Few segments of the green industry have changed as much in just a handful of years as has low-voltage landscape lighting. New technology, such as digital controls and better LEDs has added a great deal of excitement to this market. It’s put more and better media into the palettes of the most creative installers and designers.

But the new tools are only part of the story. The real narrative is the vision and skill of the contractors who are using this new toolbox to take landscape lighting to the next level. They’re artists who paint with light, using their knowledge and experience as landscape designers and builders to let the beauty of plants, trees, shrubs and flowers shine forth every hour of the day, instead of hiding in the shadows.

When landscape lighting was in its infancy, it was largely a matter of simply lighting some trees and shrubs to bring a little ambience to a totally black backyard. Landscape lighting has come a long way since then. To truly appreciate how far this mainstay has come, it’s useful to take a look at where it’s been.

The main complaint about the early LEDs is that they were ‘too blue.’ “The first LEDs had very high color temperatures, so they cast a very blue light that was not attractive at all,” explains Kevin Gordon, national sales manager of FX Luminaire, a division of Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California. “Incandescent lighting, by contrast, is very warm, and that’s what people are used to.”

Consistency is another thing the old LEDs lacked. Color temperatures were not only bluish, they also varied noticeably, even amongst LEDs in the same box. “Since then, the industry has figured it out, so modern LEDs don’t have this problem,” says Gordon. “Unfortunately, some of the people that looked at LED lighting ten years ago formed an opinion about it, and still have that opinion.”

Bringing out the beauty in nature

Today’s outdoor lighting makes the old way of doing it look like something out of the Stone Age. It’s not just the components that have advanced; the people using it have, too. It’s been a co-evolution; the technology has provided a whole new set of toy trains to the creative landscape contractors who’ve developed a passion for this work. They’re the ones who are taking outdoor lighting to a much higher level, elevating it from a skilled craft to an art form.

These artisans don’t just see what trees and shrubs look like today; they envision what they’ll look like tomorrow. “At the base of a tree that’s not yet matured, we’ll install a fixture that’ll still work for it five years down the road,” said Jerry Dougherty, owner and operations manager of Lewes, Delaware-based Country Lawn Care and Maintenance, LLC.

“At first, we’ll dim the fixture back 30 or 40 percent, so it’s not overpowering the little tree. Then, every year thereafter, we’ll increase the wattage. The fixture will be capable of handling what the tree is eventually going to look like, instead of having to replace it because the tree’s outgrown it.”

Dougherty has the landscape professional’s appreciation for nature’s forms. “One tree can have several different vantage points. So I’ll uplight a crepe myrtle or a river birch to play up the legs and the trunk, where the character is. If it’s a palm tree, the stalk of it is spectacular all by itself. We’ll use a yellow filter, then step back and hit its foliage with a green light.”

Arnie Arsenault, co-owner of A. Arsenault & Sons, Inc., in Spencer, Massachusetts, has been in the landscape business since 1979. “I’ve designed properties and installed landscapes, but was never able to showcase them in the evening hours.”

“When you can, it brings a whole different look and meaning to a property. You create a whole picture, and that’s more than words can really say. Put some light on a weeping cherry tree, or a red leaf maple, and wow—what a different look it has in the evening. The red really pops.”

The next level

When you talk to contractors who really get landscape lighting right, the first thing that comes across is their passion for it. More than one said, “I can talk about lighting all day.” They love what they do, and they don’t stop tinkering and tweaking and fine-tuning a job until they’re satisfied. For them, that’s part of the fun.

These artists know how to play with color filters, light temperatures, and placement of fixtures to get just the right effects. By pairing the right color light to the object they’re illuminating, they say, you won’t notice the light; you’ll just see the way it makes things glow.

Joe Majerus, owner of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin-based Landmark Landscapes, is one of these artists. You can hear his enthusiasm as he talks about his technique.

“One of the most amazing effects that I like to show my clients is how, if you shine a low-Kelvin amber light, say, 1,800 degrees or so, on a blue spruce tree, it’ll make it look chlorotic. It’ll look sick, like it’s not getting enough nitrogen.”

