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irregular times logoA Garden in the Headlights

Whenever there is a silly new trend in popular gardening, the Gardener's Supply Company is sure to jump right into the middle of it. If there's something plastic and bright to place in the middle of your garden, the Gardener's Supply catalog will probably have it in their pages, even if a perfectly natural alternative is easily available. In fact, sometimes it seems that the Gardener's Supply Company offers things designed purposefully to thwart the natural ways of a garden.

The latest fad to sweep through Gardener's Supply is garden lighting. If you don't read gardening magazines, and don't live in one of those neighborhoods where having the latest gadgets is a sign of status, then you might not know it, but garden lighting is the big thing these days. No, I'm not talking about grow lights to get spring seedlings started early in northern climes. I'm talking about lights, to shine on the garden, outside, in the dark, at night. I'm talking about spotlights.

In gardens all across America, people are sticking expensive lighting systems in ground underneath plants and shining them up so that visitors and passers-by can see the beauty of their gardens, even after sunset. Gardens have gone electric.

garden lighting catalogThis picture here is from the latest advertisement I got from the Gardener's Supply Company, purporting to demonstrate the superiority of their garden lights over the garden lights offered by anyone else. Yet, as I look at this picture and consider the garden lighting I've seen, "superior" doesn't seem to be an appropriate term. Neither form of lighting seems right to me.

I've had a feeling of unease about garden lighting for some time, but it's been hard to put my finger on just what seems wrong about it to me. After all, I do like to see gardens, so theoretically, it ought to be nice to be able to see gardens even during the nighttime. In reality, I shrink away from garden lights as quickly as I retreat from plastic houseplants.

As I reflect upon this reaction, it occurs to me that there is an aura of death produced by garden lights - and it's a spooky kind of death. For one thing, these lights come from below, and as every kid who has ever played with a flashlight knows, only vampires, zombies, and other forms of the undead receive that kind of lighting. Take a second look at the statue in the Gardener's Supply picture, and say the words "I want to suck you blood." in a thick Eastern European accent. It works, doesn't it? All that remains is to stick some plastic fangs in the statue's mouth.

Unlike the natural lights of the day, artificial garden lights don't move. They are still. They are cold. The lights themselves are dead.

I don't want to know what's going on in my garden at night. The night is a time for secrets, and for mystery. Shining a bright light may dispel the fear some people have of the dark, but it also dispels the mystery, and mystery is a preciously scarce thing in American neighborhoods these days.

The imagination thrives on mystery. If weathermen could ever find a way to predict the weather with certainty, I don't think that many people would continue to watch the weather on the evening news, or read the weather columns in the morning newspaper. The appeal of weather prediction is its uncertainty. The weather is a mystery, and humanity demands that it must remain so.

Like the weather, gardens appeal to us because of their uncertainty. Good gardens hide as much as they show, and suggest the possibility of unseen corners. At night, the dim light of the moon and stars provide an excitingly shadowy sense of garden structure, for those people who are patient enough to allow the time for their eyes to adjust to the dark vision. To shine a headlight into a garden at such a time is as like reading a mystery novel for the tenth time - seeing anything with none of the excitement.

Lights strip all of the romance away from a garden. There is a reason that lovers lower the lights when they are feeling amorous - and it's not that they're afraid that the neighbors will see. Put your lover under a bright light, and you will see her, but you are not likely to fall in love.

Above all else, garden lights are artificial. A garden is not natural, but the most beautiful garden give the atmosphere of a place where civilization once stood, but where nature is reascendent. It is much more appealing to believe that a garden is a beautifully spontaneous growth, and not a meticulously planned piece of architecture. Garden lights shatter the illusion of a natural environment, reminding us of nothing so much as a mediocre display of fountains installed outside the entry to a shopping mall.

It is true - there is no comparison between garden lights. They are all extremely gaudy. Outdoor nightime lighting is appropriate for parking lots, not for gardens. When it comes to looking at your garden, you'll be best off leaving the lighting to the naturals: The sun, the moon and the stars. Your aesthetic sense, and your electric bill, will be the better for it.

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