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How to Create a Dramatic Garden That Lights Up at Night

Inexpensive approaches reveal beautiful evening landscapes while avoiding light pollution

dusk in the landscaped garden
cjmckendry/Getty Images

Outdoor lighting expands your living space, highlights the beauty of your yard and enhances safety. But if you also want to protect your backyard ecosystem, less is more.

a lit garden and walkway at night
Kazuo Yasuoka / EyeEm

The goal is to decrease the light pollution that, among other effects, masks the stars that migratory birds use as signposts, experts say. By following a few guidelines, you can create the striking outdoor effect you want while avoiding negative impacts on birds, insects and other creatures.

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"I think previously trends have been to perhaps over-light landscape spaces and, now there's a move back to more of a minimalist approach,” says Christopher Buccino, a landscape architect in Teaticket, Massachusetts. Buccino works on both residential and commercial projects, designing landscapes and lighting.

There are many reasons to light your yard. For example, you can create a safe path or entryway; show off a particular garden, architectural feature or tree; or make an outdoor living room that's inviting on a summer or fall evening.

"Minimalist” means fewer floodlights and more lights focused on specific accents, pathways or gathering areas. One goal is to avoid “uplighting” — light that extends beyond the horizontal plane and blasts up into a tree or shoots into the night sky rather than, for example, down at a step, Buccino says.

In North America, 70 percent of bird species migrate and, of those, 80 percent migrate at night, according to the National Audubon Society. Large amounts of light also affect birds’ circadian rhythm, says John Rowden, senior director of the society's Bird-Friendly Communities initiative, which focuses on issues such as outdoor lighting and native habitats.

Low-cost options with impact

The Audubon Society is partnering with the International Dark-Sky Association to provide education about outdoor light pollution and promote lighting that is healthful for people, the environment and wildlife. The IDA certifies dark-sky-friendly lighting fixtures and lists manufacturers on its website. It also has outdoor lighting guidelines, recommendations for bulbs, and sketches of acceptable light fixtures.

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Outdoor lighting affects not only birds but also the insects that are an important part of their food chain, says David Mizejewski, naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. That includes moths, which will continually fly at a white light.

"The moths are out there, and what they should be doing is finding night-blooming plants that they're going to pollinate,” Mizejewski says. “And a lot of them, they're just flying circles around your light bulbs and dying."

That means fewer moth caterpillars — a critical food source for baby birds. And, in some coastal areas, outdoor lighting confuses hatchling sea turtles that instinctively find the ocean because of the lighter sky over the water, he says.

"Darkness is normal and natural, and it's something special that we have largely gotten rid of,” Mizejewski says. “And so we each have an opportunity to just make some simple behavioral changes.”

The cost of outdoor lighting can range from $15 for a new LED bulb to thousands of dollars in design and installation fees. You can work with a landscape architect and/or a lighting design and installation company, or do it yourself.

But whether you're installing a few DIY outdoor lights or spending thousands on a new landscape, here are five ways to keep your yard welcoming to birds and helpful insects:

Light only what you need. Ask yourself how much time you'll spend outdoors and where, and how important it is to see outdoor features from inside, which will require stronger lighting to compensate for the competition from indoor lights, Buccino says. Consider safety first, so start with steps and handrails. And, be considerate of the neighbors.

Make the investment. Jacob Avakian, coowner of Vineyard Home, a Massachusetts-based home improvement company, suggests investing in the best equipment you can afford — preferably with a lifetime warranty — rather than the cheapest solar lights. “Usually what happens in the first week or two, one of them dies, one of them gets stepped on by the landscaper, one of them gets run over by the car, some of them just stop working overtime,” he says. “We're trying to educate people because they'll go to the [big-box store], they'll spend $500 and they go the next week and spend another $500."

Use technology. Timing switches have become so sophisticated that they can be programmed to change colors for the holidays or dim lights during particular months of the year, such as during migration season, says Avakian. If you want to start with smart switches for outdoor lights, they will run less than $200 each, he says.

Go for warm hues. Both LED and metal halide fixtures have large amounts of blue light in their spectrum, but that blue light is the most harmful to humans and wildlife, says the IDA. The IDA recommends lighting with less blue in the spectrum — bulbs that are rated at 3,000 kelvins or less. “When LEDs first came out, they were just these pure, bright, white glaring fixtures that no one really likes,” says Tom Crabtree, the other coowner of Vineyard Home. “But now they can control the color temperatures on the bulb."

Don't forget small changes. Set timers or turn off lights when you're not using them! And consider this: If you're using incandescent or LED bulbs, white light is going to attract insects, says Mizejewski. But insects aren't attracted to yellow light, he says, so swap out the bulbs. “They now make yellow light bulbs specifically for outdoor light fixtures; the lighting quality isn't so yellow that it colors everything.”