“But if you take the exact same light and put a blue lens on it, that’ll bring its temperature up to 5,000 degrees Kelvin. It’ll make the tree sparkle, with the most vibrant, shimmering glow you can imagine.”

Majerus’ mastery of light temperatures helped him work magic on one of his favorite projects. “This property had several absolutely massive, 250-year-old oak trees, with trunks three-and-a-half to four feet across. Just fantastic.”

“When you think about uplighting a tree, you can’t light the green leaves with the same amber light you’re using on the trunk. So we used three uplights, 2.3 watt LEDs (the equivalent of 15 watts incandescent) on the trunks, to highlight their gnarly texture.”

“Then, for the leaves, we used high intensity, nine-watt LED spotlights (50-watt incandescent equivalents) with green filters; that made them about 2,800 degrees Kelvin. What we got was this great bicolor lighting scheme.”

“On a big tree like that,” Majerus continued, “we’ll use maybe five to nine lights, depending on the viewing angles. You get the beautiful, warm glow of the low-Kelvin light on the brown trunk, and the neutral glow of the higher intensity green light on the green leaf canopy. That’s what we did here, and it was absolutely breathtaking.”

“The next thing we did was create a ‘moonlighting’ effect. We went up 35, 45 feet up into the trees, until we got to the point where we got a nice shadow texture on the ground. Then, we aimed that light down through the branches, so it looked like we had natural moonlight creating a reflection on the ground of this wonderful branching structure.”

Through the skillful use of lighting, Majerus gave another large estate property “a second level of dimension. This was a really cool Georgian-style architectural home, with these big white columns on the front of it. Surrounding the house are these massive aspen trees, with silvery-white bark, that are almost the exact same size and scale of these columns. Quite a juxtaposition to this very natural, woodland area.”

“We lit all the aspens on the property with medium-hot lights, about 3,200 degrees Kelvin, using a green filter,” said Majerus. “We threw a slightly warmer light on the four big white columns on the house, using both green and orange filters. This brought the perceived temperature on the columns to about the same light level as the trees.”

“So now, when you look across the stream as you enter this property, the first thing you see is a grove of lit aspen trees. Then, the columns of this big, formal house just fall right in line with those trees.”

“This really blends the house into the landscape, as opposed to all of a sudden coming across this formal structure, all lit up in the middle of a dark wood. We were able to fully integrate the home into its beautiful, natural surroundings.”

For Majerus, darkness is a tool. “There was an art movement in Italy a few centuries back called ‘chiaroscuro.’ All the paintings got rather dark. That’s part of the inspiration for my approach to lighting. It’s not how much light you can bring in, but how much darkness is acceptable. That’s really the trick.”

Lighting designer Kyle Adamson started out as a landscape architect, working for several different companies before starting his own full-service landscape contracting business; Lexington, Kentucky-based Red Oak Design, LLC, in 2006.

“It just seemed like every year, I was doing more and more lighting. About three years ago, I switched over into doing lighting exclusively.”

“I loved landscape design, but lighting—I just can’t get enough of it. It was a little nerve-wracking to give up landscaping, but I’m excited and glad that I did,” Adamson said.

It’s paid off, not just in money but in recognition. Last year, he won the AOLP’s (Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals) “Best Featured Specialty Landscape Project, 2013” for the Walker residence in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky.

The special feature that cinched the award for Adamson was the way he lit a bench and two trees at the entrance to the estate. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? However, the way he made the trees’ trunks and foliage shimmer, and the manner in which he used the interplay of darkness and shadows … well, there was something special about that, and the awards panel saw it. “The owners just happened to have this really nice bench that worked as a focal point. We were also able to uplight the surrounding trees, for a real nice composition of subtle light.”

“I wanted to downlight this bench,” continues Adamson. “Downlighting is the most natural kind of light; it’s like sunlight. Anytime we can do downlighting, we absolutely try to take advantage of that.”

“Above the bench, I placed one hanging fixture, then mounted another two higher up, one in each tree. The hanging pendant light was wired along a tree limb, and then just hung off one of the branches. If the wind blows, the light will move with it. The other two lights in the trees, were mounted and angled exactly where I wanted the light to go.”

