Let There Be Light

– Posted in: Garden Design

Sunrise at farm July 17 07We gardeners spend a good bit of time thinking about light. Is our yard too sunny for a plant we want to try, or is it too shady? How much light qualifies as “full sun”? What’s the difference between part sun and part shade? How about morning sun versus afternoon sun? Some of us have all-day sun and desperately want some shade; others long for just a bit more light so they can grow a wider range of plants.

Obviously, the practical aspects of light have a big impact on our plant choices, and on our success in the garden. But there’s also an aesthetic aspect to light: the way it dramatically changes the look of the garden through the day and through the seasons.

I often wonder why garden tours are so often planned for the late morning hours. Well, I realize it’s basically for the convenience of the host and the participants, but really, the light is so much prettier in early morning and early evening that it shows off just about any garden to better advantage. And sometimes, the effects of back- and side-lighting can be absolutely spectacular. Below is ‘Grace’ smokebush (Cotinus). I took the first shot with the sun almost behind me, so it’s shining directly on the plant.

Cotinus Grace May 18 08

The plant itself is nice, but the light is harsh and not very flattering. The next photo shows the same plant shot from the other side, so the sun is shining through it.

Cotinus Grace with backlighting May 18 08

Pretty cool, huh?

Iris Gerald Darby foliage May 18 08Spring is my favorite time for capturing great light effects in my garden. At this time of year, the sun sets through a break in the tree line across from my house, so it comes sideways into the garden well into the evening. Shining through green leaves, it creates intriguing shadows and halos, as with the ‘Gerald Darby’ iris foliage at right and the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) leaves below.

Ginkgo biloba leaves April 30 08

Yellow leaves are bright on their own, but a little backlighting can add just a touch more glow, as on this golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’).

Sambucus nigra Aurea foliage May 18 08

But really, the very best light effects come from the purples, reds, magentas, and oranges. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorites, starting with Magic Carpet spirea (Spiraea ‘Walbuma’).

Spiraea Magic Carpet spring foliage May 4 08

A peony flower (Paeonia veitchii, I think).

Paeonia flower May 12 08

Here’s Diabolo ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo’)…

Physocarpus Diabolo foliage May 18 08

…and an unnamed Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).

Acer palmatum foliage May 18 08

Purple-leaved smokebush cultivars, such as this ‘Velvet Cloak’, are absolutely fantastic for creating great light effects.

Cotinus Royal Cloak foliage May 12 08

But I think my new favorite, ‘Red Majestic’ contorted hazel (Corylus avellana), is possibly even better.

Corylus avellana Red Majestic May 18 08

One of the best things about back-lighting is the way it shows off otherwise-unnoticed leaf veining. It’s especially good with thin leaves, such as the new hellebore foliage shown below…

Helleborus black backlit Mar 18 05

…and on ‘Outredgeous’ lettuce.

Lettuce Outredgeous Origanum Thumbles early July 05

The large but thin leaves of cannas are also terrific with the light shining through them. Here’s ‘Pretoria’ (or ‘Bengal Tiger’, or whatever you want to call it)…

Canna Pretoria foliage May 18 08

…and ‘Pink Sunburst’.

Canna Pink Sunburst foliage May 18 08

Other thin-leaved tropicals, such as bananas (Musa and Ensete) and colocasias, can create equally outstanding light effects in summer. Swiss chards, particularly those with red, orange, yellow, or pink veining, can be super too.

Fall and early winter are also good times for special light effects here, but at that time of year, it’s the morning sun that makes the magic. Here, it’s shining into a white autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale ‘Album’).

Colchicum Sedum reflexum Oct 22 06

And look how the side lighting makes the pink plumes of muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) positively sparkle.

TDF border Nov 8 07

Sometimes, the misty morning light can make the late-season border appear moody and mysterious.

TDF border morning late Nov 06

And it’s images like this – morning light on the plumes of Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ – that make it worth getting up early at any time of year!

Miscanthus sinensis Eupatorium purpureum Nov 11 07

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Nancy J. Ondra

Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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