From festoon lighting to firelight, there are many magical ways to turn your garden into a twinkling wonderland once the sun goes down.
Nothing transforms an outdoor space like magical, mood-setting lighting, but who likes hanging lights up? Not me. In fact, one set of lights was harmed in the writing of this story. There I was, balanced precariously up a ladder trying to tie festoon lights to the fence in our backyard, shouting to my partner, Jacob, at the other end of the string, “I need you to do this. I’m not a tall person! This is hard for me!” and the string of lights snapped in two, and that was that.
After I realised that, annoyingly, I couldn’t blame anyone else but myself, we extracted the broken section of lights from the broad beans. Trying to turn my frown upside down and feeling bad about the waste, Jacob said in an optimistic voice, “You know, someone who has time [he means me] could solder these back together…” Well, I’m flattered that he thinks I might secretly have those skills after all these years, but I don’t and I won’t.
My vision of turning my garden into a twinkling grotto has, however, taught me a few tricks about garden lighting – including what gives maximum effect for minimum effort, and when the sun sets and the garden is lit up and all is calm and all is bright, I assure you, it’s definitely worth it.
I made a frame for this tea light jar lantern by bending wire into a heart shape, then winding muehlenbeckia around it.
Solar versus electricity
It can be hard to decide between solar, battery or electricity-powered options. All have pros and cons. Solar and battery-powered lights are easy because you can put them up wherever you want without worrying about cords and power supplies. Solar lights are also an eco-friendly option because you’re not using up electricity, plus they’re free to run because sunlight is free! However, they can be fickle things that annoyingly flicker on and off if the solar panel hasn’t received at least six hours of sunlight You also have to wait for it to be dark before they turn on. However, if it’s not quite dark enough, you can cover the solar panel with dark tape to get them to work (tricksy huh?). Just remember to remove the tape during the day so the lights can recharge. Solar lights will also stop working every year or two when the rechargeable batteries inside, which convert sunlight into power, wear out and need to be replaced.
Electric lighting is reliable and brighter but tends to be more expensive, depending on the types of lighting you are using. LED lights are a better option than incandescent lights as they use less power. Use only decorative lights suitable for outdoor use and plug them into a residual current device (RCD), a piece of equipment that looks like a double plug, which protects you from fatal electric shocks. Some come with built-in timers as well, so you can programme when you want your lights to shine. If you need to use an extension cord, use one that is suitable for outdoor use that has an inbuilt RCD unit.
Once you’ve untangled them, fairy lights add a special Tinkerbell twinkle to everything and can transform garden sheds and look magical strung up in trees or woven through trellises or archways. They’re also relatively cheap and there’s a range of colours to choose from. Warm white creates a candlelit glow whereas cool white captures more of a winter wonderland crisp vibe.
These strings of bulbs create an instant sense of occasion and also add a retro feel – especially coloured ones. Lengths range from 5m (this is for the length of the lights, not the cable) with 10 lights, to 55m strings with 100 bulbs. Festoon lights have loops at the top and should be threaded through a wire so they can easily hold their own weight and the wire doesn’t snap (I learnt this the hard way). This also prevents them from drooping too much in the centre. Using a wire or rope also means you can extend their reach. They also look great strung along a fence line or above a garden.
Compared with fairy lights, festoon lights are not cheap, ranging from around $50 for a 5m solar- powered string to around $300 for a 16m electric cable. Belinda Gregg, director of The Fairy Light Shop, says this is because they’re very reliable. She recommends buying festoon lights with rubber wire as opposed to PVC. “They’re more expensive but the rubber can handle the sun’s UV rays, and they’ll last much longer.” She recommends extending their life by hanging them under guttering to protect them from the elements.
Candles and lanterns
A flickering light creates instant calming ambience – perhaps it awakens some kind of subconscious connection to our ancestors warming themselves around the fire. Tin lanterns add a rustic, charming feel to a garden and can be purchased from hardware stores or camping shops. Put tea lights inside them and suspend them from trees or hang them from porches. You can also fashion your own lantern by twisting wire around the rim of a jar and popping a tea light into it.
Don’t forget about lighting at ground level too. Light up a pathway by placing large pillar candles in terracotta pots or floating flowers and tealights in a metal bucket of water.
Candles and lanterns create ambience and look so pretty lighting up flowers or hanging from trees.
Fire pits are wonderful communal spaces for gathering around and toasting marshmallows. There are numerous options available, from chic corten steel offerings at various price ranges, to DIY versions made from stone pavers or bricks.
Fire pits provide warmth as well as light and are also great for burning rose prunings.
Our fire pit is made from a rusty truck wheel rim welded onto metal legs. It’s even multipurpose – during the day we sit a bowl of water in it as a drinking spot for thirsty bees.
IMAGES VIA JACOB LEAF AND GETTY