its branches, while at the same time the general area is softly lit, as if bathed in the glow of the moon.


Shine a light from behind to make an interesting object stand out in silhouette. Use this lighting technique on a tree or shrub that has a simple, striking form that is well defined in outline. The plant will show up best if it is near a fence or wall, or in the open where there aren’t other forms to distract from the silhouette.


Double your viewing pleasure by shining a light in front of an object so that its shape is perfectly reproduced in shadow on the wall or fence behind. Like silhouetting, this technique is most effective on objects that have a remarkable shape and outline. Front lighting shows up the details of an object to dramatic effect, but it also flattens objects because it eliminates shadows where the light is focused. 

Side and Wash Lighting

When you illuminate a building or object from the side, you increase the awareness of textures because of the shadows created by the angle of light. In contrast, when you place a fixture directly in front, but some distance away from the subject, you get an even wash of light over the entire surface. The effect shows off the shape of the object being illumined, but the overall effect is flat because you don’t have the shadowing to provide contours.

 Lighting Sculptures 

Generally, when you uplight a sculpture, you want the light source to be back from the object so the light covers it evenly. Otherwise you’ll get dark shadows created by the sharp angle of the light. Experiment with the fixture location until you find the best solution. In some cases, such as when the foliage texture or pattern behind a sculpture adds to the drama of the setting, a combination of uplight behind as well as a spotlight in front may be the answer. It draws the background into the picture, incorporating it as part of the overall composition.