“We used two different types of downlighting, and some uplighting to capture the canopy of the trees, and the trunk,” adds Adamson. “It was a good mix. That’s what I always tell people—you never want to do all uplighting or all downlighting. It’s great if you can do a combination.”

“The hanging light above the bench uses a three-watt LED bulb. For the two downlights, I used integrated eight-and-ahalf-watt LED fixtures; there’s no bulb to change. If it burns out, you change out the entire fixture, because the LED chip is embedded there.”

While special, the Walker residence isn’t Adamson’s favorite project. That would be a cabin retreat in Morgan County, Kentucky.

This cabin sits on a cliff top, overlooking a national forest full of gorgeous trees. “Obviously, the clients loved that view, and they didn’t want to do anything that would overpower it. We had to make the lighting really subtle, so they could sit around a fire pit and look out over the valley vista. We put some very soft lighting along the tree line on one side, and the trees just came to life.”

Stay current

Everyone we spoke with for this story, manufacturers and contractors alike, say that hanging on to old ideas about landscape lighting can cost you. “Outdoor living is becoming a huge industry in itself, and outdoor lighting (the term he prefers) is a big part of that,” says Gordon. “The industry is moving away from the very simplistic approach of, ‘Here’s three path lights, four up lights, and a 300-watt transformer, and boom, your lighting’s done.’ There will always be room for basic landscape lighting. But unleashing your creativity, that’s the thing that will take you to that higher level.”

“LEDs have a higher quality of light,” said Bruce Dennis, owner and president of Lightcraft Outdoor Environments in Chatsworth, California. “It’s more crisp, more brilliant than halogens or incandescents. And it’s much more energy-efficient; instead of running 20, 35 or 50 watts, we’re running three and four watts, getting a lot more lumens using smaller power supplies.”

“And there are more choices of color temperatures now. A typical halogen is warm white. But with LEDs we can go very warm, warm, pure white, cool white, and sky bright, where we only had one white to choose from before.”

“We abstained from making the conversion to LEDs for a number of years, because they just couldn’t get the Kelvin temperatures correct,” said Jason Galles, landscape designer at O’Brien and Company in Wilmette, Illinois. “The light was kind of sterile. But now, it’s hard for us to keep up with the constant innovation in LEDs there’s been over the last three to five years.”

The development of digital remote control for outdoor lighting is the other big news. It’s one of the components of “smart home” technology. With a smartphone app, a system owner can create just the ambience he wants, from anywhere he happens to be. “In an old system, you didn’t have a choice; it was either on, or off,” says Gordon.

“The most exciting part of landscape lighting for me is the amount of control you can now have with a low-voltage system,” says Sean Kelley, owner of Reveal Design in Chicago, Illinois. “Previously, to get the same amount of control, I went high voltage, brought an electrician in, and did all of this hard wiring. But now it can all be done with a simple transformer.”

“A user can set different themes, moods, feelings,” said Galles. “Say he has a hot tub in his yard, and he wants only as much light as you’d get from a couple of candles. He just presses a button on his smartphone, the wi-fi router grabs it, and the lighting system conforms.”

Night work

Ironically, working with lighting means you’ll have to be comfortable going over to ‘the dark side.’ “When I first started, someone told me, ‘If you want to get good at outdoor lighting, get used to not going home,’” said Majerus. “You have to spend a lot of time in the dark, playing with the lights, moving them around, finding out what works and what doesn’t.”

Arsenault agrees. “Clients want to see lighting demos at night. That means long hours, especially in the summer. If you get to work at 7:00 a.m., and don’t go home until 10:00 p.m., that’s a very, very long day.”

Kelley adds, “After all your other work is done, there’s another two to three hours of tweaking a lighting design with a client. What’s perfect in my mind isn’t always what he’s looking for.”

However, these contractors would probably agree that all the extra effort is worth it. “It’s taken our business to another level, brought in the ‘Wow!’ factor,” says Dougherty. “It has the person who lives next door to my client saying, ‘My contractor didn’t offer me that; I want what they have.’”

Who wouldn’t?