The one element of the winter garden you can count on is the dark. So smart gardeners make it work for them. In winter, our homes close...

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The one element of the winter garden you can count on is the dark. So smart gardeners make it work for them.

In winter, our homes close in around us, but it doesn’t have to feel gloomy, according to landscape designer Steve Haizlip, who owns New Leaf Creations in Issaquah.

Haizlip conducts an experiment with his clients. “I bring a test lighting system in and leave it for a week,” he says. “When I remove it, they go nuts. They want it back.”

You can try it yourself. Attach a lamp to a weatherproof extension cord, drag it out in your backyard and uplight a tree or shrub near the edge of your property. Walk back inside, turn off your interior lights and look out. The view has opened up. When you define the perimeter of the usable space with light it expands the view and creates a sense of comfort.

Night delights landscape architect Erik Wood, of Langstraat-Wood in Ballard. For him, it’s about more than merely seeing your valuable landscape. In the daylight, a viewer’s eye roves over the environment, guided gently by color, shape, texture and size. “With light you can be forceful about how someone’s eye moves through the garden,” Wood says. “You can create a second garden.”

A simple shin-level tier-light makes a path clear for walkers, but the pool of light also emphasizes elements you might not notice in the day, such as lush moss or a sprig of rosemary. A bullet light (a small hooded spotlight) uplighting a vine-covered wall creates a textured backdrop and silhouettes the plants in front.

The goal is not to erase the night but to interact with it.

Lighting options

Most homeowners can install their own low-voltage systems (12-volt current) sold at home-improvement stores. These plug into standard 120-volt receptacles and require no excavation, but have limited range and flexibility. In the meantime, here’s what the pros do for lighting effects:

Down- or area lighting: Fixtures are mounted high to cover an area wide enough to entertain by. Common fixtures: Wall-mounted, adjustable with hoods.

Uplighting: Ground-level lights aimed at a tree, water feature or garden fixtures. Common fixtures: Small spotlight or in-ground (flush with the ground) directional lights.

Pathway lighting: Shin- or knee-high lights bordering a garden path. Common fixtures: Pathway, pagoda or bollard lights.

Step-lighting: Small, soft lights that illuminate steps. Common fixtures: Embedded step lights or pathway lights.

Shadowing: Spotlighting a tree or garden art to cast a shadow on a wall or fence. Common fixtures: Hooded spots or in-ground directional lights.

Accent lighting: Also called “spotlighting,” it focuses light in a small area. Common fixtures: Hooded spots, in-ground directional or even bollard lights.

“Darkness is as important as light,” says landscape architect Bruce Hinckley, whose firm, Alchemie, has studios in Pioneer Square and Sun Valley.

Hinckley draws his inspiration from romantic scenes such as the luminaries of the Southwest or votives at a shrine. As a result, his nightscapes employ many, indirect uplights and path lights at low levels in almost exclusively warm hues like those found with incandescent lights. He avoids cool, blue light (especially fluorescent) and spots flooding down from treetops, where they give the impression of moonlight. He leaves that to the moon.

Once homeowners experience night lighting, they tend to overdo it. Many designers encourage restraint. Sunsets, twilight, firelight and alpenglow are the standard because these scenes console us.

“Think about the generous illumination one candle gives off at a dinner table,” says architectural lighting designer Sidney Genette, principal at Lighting Designs in Pioneer Square, where he specializes in lighting that strives to be energy-efficient and maintenance-friendly. “In the dark, a little light goes a long way.” For example, light reflecting off walls and trees from a dramatic spotlight is often enough to make pathways visible.

In all his projects, Genette insists on dimmers for outdoor lighting, because they allow for changes of mood and use. Dimmers also help extend the life of bulbs.

Does all this subtlety miss the point of improved security and safety — often a homeowner’s central motivations? Not at all. A security light has distinct disadvantages. Prowlers know how to lurk in the dark just outside the bright cone of light, where the contrast makes them difficult to see. Light, even at low levels, dispersed evenly around the home or along the perimeter makes it harder for someone to find dark pockets through which to slip.

In a cottage-style garden overlooking Puget Sound, Wood uplit a row of magnolias bordering a busy street. He describes them as “sentries.” While a shimmering tree can’t stop a would-be interloper, the suggestion that this property is cared for, that “there is more going on here than meets the eye,” has an important deterrent effect, Wood says.

It gives one comfort, and that’s the heart of lighting the garden.

Lisa Wogan is a frequent contributor to The Seattle Times: