Experts offer a few tips on how to light landscape and outdoor rooms.

Share story

It’s no wonder that “do-it-yourself” has become the weekend mantra of today’s homeowners. Countless how-to classes, articles, books, Web sites and television shows make home improvement look simple, fun and inexpensive.

DIY, unfortunately, doesn’t always equal do-it-right.

Case in point: landscape lighting. You buy a $100 boxed set of solar path lights and spotlights, install them according to the directions, then wait for the sun to set and your front yard to look like the one on the box.

Instead, the spotlights with the yellow filter make your plants look sickly and the pagoda-style lights along the walkway barely stay lighted for a few hours. Solar, it turns out, wasn’t a good choice because your front yard doesn’t get enough direct sun during the day to charge the darn things.

Another weekend warrior loses the DIY battle. There is, it turns out, a science and art to landscape lighting, and it doesn’t come in a box.

“People buy low-voltage kits and pop in the colored lenses. They uplight every plant. It’s not natural. It looks like a little hotel or a miniature golf course,” says Randall Whitehead, architectural lighting design expert and author of numerous books, including “The Art of Outdoor Lighting.”

Whitehead’s San Francisco lighting company was established in the 1970s, and after 30 years in the business, he knows what he does and doesn’t like. Take, for instance, those common pagoda-style path lights you find at most retailers. He calls them “the Paris Hilton of lights” — all style, little substance. (Walkways should be lighted with mushroom- or bell-shaped fixtures that focus the light down on the ground, he says.)

Experts agree that function over form is best when it comes to night-lighting your property. The right combination of lights and techniques can showcase trees and shrubs; accent fountains, statues and other features; or illuminate an outdoor room for entertaining.

When done right, outdoor lighting is like “icing on the cake,”says Doug Tibbits, owner of Premier Outdoor Lighting in Tampa, Fla. “If the lighting is done properly, the landscaping can look equally dramatic, if not more so, as it does in the day. We only light what we want people to see. We don’t see the neighbor’s fence or the sprinkler heads.”

If you have created an outdoor room for entertaining, there are many options for illuminating the space.

One of the first things to consider when lighting your yard is the power source. There are three ways to go: heavy-duty 120-volt line that plugs into standard outdoor outlets; low-voltage line that plugs into a transformer and has thin wires that are easy to bury; and solar power. The easiest to install is solar; just charge up the solar panel on each light and stick it in the ground. Lights should, however, be placed in full sun for best operation at night. Even at their best, though, solar isn’t preferred by most professionals, Whitehead among them.

Next up are bulbs, or lamps. There are numerous types to choose from, including newer 65-watt and 120-watt incandescent bulbs that provide up to 25 percent more light than older incandescents; halogen bulbs; compact fluorescent bulbs that produce soft lighting and last up to 10,000 hours; and mercury vapor bulbs that cast a cool color and can last up to 24,000 hours. Energy-efficient LED bulbs, which last up to 30,000 hours, are gaining in popularity for they require one-third the energy of incandescents and don’t emit UV light that attracts insects.

Knowing the arsenal of products and power systems is only half the battle, however. To light your nights like a pro, it also helps to understand some common creative techniques.

“I’m painting with light, so I feel it’s a very artistic endeavor,”Whitehead says. “It’s my job to make spaces look beautiful and alluring at night.”

Make a sketch of your property that shows plant life, architectural elements, gathering places and other outdoor features you want to highlight. Then use these outdoor blueprints to figure out which techniques will best do the job — and don’t be surprised to learn that one boxed set of light won’t cut it.

Says Whitehead, “The best outdoor spaces have a little of each of these types of lighting.”