Working homeowners value great landscapes but seldom have sufficient free time to enjoy everything their outdoor living space has to offer.
There is a solution to this dilemma and that is tailoring your landscape design to meet your busy schedule.
Evenings are a quieter, more peaceful time when the day’s responsibilities are behind us. It’s a perfect time to relax and get almost everything from your landscaping investment, provided you make it a priority to design for it.
One of the secrets to nighttime landscape experiences is being aware of the possibilities.
That awareness alone will inform decisions that are afterthoughts for others.
#1. Color And Lighting
Let’s start with everyone’s favorites, lighting, and color.
This poem from the Nights In White Satin, a song by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, The Moody Blues, reveals insights into how colors can appear in a moonlit landscape.
“Cold-hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colors from our sight
Red is gray and yellow white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion”
If the light is just right you will discover that red indeed appears to be gray and yellows and other light hues appear white.
The nighttime landscape is an opportunity for playing with the light that suits the more relaxed activities for that time of day. You can turn up the light to have truer hues, but most people will enjoy a balance of grays and whites with only small splashes of color in strategic places.
#2. Time of Night
Photographers know that colors change throughout the day due to factors such as humidity and other environmental factors. The same is true for natural moonlight and artificial nighttime lighting.
Consideration should be given to increasing or decreasing natural light by managing how much moonlight illuminates a surface, often by accounting for reflection and light absorption. For example, the thin needles of evergreen trees tend to absorb light while broad, shiny deciduous leaves easily reflect it.
During the evening hours, humidity tends to be high and the air still. This makes fragrances that linger in the heavier air important nighttime design considerations, maybe one of the most important.
Hosta plantaginea is a fragrant perennial that offers intoxicating moments that rival the night-scented Nicotiana sylvestris. N. sylvestris is an annual that can be hard to locate but its aficionados know the effort is worth it.
Large-leaved hostas like H. plantaginea and H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ have bold textures that reflect artificial and moonlight quite nicely, especially if the surface is wet from dew or a recent storm.
Kentucky Coffee Tree and Swamp White Oak are two trees valued for their interesting bark texture.
Those textures can be featured by illuminating the trees with uplights that graze the surface of the trunks. It can be especially striking during the winter months when leaves have fallen and branching is in full view. The shadows against a bed of snow can be stunning.
Ornamental grasses are one example of a perennial plant that will sway to even the most gentle breeze. The same is true for newly formed tree branches. Warm, low-voltage lighting will capture that movement.
While lighting can sometimes be difficult, water is a favorite for creating movement in the nighttime landscape. Ripples in reflecting pools and ponds are softly illuminated in full moonlight.
#6. Form and Shapes
Other effective ways to use ornamental lighting is to backlight trees to capture shapes with light that leaks around the edges of the branches.
In contrast to the rounded canopy of many trees, certain varieties of trees distinct shapes, such as the pyramidal form of the Lindens.
Groupings of white flowering shrubs such as Hydrangeas will brighten up the nighttime landscape with larger splashes of brightness. This same effect can be achieved with masses of whitish-gray perennials, such as Artemesias and Stachys.
#7. Formal and Informal Emphasis
A row of pyramidal forms adds a formal element to a landscape design. It can be further emphasized by contrasting it with an informal grouping.
These pyramidal forms may be stately conifer trees that are anchored to the horizontal plane with sweeping masses of shrubs, perennials, or annual flowers. This bed of plantings can be further emphasized with a crisp bed edge that transitions to an expanse of freshly cut turfgrass.
#8. Linear and Circular Lines
Lines are some of the most powerful design elements because the eye tends to follow them. Therefore, they can be used to focus attention for emphasis. It’s a way to highlight just about any desired element of a landscape.
For comparison, they can be used to pull the eye away from undesirable views. The usefulness of line as a design element was not unnoticed by famed landscape architect Jens Jenson. For this reason, he was known to say that to manage open spaces you need to focus on the linear edges.
#9. Space and Shadows
To make the most of natural moonlight, it’s important to design open spaces that will reveal interesting shadows. Our Minnesota autumns and winters when leaves have fallen create fascinating shadows. Consider Honeylocust and Kentucky Coffee Tree for this effect.
However, the more you study the shadows of plantings and features in the nighttime landscape you’ll discover interesting shadows are to be found everywhere. By now you should be realizing that there’s can be an interesting story behind every aspect of a well-designed landscape.
Why not have that story based on an artfully crafted shadow or make shadows one of your landscape themes?
#10. Transitions and Intersections
Most accidents happen at transitions, the intersections of spaces. Planning to illuminate these transition areas is smart design. As previously mentioned, lines can be used to further guide people through the landscape.
It’s important to have clear transitions in a landscape to signal the outdoor rooms and their purpose. Regardless of how these spaces are used, it’s pleasing to the eye to have a recognizable, intentional structure.
Safety considerations are paramount for any landscape, especially when features such as pools, ponds, fire pits, and outdoor grills are involved. There should be signals that alert people to what’s ahead so that they do not turn a corner to discover the unexpected.
Another common mistake is lighting ‘hot spots.’ This occurs when lighting to illuminate features in the landscape is not positioned properly to avoid blind spots. The solution is to plan lighting and consider its effects from all angles.
Sometimes it’s necessary to screen off-site distractions during the nighttime hours.
A treed ballpark during the day is a wonderful place of energy and community, but the nighttime lights can be a significant intrusion of your private space that may require screening.
Circumstances will determine if a green wall of evergreen trees or constructed walls are the best solutions.
What’s better than one illuminated basalt stone water feature?
Three or more, a collection or grouping that gives your landscape that wow factor!
This design tip can be employed to make any landscape element more powerful, such as a double or even triple formal hedge that repeats the same pattern.
#14. Sequence and Rhythm
If a row of the same trees is unappealing, an alternating sequence of shapes, sizes, and numbers of trees my provide the desired rhythm.
Just as a collection of musical notes can be a symphony or irritating noise, depending on how they are arranged, so it is with landscape elements.
Playing with arrangements to find the rhythm of a landscape is personal to the users of that space. This is why homeowners should be actively involved in the design collaboration.
Looking closely you will discover that daytime and nighttime balance differ.
A small element in the back of a landscape can seemingly become something that doesn’t belong. However, when illuminated this element can be counterbalanced with others that belong to the same family or class of elements, such as benches, boulders, or sculptures.
#16. Night-Blooming Plants
Until you start planning for the nighttime you may not realize that many flowers close during the evening hours.
Common blue flowering Morning Glories, Ipomea purpurea, would not be showy in an evening garden, especially because the blooms close at dusk. However, the white flowers of its cousin, Ipeomea alba, better known as the Moonflower, make for a beautiful display that lights up the night.
Tropical water-lilies are another example of night-blooming plants. They typically open at dusk and close in the early morning hours. When you combine this interest with the activity of tropical fish in your backyard pond, this night-blooming event can become a celebrated one to share with the family.
#17. Variety and Contrast
The distinction between landscape elements, groupings, textures, and colors are more apparent during the daylight hours. After dark fine to medium textures may seem to merge into a singular mass of darkness.
To maximize interest use a variety of plants and element groupings that contrast each other. You have to play with the balance too. Light textures are visually light, whereas large texture can appear heavy, despite their actual weight. Thus, we often refer to the visual weight of landscape plantings.
By now you have most likely realized that these 17 Nighttime Landscape Design Tips overlap each other. This is why landscape designing is part art and part science. Use them as suggestions and guidelines that will make evenings in your outdoor environment something to remember.