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Light and shadow in garden design

By Janette Wilson, Tyabb, Vic

Light and shadow in garden design go hand in hand.

Together they are present in every garden, but often taken for granted. They may not immediately reveal themselves as garden attributes, but considering their passive roles in an overall design, they can be the backbone to the feel of a space. Light and shadow are important in native gardens as well.

Aside from the placement of plants and how important light and shade is to their health and growth, using shadow in more deliberate ways will flesh out an enchanting theme. It will lead the eye or create a focal point on a bland wall, or render a space intimate. So light and shadow are key elements in garden design.

Light and shadow on fence
Shadow and light cast by fence, image Janette Wilson

Properties of shadows

Shadows have so many properties that can be used to our advantage in garden design. The shadows cast by sunshine are mobile while shadow cast by a fixed light source are not. Natural light provides interesting movement in the garden by careful placement of an open fence allowing sunlight to shine through and meander across a lawn. The more intimate feel of candle in a laser cut holder will cast shadows that dance on a table or wall.

Sunlight creates mobile shadows
Shadows cast by sunlight are mobile, image Heather Miles

Use of space determines use of light and shadow in garden design

Considering the use of a space will of course determine the kind of light and shadow effect desired. Seating in an open sunny space is often ideal in winter. But how could shadow play a role in high summer when it might be too hot?

A deciduous tree, like a cedar (Toona ciliata) or Kurrajong (Brachychiton acerifolius), is often the answer to a general landscaper. However, in Australia, with so few native deciduous trees and the leaf fall, this may not be an easy solution.

Orientation is the key to placement of a perforated sunshade that allows for winter light and summer shade. This is an architects trick on north facing homes with wide verandas or battens that cast intermittent shade.

Light and shadow are present at night too

Shadow is always a constant companion of the sun, but it is present at night too. Moonlight takes the night watch alongside our lighting choices. Moonlight is always great lighting to reflect off the water of a pool onto a wall or ceiling.

light on a garden pond
A lit pond at night creates a magical feel to the garden, image Heather Miles

Shadows from laser cut feature walls can lend even greater depth to the reflection, first falling on the wall itself and then through the holes onto whatever is behind it, wall, foliage or ground.

Of course man-made lighting can be used in this way too and the positioning of outdoor lighting can contribute a great deal to a garden’s theme.

Tree lighting can cast a lovely set of branch shadows. Such lighting can highlight a particularly beautiful bark or trunk, or twine up branches to create a magical enchanted feel.

It’s not all smoke and mirrors though. Lighting can be practical, lighting the way along paths, decks and stairs, leading us to an entrance, or ensuring we don’t trip on the way there. Here the aim is to banish the shadows for our own safety.

For more information about Australian Plants Society members in Victoria, see their website.