Lasting Landscapes by Carol

Loving the Light

One of the things I adore about my new career as a landscaper designer is sharing ideas with other landscape professionals.  My friend and fellow designer Eric Sternfels recently wrote an article on backlit plants which helped me view my garden and think about client gardens in a whole new way.

Eric encourages us take notice of the special effects that happen when plants are located between our eyes and the sun. I agree with Eric that these moments caused by Mother Nature and helped by the thoughtful placement of plants can create magic and drama.

Lasting Landscapes by Carol
The seed heads of Actaea racemosa
Lasting Landscapes by Carol
A hosta transformed by light
Lasting Landscapes by Carol
Phlox paniculata backlit by the sunset
Lasting Landscapes by Carol
Lonicera leaves sparkling in the path of the sun

Seed heads, leaves and blooms all benefit from the sun’s illumination. And keep in mind we are not just talking about plants transformed by sunsets but also by sunrises. On my own property I have noticed how beautiful the seed heads of Molinia ‘Skyracer’ are during the morning sunrise as viewed from my kitchen window. My Acer Griseum (Paperbark Maple) and Hydrangea paniculata are also totally transformed by the morning light.

Lasting Landscapes by Carol
Molinia ‘Skyracer’ backlit by the sunrise
Lasting Landscapes by Carol
Acer griseum sparkles in the morning sun
Lasting Landscapes by Carol
Hydrangea paniculata petals become almost translucent


Eric suggests studying the path of sun to determine the places best suited for backlit ‘botanical theatre.’ He believes the east and west horizons offer the best sun angles and that open areas unobstructed by walls or dense plantings help to ensure the most spectacular show. During late summer I’ve been witnessing backlit beauty daily as I watch the sun illuminate the plants in my landscaped beds.

Thinking about Eric’s perspective made me pause and observe my garden at different times of day and think about plant placement with intention. The next time you plant something, consider its location carefully. Color, texture and form are important, but so is the placement of the plant in relation to the sun. Plan for extraordinary moments and I’m confident you will be rewarded by them.


The Power of Light

From within or from behind,
a light shines through us upon things,
and makes us aware that we are nothing,
but the light is all.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Light changes everything. This time of year we are incredibly sensitive to the lack of it, or at least I am. I find it hard to get out of bed to go to the gym when it’s pitch black outside. And at the end of the day when it’s dark at 5 PM, I simply want to curl up in a blanket with a roaring fire nearby.

Light affects plants significantly too. In the way humans receive energy from food, plants get energy from light through photosynthesis. Without light a plant can’t produce energy or grow. I remember doing a science fair project when I was younger. I used my Dad’s grow light in the basement and placed four identical plants underneath it, each covered with different colors of cellophane. The plant with clear cellophane did best, since it got the most light. The one with the dark green cellophane did the worst, since light the plant needed was limited. 

As a gardener, I notice light. Not just because I want to identify whether I’m dealing with shade, part-shade or sun, but also because light changes how the garden looks and acts. Over the last couple of years I have changed my garden significantly. I took out a boatload (okay, a dumpster full) of pachysandra and created new beds. I moved hydrangeas and hostas into a shady space and looked forward to having these plants adorn my woodland trail.

But the next year when the plants leafed out and flowered, they faced away from the woodland trail instead of toward it. Why? Because they were reaching towards the afternoon light. I’m now in the process of moving some shrubs to rectify the situation (hopefully) by drowning the area in more morning light. The lesson learned? When you are planning a garden, seriously study the light so you can anticipate which way the blooms will face. 

Plants facing away from the woodland trail instead of towards it.

Another way light changes the garden is by highlighting plants in different ways. Direct sunlight is usually the least attractive light as it tends to wash out colors. That’s why professional photographers often recommend taking pictures early in the morning or late in the afternoon when plants are backlit and the shadows are long. By taking advantage of the setting or rising sun, you can orchestrate your own light show of sorts and create a relaxing or even a romantic mood. Natural lighting can even be used to highlight a plant’s best features.

Long shadows change the mood of a space.
This Lindera looks aglow due to natural light.

The backlit leaves look like ornaments hanging from the tree.

While the light provided by Mother Nature is magical, as humans we have the power to transform our gardens beyond sunset through outdoor lighting. There are lights for just about everything. Up lights, spot lights, underwater lights, and more. You can install a fire pit or purchase a portable one to add warmth to your outdoor spaces. What could be better than snuggling under a blanket while enjoying a crackling outdoor fire under the stars? 

A firepit adds amazing ambiance to an outdoor space

Outdoor spotlights can highlight features like this boulder

Take advantage of the opportunity to use lighting in all possible ways. Let light call you into the garden so you can observe every detail and enjoy your landscape even more.