Light up the Night

Imagine a row of lights sparkling in the darkness along the path to your front door. Or floodlights creating a silvery wash against regal tree trunks. Night lighting can be beautiful, and it’s also practical. It discourages intruders, helps prevent you and your guests from tripping or falling, and allows you to enjoy your landscape hours longer each day.

The past 20 years have seen an explosion in outdoor lighting designs. There’s some truly cool stuff out there: decorative lights to drape around a gazebo, pretty path lights that look like hanging lanterns, sleek tube lights that run under stairs or railings, and in-floor deck lights that create a soft pool of light around your feet. Best of all, these effects are affordable and easy to create.

Traditional lighting

Hard-wired lighting (lighting that is wired directly to the home’s electrical panel) is useful in very permanent situations, such as over your front door. There have been wonderful innovations in hard-wired outdoor lighting, such as lighting that can be built into the flooring, steps, railings, or posts of a deck. Unless you’re very experienced with electrical projects, you’ll need a professional to install hard-wired lights.

How low can you go?

Luckily for novices, hard-wired lighting is no longer the only game in town. Low-voltage lighting is much easier to hook up, with kits that start at around $200 and include all the materials you need. Installation takes just an hour or two. Basically, you clamp the lights onto a cable and plug it into an outdoor ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet by way of a transformer, which installs in minutes. (See instructions that come with your kit for more details.)

Path lights that run along a sidewalk or driveway are the most common type of low-voltage lighting. Other options include lights for water gardens, illuminated garden ornaments, step and deck lighting, spotlights, floodlights, and well lights to illuminate your favorite plants.

If you’re more experienced, you can create a more complex design by purchasing individual components. Just be sure to calculate the wattage needed to run your set-up (the total of the wattage of each fixture). You may need to install more than one transformer to handle many lights.

Fun with the sun

You can install solar landscape lighting in minutes—no wiring, no fuss. This is especially useful if you want to place lights far from an electrical source.

Solar lights perform best in the summer and in southern regions with more intense light. The technology is better than it used to be, but solar lights are still best for situations where lighting is decorative but not critical. Few will run more than 10 hours without additional sun, and they may not run well after a cloudy day. Beware of dirt-cheap solar lights. They will burn less brightly for shorter periods of time.

Solar panels should be in a sunny, south-facing spot. Clear debris from the solar panel periodically to make sure it’s absorbing as much sun as possible.

String yourself along

Decorative string lights—think Christmas lights gone wild—are a quick and easy option. Look for fun new designs such as small globes, miniature metal lanterns, and oversized ice cubes or margarita glasses. One type even mimics flickering fireflies.

String them around a gazebo, along a porch, up an arbor, along a fence, around a deck railing, or through a small tree or large shrub. There are even solar-powered string lights for areas of your garden that aren’t close to an electrical outlet.

Make sure the string lights are rated for outdoor use. Never use indoor lights outside and always plug them into a GFIC outlet to prevent shocks.