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The Year of Magical Lighting (or How I Nailed My Outdoor Lighting Scheme)

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The Year of Magical Lighting (or How I Nailed My Outdoor Lighting Scheme)

May 2, 2023

Editor’s note: Sally Kohn— journalist and CNN political commentator, TED talk giver, and design aficionado—has been chronicling her adventures in remodeling for our sister site Remodelista. Today, she shares her DIY wisdom here on Gardenista. (See The Case for Unstained Wood Floors from a Stealth Design Nerd and The Surprising Virtues of Spray Paint (Plus a Few Tips), and Remodeling 101: Riotous Wallpaper in Closets, Cupboards, and Drawers.)

My quest for the perfect outdoor lighting began when my partner told me that the sets of solar string lights that I had meticulously and artfully strung up all over our backyard looked like something out of a Soviet gulag. This was, I realized, unnecessarily harsh but not altogether inaccurate. These particular solar lights cast an icy blue tinted light with the faraway glimmer of a wrongly convicted prisoner losing hope. In lighting terms, I learned this meant that the lights were low in lumens and high in kelvins.

Maybe some people like cold lighting. I do not. And from my informal survey of the Instagram home design posts I endlessly scroll through everyday during my morning procrastination, the popular aesthetics of the day don’t like cold light either. Kelvin-wise, warm light is considered 4,000K or lower—the lower, the warmer. For instance, the new string lights I put up are these outdoor-rated ones from Brightown, clocking in at 2200K. Super warm and inviting, like fireflies dotting our backyard.

Our backyard, lit up with rechargeable hanging globe lights by FatBoy and new string lights by Brightown. Photograph by Sally Kohn.
Above: Our backyard, lit up with rechargeable hanging globe lights by FatBoy and new string lights by Brightown. Photograph by Sally Kohn.

Don’t forget to pay attention to lumens, too, which measures how much light is actually cast. Dim warm light is better than dim cold light in my book, but it’s still dim. In the case of our backyard, we wanted to be able to have a dinner party on a summer evening after dusk, so that means having enough light to actually see what you’re eating. The Brightown string lights above come with bulbs that are 28 lumens—not enough to read by individually but with a bunch all strung together, just right. Also, since they work with a dimmer, I plugged them into a remote that includes a dimmer option. I don’t dim them often, but it’s nice to know I can.

String lights don&#8\2\17;t have to be relegated to the backyard. Here, they create a starry arch over a front walk. Photograph by Tom Kubik for Gardenista, from Garden Visit: Starry Nights and String Lights in Northern California.
Above: String lights don’t have to be relegated to the backyard. Here, they create a starry arch over a front walk. Photograph by Tom Kubik for Gardenista, from Garden Visit: Starry Nights and String Lights in Northern California.

But wait…that’s not all! I think a good backyard needs layers of light, just like inside the home: you need general lighting, ambient lighting, mood lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting. I don’t have this on any official authority, but I think the same should apply outside, right? So the sun/moon are the general lighting, I guess, and in our yard, the string lights are ambient lighting and somewhat task lighting (though I still need a headlamp when the coals die down on my beloved Nuke Delta Grill). For mood lighting, I’m head over heels in love with these mini mushroom solar lights from Lights4Fun. Seriously, I’m not sure I’ve ever loved a light more. We’ve used them to line the walkways in and out of our backyard and, perhaps especially because we live in the woods, the little glowing mushrooms feed the overall magical gardenness of our property. Plus, it’s impossible not to look at them and smile. We’re growing out our meadows and restoring the habitats in our woods and are planning to put more mini mushroom lights wherever we think enough sun can find their solar chargers.

Our mini mushroom lights lighting the way up stone steps. Aren&#8\2\17;t they irresistible? Photograph by Sally Kohn.
Above: Our mini mushroom lights lighting the way up stone steps. Aren’t they irresistible? Photograph by Sally Kohn.

Finally, our accent lights are, well, exactly what accent lights are—these bright sparks of delight, hither and yon throughout our backyard. We’ve gone for an eclectic mix—enough variety that we don’t look like a cookie-cutter catalog spread but not so much variety that we look like a backyard lighting store. We landed on placing two of these Ballard Designs solar lanterns on the table in our little seating vignette and then a couple of super fun Bolleke rechargeable hanging lights from FatBoy dangling from the trees around that focal point. The effect, if I do say so myself, is both functional and delightful.

Above: String lights draped over a dining table can provide enough light to see what you’re eating. Photograph by Joe Schmelzer, from Steal This Look: Starry Night Outdoor Dining

Of course, everything is waterproof, though some we certainly bring inside during the winter months and strong storms. The mushroom lights and string lights are year-round features. Going with LED bulbs all around provides some extra safety and comfort. I know that during a dry spell, the bulbs won’t heat up and risk a fire hazard. And in rough weather, if a strand of lights whips against a tree branch, they’re not likely to shatter—and even if they do, they’re just plastic, not glass.

Above: An open fire adds drama and encourages convening. Photograph by Brooke Fitts, courtesy of Ravenwood, from The Indoor/Outdoor Holiday: 11 Ideas to Steal from the Hudson Valley.

Throw in a fire pit—we have the deliciously oversized Yukon Solo Stove, which fits our open space feel—to bring some dynamic light to your yard given that, you know, fire moves. It provides light that is both literally and figuratively warm. And honestly, even if it’s a mild night, pushing the seating back a bit and having a fire going just creates that sense of convening and connection. And because the Solo Stoves are essentially smokeless, there’s really no downside. They even make pizza ovens and other adapters to cook right over your Solo, which I’m hoping to try.

Now is definitely the time of year to whip your outdoor lighting into shape, before it gets so hot that the sweat in your eyes obscures your artistic vision. Figure out what temperature makes you happy and make some intentional choices about your ambient lighting, mood lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting in the space. That happy feeling when you’re hanging out in the backyard or pulling into your driveway at dusk is just a few lumens away.

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