April 12, 2021 5 min read

Candles, whether votive or tapers, make an evening more romantic and ceremonial. Candles do not have to be at eye level. Votive candles look wonderful placed on silver trays on low tables. I have a client who had a fireplace with a flue that had been sealed and she put several votive candles of different sizes in the fireplace.

I like three kinds of light on the dining table. I often put votive candles on the table, usually one in front of each place setting. These make the silver and crystal, as well as any silver or gold on the china, sparkle. I also use several very exaggerated candlesticks with the tallest candles I can find – 15 to 24 inches high – in the middle of the table. The candles are very theatrical and the source of the flame, which can be irritating when it is at eye level, is above head level. (If you prefer low candles, my advice is to use tiny shades.) In addition, I use ceiling downlights, at a very low point on the dimmer, to give the whole table top a soft even glow. If you have a chandelier, I would suggest converting it from electrical use so that it holds real candles.

As for candle colors, I normally like only shades of white and neutral. However, for very formal evenings, I use black candles in silver sticks. There are times when I suppose you could use colored candles, although I have never found out when – even at Christmas they always look to me like crayons gone mad.


Kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms need special kinds of lighting. For kitchens I tell people to keep the ceiling lighting in check and put more light under the wall cabinets. You need light on the work surface, not on your head! A kitchen with massive amounts of ceiling light casts shadows on the very counter where you are working. 

In a bathroom I think that you should be surrounded with light. I often set the sink in a niche, push a downlight on the top recess and make the flanking walls sandblasted panels of glass backed by thin sheets of white glass with incandescent frosted bulbs behind them.

In a bedroom I often use swing-arm wall lights, or sometimes table lamps on either side of the bed instead. And I suggest that those little lights that clamp on to the pages of a book are a very civilized and thoughtful idea for insomniacs who do not wish to disturb their partner.

Light is even more obviously the prime mover outdoors than in: without it, nothing will grow. But although the dramatic effects of light – neutral as well as artificial – are more difficult to manipulate in the garden than in interiors, the results can be even more satisfying.

Natural light is always changing. The daily cycle echoes the seasonal one: as the sun or summer heats up, bright golden sunlight becomes almost white-hot before cooling to the glow of early evening or fall, and then to the blue light of late evening or winter. There are always days when clouds turn the light from glaring to gray. If you exploit these light conditions, the garden can become far more dramatic and the sun will become your ally in stimulating the viewer’s emotions. An interesting garden structure, for example, will show up best in the low slanting sun of the beginning or end of the day, and, placed carefully, will cast elegant shadows.

Shade and sunshine provide natural chiaroscuro. Even a path through an orchard looks brighter in contrast to the shadows cast by the living umbrella of the trees. It is this kind of tonal contrast, between darkness and light, that I like to echo in the planting of a garden. Even the smallest areas offer opportunities to create vivid vignettes. Shady areas can be lightened by using plants with bright or limey-green foliage, or with flowers of white or blue – the two colors that show particularly well in low light. In a sunny area, dark evergreen hedges make especially effective backdrops for pale schemes. Silver-leafed trees and shrubs, such as weeping pear, Russian olive, artemisia or lavender, as well as tall white flowers, such as delphiniums, show up superbly against yew, especially if the hedge is clipped so that the contrast of form between the static, flat plane of the yew and the rustling foliage or swaying fronds in front is also apparent. The drama is heightened in strong sunlight when the tonal differences are further increased.

I think one of the most overlooked aspects of gardens is their effect at night. Perhaps no one understood this better than Vita Sackville-West when she made the White Garden at Sissinghurst. Sadly, few people are able to see it when it is at its most magical, glimmering in the moonlight. But because Sissinghurst consists of several buildings, the family had to cross the garden every evening on their way to their bedrooms, so she would have experienced the luminosity of the white flowers as darkness fell.

If you use your garden at night, you will know that not only do plants release their scent after sundown, but that white shows up better then and for longer than any other color. That is one of the reasons I have planted the Allée with so many white flowers: at night it looks like a stage set for a ballet. Paradoxically as it might seem, the eye can make out blues well after reds and oranges have receded into near-black, because our blue receptors continue to work better in dim lighting. 

To make the most of warm summer evenings outside, I recommend assisting natural light with artificial light. However, with the exception of specific lanterns in areas where you wish to sit, the light sources should always be concealed. I hide amber lights among the underplanting at the base of birch trees; this highlights the beauty of their silvery bark. A down-facing light hung in an important tree will create a beautiful pattern of branches over the lawn, while discreetly placed flood light can enhance the moonlight, silhouetting the leafy branches of towering trees.


It is always worth considering lighting the main axis in your garden. But instead of putting ugly commercial lights every few feet along the path, a light-colored path, constructed perhaps of tiny gray or beige gravel, would be bright enough to reflect light fixed in a few select trees. If you place an exquisite lantern at the end of the vista, visitors will find themselves drawn, like fireflies, to this beautiful focus.

Remember that lighting from the house will inevitably be cast into the garden. A florescent-lit kitchen can destroy the fragile mood outdoors at the flip of a switch, so modify its harsh effect either by using shutters or by fixing a concealing baffle on to the light fitting. Even the incandescent light that spills out from a drawing room needs to be balanced by low-wattage lights concealed among the plants. If you have a sitting or dining area, you should, for safety’s sake, throw light on any changes of floor level, and on the pathway that takes you there, but never spoil the atmosphere of a night garden by overilluminating it. Just as it is true for interior lighting, so it is for the garden: it is the qualityof the light that matters not the quantity – here too less is often best.