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

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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our friend Ben May 21, 2008, 1:05 pm

Wow, Nan! Such glorious shots. I especially loved the opener. The corylus is fabulous, and my heart went out to the lettuce (but whoever named it ‘Outredgeous’ is clearly out of control and needs to be suppressed). Thanks for another great post!

Aw, you don’t like the name ‘Outredgeous’? I find it amusing. In normal light, it really is a good red.

Pam/Digging May 21, 2008, 2:12 pm

Light does make all the difference in how you perceive the garden or a particular plant, not to mention in our garden photos. I heartily agree that garden tours should start much earlier than they generally do, not least because of the midday heat here in Austin. Likewise, public gardens should open at sunrise at least once a week so we can appreciate the beauty of the golden hour.

Thanks for reminding us of the power of light, and for your lovely images.

I appreciate your comments, Pam. Looking at how much difference light makes certainly makes me more aware how misleading plant photos in catalogs, books, and magazines can be.

Nancy Bond May 21, 2008, 2:40 pm

Lighting is the key to a good photo. 🙂

Quite right, Nancy. I’m sure our resident photographers could do a much better job giving us tips on how to make the most of lighting for great garden photos.

Elizabeth May 21, 2008, 6:13 pm

What beautiful pictures! I particularly love how you showed off the beauty of the veining in ordinary lettuce, and of course the cannas. I look forward to looking at my swiss chard tomorrow when it’s back lit with the early morning light. Thanks for your perspective!

I wish you a pretty sunrise, Elizabeth. And you’ve reminded me that I really need to place my chard better this year, so I can hopefully get some good ligthing on it.

Lisa at Greenbow May 21, 2008, 7:37 pm

That first picture looks like the gates of heaven were thrown open and all invited inside. All your pictures are wonderful. I love the way light shines through leaves. This is one of the reasons why I put large leaved plants in the small window box at our kitchen window. I love to see the veining and vivid colors as the light shines through.

I took that photo last July, but the light was exactly the same this very morning. When it shines through the trees like this, it seems almost possible to touch it.

I think your idea of using foliage in a windowbox is absolutely fantastic, Lisa. What a super way to increase your chance of seeing superb light effects.

Heather's Garden May 21, 2008, 8:41 pm

One of my favorite photos of my herb garden last year was at dusk with the sun setting through the lemon grass. I rarely see an early morning (let alone outside) so I’m really admiring your morning light photos in particular. Beautiful.

Do you have the lemon grass photo posted on your blog, Heather? I’d love to see it, if you want to leave a link here.

Tom May 22, 2008, 12:06 am

Absolutely spectacular!

I have to say, God is deffintley shinning through in that first picture. All are great, and the diabolo ninebark is pretty. Thank you very much for sharing.

God Bless!

Hi there, Tom; thanks for visiting and commenting. I agree that seeing light made tangible is something like a spiritual experience.

ChrisND May 22, 2008, 12:41 am

Light effects are pretty inspiring to see. Only now do I realize how often in a day do I look at something and think “wow the light really makes that interesting”. I will have to make an effort to get some good light images from the garden this year and explore different times of the day.

Welcome, Chris! Oh, yes – quite often the most dramatic light effects are so fleeting that they’re gone before we can even think to grab a camera. One exercise I think is kind of interesting is to pick one bed or combination on protograph it several times over the course of the day from the same spot. Hmmm…that could be a fun group event, maybe for a Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop later this year, or perhaps as a separate topic.

Frances May 22, 2008, 5:17 am

Hi Nan, I have been rereading you book, Foliage, learning new things that were missed with the first couple of perusals. The light in the morning is best here, the setting sun is lovely, but it is nearly always windy then. In the first light, the air is still and usually the dew is still on the leaves, a great combo for picture taking. The Aurea sambucus is in full bloom here and I have given up trying to get a good shot of the flowers, just can’t get away from that washed out look. Black Lace is blooming also, so maybe berries this year! Love all the plants in your wonderful garden. Yours is one of many gardens that I would love to see in person, it must be quite a sight.

