Vintage Pacific NW: We’re revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published Aug. 17, 2008
By Valerie Easton, former Natural Gardener writer  

JAN MOYER IS brilliant. So are the gardens she illuminates so expertly, you never see the source of light. Moyer travels the world, from Abu Dhabi to the Bahamas, California to Boston, preaching the gospel of subtle garden lighting while rescuing both public and residential gardens from nighttime obscurity. 

When I told a designer friend I’d hung out with Moyer on a lecture tour, he proclaimed her the world’s foremost garden-lighting specialist. I hadn’t realized my companion in the quest to track down decent cappuccinos in the wilds of the Midwest was so accomplished. We’d discussed our shared birthday (same day; she’s younger) but not the demands on her time. Before the reverential response from the garden designer, I fancied I’d discovered a fresh new talent. 

Turns out Janet Lennox Moyer is a one-woman industry, with dozens of jobs in progress around the world. Among her best-known public work is the illumination of Evening Island at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Moyer taught workshops at her home in Albany, N.Y., where students lined up to practice lighting trees. She’s been called the “Poet of Light” for her artistry in transforming daylight dull to nighttime magic. Moyer’s designs feature light seeping out from the center of trees and pouring gently down from arbors to show off statuary or bathe an outdoor dining terrace in light as flattering as candle flame. 

“Half the time, you can’t even see your garden if it isn’t lit,” Moyer points out.

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Moyer’s designs never look like someone has just walked into a room and flipped on the switch. And they don’t mimic daylight. Her mantra is to use more fixtures and less wattage, for an effect that’s lovely and mysterious whether viewed from inside the house or outside in the garden. A great advantage of night lighting over sunlight is that you get to choose what you want to emphasize and what you’d prefer to hide. Eyesores like a neighbor’s giant house or the garbage cans disappear into darkness, while a favorite tree or piece of art is played up with light. 

What surprised me is that Moyer deplores ankle-high lights, like the ones in my garden. “We’re vertical animals, so the garden should be lit vertically, not horizontally,” she says. Because we’re used to sunshine, light shining down from above looks most natural to us. The good news? Fixtures attached high on architectural elements or trees aren’t knocked around by kids and pets, as they would be if installed at ground level. The bad news is that you might need to hire an arborist to install your lighting. 

Moyer most often uses 10-watt bulbs in low-voltage fixtures. When more light is needed, she adds fixtures, not brighter bulbs. Surface texture, color and finish matter because how we see light depends on how it’s reflected. Grass and dark colors absorb light, while shinier surfaces reflect and magnify it. 

To help people feel comfortable outside in the dark, Moyer defines a garden’s boundaries, shape and volume with washes of light. She lights pathways just enough so you can see them safely, layering brighter light on the front door for a sense of welcome. And if you’re worried about lights drawing insects to the garden, Moyer suggests placing a bluer light far away from where you relax outdoors. Insects see blue light best, so will swarm to it. 

“Respect the night sky,” Moyer cautions. “It doesn’t take much night lighting for effect. Think about the full moon, which doesn’t give all that much light, but it’s enough.”