Spotlight on farm lighting
By PAT LAWRENCE
Landscaping on a farm generally reflects the “less is more” philosophy: the less work and less water it requires, the more likely it is to happen. That’s why landscaping with light is such a bright idea for land-loving farmers. There’s no watering, no fertilization, no pruning and no treatments for bugs or disease. Yet landscaping with light gives a great return on investment, adding safety, security, extended usage, increased property values and a glowing welcome home at the end of a long day.
The practical side of garden lighting is that it helps young, old, and tired eyes see where they’re walking at night and it discourages intruders by clearly lighting the ground level and eliminating shadows near the house. It’s also practical to make the most of any effort already invested; night lighting a pretty yard, a well-loved garden or new deck practically doubles the number of hours they can be enjoyed.
Most landscape lighting today uses low voltage. Unlike 120-volt systems, it’s safer to work with and less costly to install. There’s little maintenance other than changing bulbs and keeping fixtures free of debris, and though low-voltage lights receive one-tenth the power, there’s no limit to the effects they can achieve. Solar lights are an alternative to low voltage systems with benefits that include free electricity, ease of installation and no need to run lines or worry about those lines later. Brighter, more energy efficient lamps have improved the performance of solar lighting, and there’s a wide range of types and styles of solar powered lights available. Mercury vapor lights, though diminishing in use, can also provide aesthetics and security lighting to any property. One hundred-watt mercury vapor down-lights are very functional and effectively cover a wide area. When installed correctly, they often provide 5–7 years of lighting before needing service.
Low voltage up-lighting is the technique utilized most frequently by landscape designers to emphasize particular features in the yard. Fixtures may include spot or flood lights as well as in-ground fixtures and are typically switched separately for maximum control. Open branched and ornamental trees, Japanese maples and dogwoods are especially suitable for up-lighting. When aiming ground lights straight up into foliage, the trunk should also be bathed in light. (Otherwise, the shimmering leaves will look like a UFO about to land.) The up-light fixtures do need to be shielded and placed to avoid producing a glare to anyone walking by.
On a farm with mature trees, down-lighting adds understated elegance, casts interesting shadows and provides inviting illumination to the surrounding area. When illuminating foliage from above, lights are installed high up in the canopy above branches and leaves. Landscapers often place two 20-watt down-lights as high in a tree as possible, pointing them so the beams don’t cross. Lights placed above an object or area and aimed downward imitate natural light, like moonlight, and provide security to areas like a back entrance or side walkway. Care should be taken to hide or shield the fixtures from view. Down-light fixtures include spot or flood lights in low voltage or mercury vapor. One mounting option is the use of rubber tree straps that require no screws and do not require adjusting as the tree grows.
Back-lighting involves positioning a light in the same place as an interestingly textured surface, like a brick wall or a stone fence. The back-light emphasizes the texture and reflects a gentle light into the surroundings. Back-lights placed behind objects or plants cast a silhouette with striking effect; tall grasses flooded from behind with light can be very dramatic. As with down-lights, fixtures should be hidden from view. Spotlights, flood lights or in-ground fixtures can be used for back-lighting.
Tasks lights or spot lights use more energy to cast a focused beam of bright light at an object or other focus point, like a flag or a farm signboard. Highlight an element that deserves attention, maybe a fountain or a rock outcropping, by aiming two or more lights at it. Crossing beams reduces harsh shadows that form when only one shines on an object. Spotlights should be used sparingly, really just for accent, to highlight an interesting architectural detail or landscape addition. Use comparatively low wattage floodlights, with bulbs no more than 100 watts and take advantage of the size and convenience of 12 volt fixtures to use more lights, farther apart. A smaller bulb will often be adequate. LED landscape lights actually put out a lot of light and they’re efficient. Trying to illuminate large areas with too few fixtures using lots of wattage usually results in an unpleasant glare and unbalanced effect.
Pathway light is a soft, subtle light for walkways or steps. The fixtures generally protrude about 20 inches above ground and come in a variety of styles and materials, including solid brass and stainless steel. Pathway lights are important safety features, guiding people through a walkway, illuminating steps or lighting the way for vehicles along a driveway. Both low voltage and solar lighting are suitable for pathway lighting, if the solar units can be positioned so they can get sufficient charge during the day. Accent solar lighting is one of the most convenient, most versatile and least expensive of the various types of lights. Easily moved, their accents can readily change as the garden grows. To get the most from accent lighting in a garden, place fixtures 20 feet apart or more to create overlapping pools of light rather than continuous illumination.
The most common problem with path lights is a farmer’s passion for symmetry. Lights placed too closely, too evenly, make the path or driveway look like a runway. Experts suggest staggering the lights — creating a zig-zag pattern from side to side — and not putting path lights equally on opposite sides. No matter what their placement, fixtures prefer not to be mowed, fertilized or watered. Unless lined by an already planted area, down-lights or wall lights may be a better choice for certain paths.
Varying outdoor lighting techniques and types with a combination of flood lights, spotlights and path lights can add character to a new farmhouse and drama to a weathered farmstead. However, outdoor lighting should be a subtle addition; it’s meant to accentuate features, not hog the attention. Professionals know to create spaces and then not fill them up, a landscape practice that can be tough for first-timers to embrace.
Professional landscapers also use very little front lighting. Whether they light from above or below, they place it from the sides and with more light from one side than the other for the most interesting shadow effects. They tend to select a center of attraction for each lighted area and highlight it with additional brightness or a light coming from an unusual angle (like straight up).
Landscape lighting adds beauty, safety and utility to farm life and extends interior living spaces at night. It’s always good to be home on the farm, better still to keep enjoying it after the sun goes down.