Designing with Natural Light in the Garden

In the morning, as the sun is rising, a special quality of light touches the garden. Plants appear fresh, even during a dry spell, with imperfections hidden in shade. Bare, compacted areas look mulched in the dim light, and even faded colors shine as the sun’s rays highlight one side of a tree’s foliage or individual flowers in a perennial bed.

Then it’s noon, and the magic show is over. The scene is bleached and shadeless, flat. Check back around sunset and another version of the garden emerges, as the angled and golden western light tints blossoms, leaves, and bark.

Intentional or not, this natural light affects how we see. It has the power to capture attention, turning an ordinary garden into a memorable experience. Natural light becomes a design element, along with color, texture, landform, and plant type. How can we include this element in a garden design plan and control its impact on what we perceive?

Amsonia in Western Light in Fall

Observation is a key first step. Spend time watching plants in your garden throughout the day, and you’ll discover which ones stand out in the morning and evening sun. Visit other gardens and notice how light works. Photograph plants when they’re at their highlighted best and when they’ve receded and record the position of the sun and the type and siting of the plant. The effects of natural light on the garden, and the relationship of sun angle and plant placement, begin to make sense. If you’re looking for inspiration on how to observe, the book Mountain Light by photographer Galen Rowell is a beautiful guide. The focus is on alpine light, but Rowell’s lessons for appreciating light and landscapes can easily be adapted to garden design.

Next, think about color. Which colors work well in the morning and evening, and are there any that make a statement at mid-day? Which colors are best at different times of the year? Pastels may look calming and welcoming in the gently shaded light of morning but can disappear in direct light. Vivid, saturated colors may feel a little tamped down in morning light but hold up at mid-day and can be stunning in the rays of evening. A mix of colors can invigorate the garden, especially as the sun touches leaves and blossoms emerging in the spring or foliage beginning to turn in the fall. A color theme — variations of a particular color repeated throughout the garden — provides a coordinated approach, as light travels from one patch to another. Color is a topic with many questions to explore, and Sandra Austin’s Color in Garden Design is a good resource for understanding the science and art of color, including the impact on color of different kinds of garden light.

Another aspect to consider is plant texture. With fine to coarse leaf shapes and rough to smooth leaf surfaces, a plant’s texture absorbs, reflects, and concentrates light. Think of the halo effect of sunlight on the soft plumes of flowering ornamental grasses, the contrast of a holly’s glossy leaves and the wrinkled leaves of witchhazel, and the irregularities and varying depths of the bark of maples, oaks, and hickories. Textures supplement color as a means for catching light.

Plant shape has an impact. Natural light seeks out opposites: plants that rise above their companions, stretch further horizontally, or drape or weep in contrast to the more rigid architecture of their neighbors. Single plants positioned to take advantage of backlighting, side light, or front light can be amazing focal points. Massed plants provide a different effect, filling the field of sight with washes of color or texture.

Start the design process by returning to the discoveries revealed through observation. What is the orientation of the garden — does it face north, south, east, or west? Are existing plants already illuminated by light, and if so, would increasing the number improve the effect? If no focal points for light currently exist, are there blank spots in the garden that could benefit from their addition? Which colors, textures, and shapes might work for these spaces and do existing colors, textures, and shapes need to be modified?

Combine these observations and think about framing views. Pick a few of the most important views — from inside the house or from the street as you approach the house or from an area within the garden — and identify the frame. It could be an interior structure such as a window, an exterior structure such as a gate or portal, or a frame created by plants. Often the garden frame provides a view from shade to an area of sun, which becomes a focal point, but reversing the perspective and framing a shaded area creates a sense of mystery, encouraging a closer look.

Choose plants based on your observations, on color, texture, and shape, and using additional factors that might include whether a plant is native, pollinator-friendly, evergreen, or deciduous. Settle on the views to frame, begin to place the plants, and watch the results. And if this approach seems more easily described than implemented, keep in mind one of the best features of natural light: you can enhance it as a design element, by deliberate selection and placement of plants, but even if you don’t control its impact, it will continue to work wonders in your garden. All it takes is a bit of attention to see its ever-changing effects.


Morning Light in Spring
Direct Light in Spring

Notes

1. Austin, Sandra. Color in Garden Design. Newtown, CT: The Taunton Press, 1998.
2. Rowell, Galen. Mountain Light. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986.

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