Backlighting Plants

Use this design techinque to enhance your early-morning and late-afternoon garden.

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Backlighting is a technique that enhances a planting design by making the most of the sun's golden light.

Want to light up your yard? There's a way to make your plants shine. It's a garden design technique that will highlight the plants in your garden with the use of light. No, it doesn't involve landscape lighting — instead we're talking about highlighting plants using the natural light of the sun.

Backlighting is a design technique that takes advantage of light from the setting or rising sun. By backlighting certain plants, you can create a brilliant light show right in your own backyard. During the golden hours of the day, this design technique really creates a romantic mood in your garden.

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"When you can find special plants, like ornamental grasses, that glow and light up in the sun, you can create a situation almost like you are the lighting design director for a rock concert," says garden designer Scott Ogden. "You can find the stars and figure out where to put them so they shine in the garden." Although this type of garden design works best in the southern parts of the United States where the quality of sunlight is strong, bright and distinctive, you can see the effect just about anywhere plants are exposed to a setting or rising sun.

There are five types of plants that enjoy the spotlight, or backlight:

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Bulb flowers reflect light through their leaves and petals. This is the most colorful type of backlighting. "Bulb flowers like gladioli, tulips, daffodils and irises will soak up the color and beams from the sun, resulting in light re-radiating from the flowers like a light bulb," says Scott. "They really make a magical lighting fixture for the garden."

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Translucent plants will give you a good glow show too but aren't always as colorful as bulb flowers. It's the composition in their leaves that makes these plants translucent and sets them apart from bulb flowers. "The American fringetree is native to the eastern part of the United States," says Scott. "It's another plant that glows when backlit, transmitting the light right through the flowers and the foliage." This fringetree isn't just easy on the eyes — it's incredibly fragrant too.

Ornamental grasses, on the other hand, will give your landscape a softer shine. They're equally dramatic because they can cover more area. "Their slender leaves and feathery seedheads light up just like fiber-optics."

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Architectural plants, such as prickly pear cactus, are set off by light in another way. The statuesque form of cacti and succulents make them a light-show luminary. Pair them with a translucent to create a more dramatic backlighting design.

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Finally, hairy plants radiate their beauty to twice their size, like this pasque flower seedhead. Their fine hairs make them great backlighting candidates.

Picking plants is one thing, but an equally important part of this light show is staging. Depending on your landscape, you can choose to take advantage of the east or west side. Consider where you'll get the most play with light.

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"Once you find a great backlighting plant, the trick is to position it with the sun at its back so that the light can shine through," says Scott. Also a strong architectural plant like a hardy agave makes a perfect textural contrast for an ornamental grass to help it pop out of the garden, he adds.

With backlighting you can experience your plants in a whole new way. "Gardens are all about creating special moments," says Scott. "When you mix textures and colors and bring in the natural backlighting of the sun, you can show off your plants at their very best."

What's a good way to determine if a plant is a good candidate for backlighting? Go to a nursery around dusk and hold the plants up to the sun. That way you'll get an idea of how the plants react to natural light.

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