Flower beds a little gloomy around midnight? Perhaps it's time you plugged in and turned on

Anna McKane sheds some light on the subject of garden illuminations
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The Independent Culture
Dancing by the light of the moon is all very well for owls and pussycats, but for checking the barbecued sausages you need something more prosaic. Garden lighting can combine romance and practicality across the price range, from a candle in a jam jar to electric lighting costing thousands of pounds.

Either way, it has to add a sense of drama and help you to see what you are doing.

You can get pretty lighting effects using candles and paraffin torches, but the most dramatic results come from carefully planned electric lights.

Low voltage halogen bulbs are becoming popular among lighting designers. They have two big advantages: the units can be very small, about five inches high, and they provide a very white light, the nearest to daylight. Their size makes them almost invisible, an important factor in a small garden.

Colin Brown, of John Cullen Lighting in London says three lights, enough for a small back garden, cost around pounds 400 with cabling and a transformer to reduce the power to 12 volts. Expensive, but they are built to last for 15 or 20 years.

These lights are fixed to spikes which can be stuck into the flower bed, so they can be moved around to light different plants and shrubs according to the season. There are also uplighters which are sunk in the ground to illuminate an urn or sculpture.

Many garden centres sell much cheaper lighting - Hozelock manufacture several systems which are widely available. There are globes, mushrooms, or smaller lights on spikes. They cost about pounds 65 for two lights, 50m of cable and a transformer. They are generally not so unobtrusive as the more expensive systems.

For something cheaper and less permanent, paraffin torches may be the answer. These consist of a pole with a metal reservoir and a wick on top. Ours, which have seen 20 years service, came from the United States, but a similar arrangement with a bamboo pole is available in some large stores and gift shops. They cost up to pounds 115, depending on the length of the pole.

These provide a good, if yellowish light, and are quite dramatic, lending a rather Roman banquet atmosphere. Subtle they are not, and they need to be positioned carefully. They will cast a glow which is picked up by pale leaves and flowers, but placed too near a special shrub they will burn it rather than illuminate it.

There are plenty of large candles in garden centres and stores. They usually have a thick gauze-like wick enclosed in wax scented with citronella, which helps to keep insects at bay. As with the paraffin torches, a strong gust of wind will blow them out, but they are effective on a reasonably still night. A large candle on a stick to push into the flowerbed will burn for an evening and costs about pounds 4. For a little more you can buy a candle in a terracotta pot, which usually lasts for several evenings.

But for impromptu effect, a short candle or even a stub in an ordinary red wine glass is brilliant. The glass shields the candle from any wind, and sets up pretty reflections of the flame.

Whether you spend several hundred pounds on spotlights, or just plonk a candle in a jam jar, it is worth taking time to work out positioning. White flowers and pale leaves catch whatever light is around - variegated dogwood and Iceberg roses look magical with a light picking them out from the darkness. White Campanula persicifolia is another winner: its dark leaves recede, so the white bells seem to be suspended in the green gloom

White flowers are the best of all for a garden which is to be appreciated in fading light, but if an all-white garden seems too precious, then creams and lemons are the next best colours. Blues, unless they are extremely pale, disappear completely in the dark, and even pale pink is not so good as pale lemon. The creamy peach clusters of Rose Buff Beauty glow gently in artificial light, almost as if they have a light source inside them.

Experimenting with other plants reveals all sorts of interesting effects. The stems and undersides of rosemary leaves are very pale, so at night a small light placed under a rosemary bush makes it look like filigree silver.

John Cullen Lighting offers many different types of lighting and a design service (0171-371 7799). Contract Lighting Design of Ilford supplies garden spotlights, globes and lanterns by mail order (0181-554 0723).