The light fantastic: Transform your garden with some well-placed tealights and lanterns
It takes Derek St Romaine and his wife Dawn at least two hours to set out the 500 candles that light their garden for a special evening opening each year. What dedication! They hang tealights in lanterns through the rose arbour. Their mophead hollies are lit from below by candles set in bags of sand. They float tealights in clear plastic cups on their pond, highlighting the gleaming scales of the koi carp nosing around underneath. "You've got to put a bit of sand in the cups as ballast. Otherwise they capsize," says Dawn.
They use tealights in hundreds of terracotta pots to mark out the geometric beds of the vegetable garden, packed now with purple-podded peas, yellow courgettes and fountains of elephant garlic. "The pots were here already," explains Derek. "We found them stacked in the old air-raid shelter at the side of the house. But we'll use anything that'll hold a candle – tins, jam jars, take-away carrier bags."
What he particularly likes is the effect that night-lighting has on plants like the gunnera that leans over the pond. "The shadows are amazing," he says. "Like something out of the dinosaur age. It's another world." The pond-planting is particularly dramatic with a fine stand of yellow-stemmed bamboo surrounded by the bold, bronze foliage of rodgersia and a statuesque dogwood in the corner, holding its variegated foliage in horizontal layers. "I'd be quite happy not to have flowers in the garden, says Derek. "Just leaves."
Being a photographer, he knows about lighting and the warm, intriguing atmosphere that lights can create in a garden as dusk falls. So far, he's stuck with low-tech effects (candles), apart from a rope of LED lights, cleverly fixed under the lip of a shallow step on the terrace. He did that for safety reasons, but it adds to the drama, as well.
The garden, unusually large for a suburban plot, stretches out behind a pebble-dash house. A yew hedge running across the middle divides it into two halves, each roughly 50ft wide and 100ft long.
A rose arbour laced with white 'Mme Alfred Carrière' and 'Iceberg' roses is lit in the evening from above and below and leads through to the ornamental vegetable and fruit garden laid out in the lower half of the garden. This is dominated by two big old fruit trees, their skirts of box and lavender lit up by lanterns hung in the branches above.
It's a richly planted area, but it's also a beautifully managed one: double cordon apples are trained on the south-facing wall and the compost heaps that St Romaine built at the bottom of the plot have hinged lids that double up as a standing out area for all the plants they raise from seed.
Go to the evening opening on Wednesday (8.30-10.30pm; admission £4 with wine), but go again on Sunday 17 June (2-6pm; £3) to catch up on the planting detail of this outstanding garden. Find it at 239A Hook Road, Chessington KT9 1EQ (020-8397 3761).
Buy them cheaply at factory outlets. I go to Ethos Candles on the Quarryfield Industrial Estate, Mere, Wilts BA12 6LA, 01747 861839. They specialise in big church candles, but you can buy bags of tealights as well. For garden lighting, you'll need tealights that will stay alight for four hours minimum. The Candle Warehouse (candle-warehouse.co.uk) sells cases containing eight packs of 100 four-hour tealights for £38.24 or 10 packs of 50 six-hour tealights for £31.80. Short, fat church candles look good in old terracotta pots (8-10cm), steadied by sand or 6mm grit. A more expensive option is to invest in candle lanterns. Handsome zinc lanterns in two sizes are available mail order in two sizes (£15.50 or £30) from Cox & Cox (coxandcox.co.uk; 0844 8580744). They can also supply metal tealight stakes with patterned glass holders (£30 for a set of three) or small, upside-down glass bells with metal handles (£22 for a pack of six) to hang from the trees in your garden.
The lighting of choice for my farming uncles when I was growing up on the Welsh borders. Sturdy, practical, reliable pieces of kit, provided you have back-up supplies of paraffin and wicks. Lanterns available from hardware stores or from Toast (toast.co.uk/category/outdoor). They also sell packs of the right kind of wicks (£7.50).
These are made from sturdy bamboo stakes, split at the top to contain a tin can with a narrow neck that holds the wick. They burn paraffin and ours have done many parties. Some have small bamboo 'corks' to keep it dry, when not in use. Line them along a garden path or use them to lead the way to a party tent. Flares at least 90cm (36in) high will be more useful than short ones. Amazon (amazon.co.uk) can supply 90cm (36in) flares at £3.44 each, 150cm (60in) ones at £9.
The things you need to think about are...
Price: this will vary widely, depending on the kit. When Derek St Romaine thought he might move from low- to high-tech, lighting quotes for his suburban garden came in at around £3,000.
Running costs: halogen lamps will be more expensive to run than compact fluorescent ones.
Colour: are you looking for bright white light, or a softer, warmer colour?
Dimming: halogen and compact fluorescent lights are easier to dim than metal halide ones.
Energy source: are you hoping to use a solar panel to run outdoor lights or will you plug into the mains?
Lamp life: halogen lamps provide up to 1,500 hours, LEDs 10 times as much.
Use: what do you want to light and why? There are good practical reasons for lighting steps and LEDs fixed in long ropes under the risers are a neat way of doing this, as Derek St Romaine has in his back garden.
Safety: metal halide and tungsten halogen lights get hot; LEDs don't.
Get more information from Light Innovation Ltd, 020-8873 1582, lightinnovation.com; Solar Technology International Ltd, 01684 774000, solartechnology.co.uk; Prometheus Lighting Instruments Ltd, 020-7558 8359, prometheuslighting.com
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