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Lighting the Night Garden

Inexpensive and easy to use, solar lights increase safety and beauty

By Leslie Land

I can’t decide: Am I more in love with the spotlight that makes the arbor vitae at my Upstate New York home a spectacular accent or the hundreds of tiny white lights woven into the nepetas on the rock wall in Maine? The plants form a shallow river of gray-green and purple that flows over the old stones; the lights make it look as though the river were sparkling in the moonlight.
But whether I go for bold theater or subtle enhancement, there’s one thing I’m sure of: Solar lights are the best thing that’s happened to garden design in a very long time.
Lights used to be married to the grid. Closely watched candles and fire pits aside, all safe outdoor illumination — whether for marking pathways or creating the play of light and shadow that keeps a garden beautiful after sundown — was hard-wired.
Therefore, until quite recently, garden lighting was out of my reach, given the expense of a licensed electrician, the necessity of trenches for the temperamental ground fault wiring, and, perhaps most daunting, having to commit to placement no matter how much the garden (or my mind) changes.
Solar lights, on the other hand, are inexpensive, so easy to place that “install” is too grand a word, and completely portable. In other words, they’re perfect for experimenting, which is what I’m doing right now in the New York garden because last October’s snowstorm was extremely unkind to the previous arrangement.
My first step will be to try some new lighting angles: down through the apple tree for shadows on the lawn, straight on the trunks of the old junipers to highlight their gnarly patterns, up from some distance away from the tall angel's trumpet to catch their halo of white flowers. ... Things I'll be considering: Is the effect visible from the house? Too visible (especially from the bedroom)? Have I protected the people next door from glaring intrusion?
The next step will be deciding which two or three ideas work best — separately and with one another. If I used any more than three, there wouldn’t be enough darkness, and the place would look like a tourist attraction beer garden. Choosing will be difficult, but it’ll be fun, because the design is in my hands.

Lighting the Way: Pluses and Minuses

The path lights in Maine nearly drove me nuts. I should have known better, but I somehow assumed the projecting lids on all but the cheapest one-piece lights would help direct the light down, onto the surface of the path. They don’t.

You can get many versions of the basic structure (solar-collecting panel built into top; clear plastic fixture; stake under fixture), with choices including straight-sided tubes, pseudo-lanterns, tulips, bowls and more. But all of them present the same problem. The light shoots more or less straight out, and because the solar panel is so small (generating only a fraction of a watt), it doesn’t radiate very far.
Unless you put them right at ground level and space them so close together that you create a miniature runway, the devices marketed as “path lights” show only where the path is, not where on it to actually put your feet.
One-piece lights are also difficult to set out in a way that leaves only the light showing. It seems it would be easy to hide the stakes among low plants like salvias, miniature daylilies, ageratums and coleus. But no. If the plants are bushy enough to conceal the stakes, they’re bushy enough to be forever draping a leaf or three over the fixture, blocking the light, the power-providing sun or both.
A Web search for workable path lights turned up plenty of styles I knew wouldn’t be any better than the ones I’d tried, along with a daunting quantity of brightly colored kitsch: flowers, butterflies, birds and, of course, gnomes, all guaranteed to glow in the dark. Several of the gnomes are lighted in the belly area, so at night they look as though they’ve swallowed something radioactive.  
Unfortunately, what the search did not find was a one-piece path light that was both effective at night and handsome enough to set out in the open and look at all day. I gave up after combing about 30 sites. I may have missed something I would have adored, but it looks as though what's at your local hardware or big box store is pretty much what there is. Going online yields only a few prettier (but equally ineffective) path lights.

For now, I've settled on lighting my garden path with mini floodlights that aren’t one-piecers. The lamps and collecting panels are separate, connected by long wires. Given their directed beams and diminuitive profile, the lights are easy to conceal among path side plants. And because the panels aren’t directly attached, I was able to place them (more or less) out of sight, wherever they will get plenty of sun without attracting undue attention.

Leslie Land began her career as one the original chefs at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, Calif., but she is best known for writing books and articles about gardening, food and cooking, and for her co-starring role in the book and PBS TV series, The 3000 Mile Garden. Her syndicated cooking column, Good Food, ran for more than 20 years in newspapers from Philadelphia to San Francisco, and for seven years she wrote the Garden Q&A column for The New York Times. After retiring from the Times, she established a virtual magazine,, where she wrote about gardening, food and agriculture, among other things, and indulged her inner publisher by giving space to guest posts from Eric Larson, the Manager of Yale's Marsh Botanic Garden, and from her husband, Bill Bakaitis, an expert mycologist and outdoorsman. Read More
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