I’m glad you’re enjoying Foliage, Frances. I agree that trying to get a good pictures of the golden-leaved elderberry flowers is very frustrating. But those of your ‘Black Lace’ should be absolutely lovely. I thank you for your kind words about my garden, but I can assure you it’s looking rather disastrous at the moment, because I’ve been busy gardening elsewhere. I’m planning a post over at Hayefield sometime in the next few weeks to explain what I’ve been up to recently.

Heather's Garden May 22, 2008, 12:26 pm

Nan–It took some searching, but I found the post from last year with the lemon grass and the setting sun:


Thank you so much for taking the time to find and share the link, Heather: It’s a lovely moment!

Gail May 22, 2008, 7:48 pm

Nan, your photographs are beautiful and the accompanying ideas for good shots shall be put to good use. Earlier today I was looking at the Hardy Begonia wishing I had a good spot to replant it…it looks so good back lit.


Oh, good one, Gail – hardy begonia is another beauty when the light shines through the leaves. It doesn’t much like me anymore, so hopefully yours will do well and you can post pictures for us to enjoy this fall.

Kim May 23, 2008, 12:53 am

I agree wholeheartedly! I made a (much shorter) post (with just one example) in fall ’06… but just about backlighting. I had just noticed how much I love its effects, and started planting to take advantage of it shortly thereafter. I’m not nearly so good at that as you are, though. Yet!

Neat – I found your post; here’s a link to Why I Love Backlighting so others can see it too. Thanks, Kim!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter May 23, 2008, 4:13 pm

I’ve been captivated by light shining through my red foliaged things this year & have taken way too many photos of Heucheras & Heucherellas! I wish I had more time in the morning for taking photos, but that’s almost always the busiest part of the day.

Ooh – two more excellent plant suggestions. Their thin leaves allow the light to shine through, and rich colors glow like stained glass. Thanks, MMD.

Anna--Flowergardengirl May 24, 2008, 1:14 am

I’m always looking for this kind of light and shadows playing off the color schemes. I run out and take the photos and then come home to download and see how it turned out. It is so much fun. A new mystery every time.

It’s an addiction, isn’t it? But a good one, I think. It’s neat when you look at the photos you’ve taken and see things that you didn’t even notice when you were actually out in the garden.

Westfalia May 24, 2008, 4:26 am

you really took very nice pictures. i love them. Could you upload your pictures in a higher resolution?

why was my old post deleted?

Sorry, I didn’t see any other comment from you; it must have gotten filtered out. I do have high-res files of these images, but may I ask why you want them?

Westfalia May 24, 2008, 2:36 pm


thanks for that quick reply. You could provide the high-res pictures as wallpaper-downloads. 🙂
i’m looking forward to it.

I’m really glad you enjoy the images. We don’t post high-res images on the site, however, because it would take up an immense amount of server space, what with the four of us here! Plus, I sometimes have the opportunity to sell the images. But again, I thank you for your interest.

Dave May 25, 2008, 10:45 am

You took some great pictures Nan! The close up of the ginko is great. I love their fall colors. That first picture is a good one. Morning is one of the best times to be in the garden. Especially here when it starts to get hot. If you haven’t done your gardening chores here by 8 AM you may as well wait until after 7 PM.

Thanks, Dave. Yep, the ginkgo’s fall color is great. Even better is its habit of suddenly dropping all of its yellowed leaves at once to create a pool of gold.

Saxon Holt May 27, 2008, 9:52 pm

Nan – your sensitivity to lighting is wonderful and selections shown here are superb. Would make any garden photographer jealous. When my “Grasses” book came out (now who was the author???) I made the lecture circuit using ‘Harvesting the Light’ my theme. Some plants, like grasses, reveal light in the garden. Great post.

Um, yeah, the author would be me. Thanks for your comment.

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