The combination of a short garden, a tall house and a north-facing aspect means that for six months we are gardening in complete shade. This doesn’t bother me too much any more. I’ve taken other steps to extend my outdoor allowance. The removal of the lawn and the laying of the stone last November has meant we no longer negotiate a sea of mud during winter months. This was followed by the rearrangement of furniture, the planting-up and repositioning of pots and the procurement of a fire bowl, all of which have given a focus to winter evenings. Sadly these efforts seem to have preceded a change in the weather which has thwarted even the hardiest of cold weather gardeners, so rather than sitting outside by a fire and making plans for spring I find myself back indoors with my nose pressed against the window. When it comes to garden design, I can’t claim to be awash with ideas. They tend to emerge slowly whilst reading or watching television, and as they solidify, they require validation by frequent visits to the window where I can verify external conditions: the position of the steps in relation to the silver birch, the exact height of the hornbeams in relation to next-door’s shed or the reach of a neighbour’s fig tree. Of course any time after about 4.00 at this time of year, whether I’m sitting outside by the fire bowl or pressing my nose against the window I realise that I can see nothing anyway. So this has lead me to reconsider something I have resisted for years. The tricky and contentious issue of external lighting.
When it comes to illumination, I’m firmly on the side of less-is-more. Even internally, we live in a state of perpetual half-dark which in my opinion works just fine if you do all your reading on a kindle. For those who still adhere to the idea of real books, I do concede it has its challenges.
I believe in adopting a similar strategy externally. I don’t want to feel I’m in Las Vegas when I’m in the garden, and neither, I suspect does the wildlife. Now I do realise this is Hackney not Yosemite, and nocturnal visitors to the garden are scant. However I’ve heard enough alien rustlings in the dark to know I’m not alone, so I’m treading carefully with this one. There will be nothing hanging in the trees and nothing mounted on walls. There will be no step lights and no floodlit party areas. All illumination will be at low level and dimmable. And when we are switched off for the night, so is the lighting.
However, if I’m strategic with this, and apply a little magic, I may actually be able to alter the whole feel of the garden after dark. By day, the old walls which mark its edges also, sadly, define its limits. But if I confine the illumination to trees and foliage rather than to boundaries, I may just be able to create enough artifice to imply an almost limitless space.
So that was the plan. The lighting is now installed and I see that my vision might have to wait until Summer for its full realisation. At this time of year, with empty beds and leafless trees, there is very little to illuminate. So until some substantial foliage emerges, we seem, by default, to be lighting the walls.
However, looking forward to a time when growth is abundant and boundaries are blurred, we have ensured that all lights are movable and directional, so possibilities should be almost limitless. Key points when lighting a garden are to ensure the actual light source itself is invisible and there is sufficient flexibility to adapt and readjust as the seasons change. And not everything needs to be illuminated, so we have left pockets of darkness, areas where edges are undefined and a little mystery can be implied.