Of all the elements that go into the creation of a garden, quality of light is the least concrete. Paradoxically it is also the element that can have the greatest sway over the success – or otherwise - of the designed space. If it is managed correctly light has the capacity to render a garden vibrantly alive, responsive to, and reflecting,the seasonal changes in plants and colours. Get it wrong and you will have a functional space that may fulfill the requirements of the brief, yet feels lifeless. Light is ‘Ingredient X’, enlivening the garden and creating mood and atmosphere more fully than any planting or landscaping can manage.
The first, and obvious, consideration when designing a new garden is aspect - where does the light fall, at what time of year and at what time of day? In the northern hemisphere we favour south-facing plots - maximising full sunshine over the longest period. East-facing gardens are less good for spring plantings (fully exposing plants to early sun on frosty mornings is not recommended) and north-facing even more challenging. It is unusual to find a garden which does not receive any direct sun at all, however, and one of the jobs of the designer is to maximise the impact, even if the only spot which enjoys a daily dose of sunshine is that currently occupied by the garden shed.
The next consideration is the strength and quality of the light. Towards the equator the brighter and more intense light becomes - by the time you get to the Aegean sea the light has become a dominant presence, crystalline and relentless during the summer months. In more northerly latitudes light is softer, filtered through thicker layers of atmosphere, with the resultant loss of the brilliance found further south. This muted light has its compensations, though – softer colours and subtler, gentler effects are possible, which would appear drab in brighter settings, while the electric vibrancy of colours that look so good in, for instance, the Mediterranean, rarely translates further north.
So how should we manage light?
In a garden exposed to bright sunlight shade will be essential. This shade can be deep and solid, a cool pool of dark, a retreat from the heat and a counterpoint to the glare of the sun, or dappled by overhead trees, speckling the ground plane and bringing movement to the scene. The benefits of deep shade, especially in hot southern locations, can be enhanced with the addition of cool water, bringing the necessary element of movement - the sparkling droplets or surface taking the place of the dappling that is preferable where light is not always reliably bright. Even dappled light can have varied quality – birch trees, with their loose forms and flexible twigs create lively carpets of light shade; more solidly-built trees bring shafts of light to ground level - with less movement but more definite puddles of illumination, at their most effective when they hit well-chosen plants or features like a spotlight.
Where sunlight is at a premium, pale colours and reflective surfaces seem to be the key to maximising the impact of the available light: it’s no coincidence that small urban courtyards, surrounded as they often are by tall buildings and trees, are frequently given a modern treatment of pale rendered walls, monochromatic white plantings and variegated foliage.