Make Your Pond Shine with Great Light Design

Why water feature lighting is more than just show

Water Lillies can take on an otherworldly appearance when they are well-lit.
Water Lillies can take on an otherworldly appearance when they are well-lit.

Many in the water garden industry believe
that lighting your pond or water feature
is a waste of money. They argue that the
initial expense and hassle of maintaining the lights
is not worth the enjoyment you, the owner, will
experience.

Hogwash, I say! This author begs to differ.

Think of it this way: most folks work all day.
By the time they return home from work, attend
their children’s after-school functions, eat dinner,
clean the dishes, help with homework, et cetera,
guess what? It’s dark! Multiply this by five out of
seven days a week, and the only time the average
pond owner gets to enjoy their pond during the
day is on the weekends — if they don’t have more
out-of-the-house activities. While most people
purchase a pond or water feature imagining what
it will look like during the day, most of their available
viewing time is actually at night. Indeed, one
can convincingly argue that for contractors to sell and install ponds, they should, in good
conscience, always provide good lighting.
The small additional expense for
good lighting effectively provides two
water features in one: a daytime feature
and a nighttime feature.

Position lights in front of and to the side of waterfalls, aiming them back at, up, and across the waterfall
Position lights in front of and to the side of waterfalls, aiming them back at, up, and across the waterfall

The Beauty of Nighttime Ponds

Nighttime is the only time one can
see the whole pond, inside and out.
During daylight hours the surface of
the pond is highly reflective, acting
like a mirror to the sun. You can
see reflections of nearby objects like
buildings and trees on the surface of
the water, but it is very difficult, even
with very clear water, to see down into
the depths of the pond.

At night, on the other hand, when
the pond is well-lit it becomes a multidimensional
space, alive with thousands
of active life forms. Sure, your
fish are an obvious source of entertainment
and relaxation, stunning to view
under the lights at night. But when
you take 20 minutes to simply stare
into the water — looking past the fish
at the water bugs, insects and other
creatures — you will find yourself lost
in a world of wonder, and the rest
of the world — your world — goes
away for those precious moments.
You forget about that deadline at
work. You forget about the next game
in which your kid is playing and how
you are going to get her there since
you have an important meeting in
conflict with the time. Rock formations
become the Grand Canyon of
the seas, and water lilies are three dimensional
towering beings from a
sci-fi movie set on another planet.

You become entranced inside this
multi-dimensional underwater world,
a voyeur spying on the lives of millions
of tiny organisms, watching them go
about their lives in the aquatic universe
that is the pond in your backyard.

Photo by AJ Hetzke
Photo by AJ Hetzke

Outside the pond, the spumescent
spray of waterfalls reflecting light is
hypnotic. This is more impactful at
night since the contrast of the lit water
next to a darker surround — even if
adjacent spaces are illuminated with
accent lighting — is much greater
than sunlight hitting the water and
the rocks next to it. You are drawn to
the waterfall at night, and somehow it
seems larger — more present — than
during the day.

It should be stated that good
lighting is essential to this argument,
because poor lighting does nothing to
enhance a pond or water feature while
we are waiting for the sun to return
to our side of the planet. The lazy
contractor’s adage of “two lights and
I’m good” is a disgrace to the lighting
profession.

Accomplishing Great Lighting

So now, knowing what we do
about the importance of good
lighting, what do we consider
when illuminating a water feature
to create an unforgettable impact?

  • Waterfalls. Light on waterfalls
    is dazzling.
  • Streams. Illuminate the stream
    bed; the moving water will create
    magical lighting effects.
  • Pond. Don’t just light water to
    light water. Feature objects which
    are interesting to look at, such as:
    – Interesting rock formations
    – Fish caves
    – Plant material, especially water
    lilies.
  • Marginal plants. Often
    overlooked, these plants, when illuminated, help create a transition
    between the pond and the surrounding
    landscape, adding dimension to the
    overall scene.
  • Photo by Jeff Rugg, Courtesy of Kip Northrup
    Photo by Jeff Rugg, Courtesy of Kip Northrup

    So how do we go about lighting
    these elements?

    Waterfalls

    Try positioning light fixtures in front of
    and to the side of the waterfall, aiming them
    up and across to the opposite side. The light
    will both reflect and refract off and through
    the falls to make the whole thing jump out
    at you. Do not place light fixtures behind
    the falls and aim them out at the viewer.
    This creates a bright spot and a glare bomb
    and does nothing for the waterfall.

    Streams

    Use (very) small fixtures to illuminate the
    streambed, aiming the light along the length
    of the stream, parallel to the shoreline.

    Pond

    Tuck the lights into crevices between
    rocks and aim them out at the object you
    want to illuminate, so the light source is
    not visible but light seems to come from
    nowhere. Water lilies look fantastic when
    the light is aimed at their stems — the light,
    tucked into the crevice, projects out horizontally
    at the stems of the water lily. The
    lily pads will become translucent and create
    a nice contrast to the water around them.

    Marginal Plants

    Place lights at the base of the marginal
    plants — sweet flag, rushes, iris, cattails, et
    cetera — and shine up. Don’t illuminate
    every plant, but choose an odd number, like
    five or seven or so, and balance them out
    around the pond.

    It is also important to consider use of
    the space and physical characteristics when
    determining light fixture locations. Think
    about where the people who use the space
    will be sitting, and how they will be navigating
    through the yard. Position the light
    fixtures to avoid shining the light directly
    into someone’s face. This will cause annoying
    glare, which is a nuisance and a distraction
    to the features you want them to look
    at. Positioning the fixtures can be challenging
    sometimes, but you can use objects like
    rocks and plants to act as glare shields for
    the fixtures. Place the fixtures near them,
    and the rocks or plants will shield the light
    from direct view.

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    Also remember that the water feature is
    a component of the overall outdoor living
    space. While fascinating in its own right, if
    it is the only thing illuminated in the area,
    it will appear as a glowing object floating
    in the black vacuum of space. Be sure to
    illuminate trees, shrubs and interesting
    architectural features around the water
    feature with ingrade or stake-mounted
    accent lights. Path lights can be used to illuminate
    low-growing annuals and ground
    cover, and also help provide light to aid in
    walking through the garden. Accent lighting
    can also be added up high in trees, aiming
    down to create a moonlighting effect. This
    is especially effective when using a cooler color
    white light.

    Be careful, however, to avoid illuminating
    everything in the yard. Landscape
    lighting should create a delicate interplay
    of light and shadow, highlighting points
    of interest but not lighting too much.
    Otherwise, the site will become too bland.

    What Lights to Use?

    There are hundreds of varieties of lighting
    fixtures with many different light source
    options available on the market, each
    with its own advantages and drawbacks.
    However, the trend today is toward light
    fixtures using LED lamps. LEDs are an
    exciting technology that promises to revolutionize
    the way humans illuminate their
    environments, both indoor and outdoor.
    They are typically higher in price than
    traditional sources like incandescent and
    halogen, but they offset their initial expense
    with longer life and lower energy costs.

    Professional pond installers and retailers
    should understand the added value that
    well-planned and well-executed pond lighting
    can provide to their clients. They should
    also understand they will make more money
    selling more lights. Aside from those industry
    perks, though, the truth is that good
    pond and water feature lighting benefits
    everyone. From the pond owner’s friends
    who get the opportunity to enjoy their
    host’s beautiful backyard, to the production
    line workers’ kids who get new shoes when
    more lights are manufactured and sold —
    beautiful pond lighting is a win-win.

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