Outdoor tree lighting ideas – 13 ways to highlight your planting once the sun goes down

Decorating foliage and branches with outdoor tree lighting ideas will add a magical look to your night-time garden

a modern urban garden with lighting on trees
(Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

Outdoor tree lighting ideas aren't just for Christmas and parties. Adding the right look can really switch up your outdoor space after dark all year round but is particularly transformative in summer for those special alfresco evenings when you get to stay out late. The good news is it's super easy to do, especially if rigging up lighting tends to be outside your wheelhouse.

There's something instantly glamorous about enhancing ornamental trees with lights. Think of trees as pieces of sculpture that demand to have the spotlight on them and you can't go wrong. Whether you have a large well-established tree or are working the 'small tree in supersized container' look, the basic lighting principles of this backyard idea are the same. 

The further the tree is from the house the more brightly it should be lit to prevent it fading into nothingness. If a tree has an open canopy the light can be placed close to the trunk and pointed upwards with dramatic results. But where the foliage is dense it's better to light up the tree from the edge of the canopy. Grazing the outside like this enhances the texture of foliage and branches. These are the key things you need to remember.

Now find out how the experts tackle outdoor tree lighting ideas then use the know-how to transform your own outdoor space.

garden trees at night with sparkly lights

(Image credit: Future/Alun Callender)

13 expert ways to use outdoor tree lighting ideas

'Choosing the right lighting for outdoor trees will help to create the perfect atmosphere into the evening, bringing an ambient glow to alfresco dinners or drinks after the sun sets,' says Sabina Miller, buying director at Heal’s

We asked around and got top garden designers and lighting experts to share their outdoor tree decorating ideas. Here's what they had to say.

1. Light up trees in supersized pots

large planters with lit trees

(Image credit: Mandy Buckland/Green Cube Design)

If you have to deal with space constraints in your garden the most suitable option is using illuminated trees in large pots. This is a look that works for balconies, terraces and rooftop gardens, letting you squeeze in a tree no matter how cramped your space is. Add lighting to the mix and it really glams things up.

'The oversized pots in this design are backlit for a dramatic effect,' says designer Mandy Buckland of Green Cube Landscapes. 'They are planted with Fatsia japonica, which is a lush, architectural plant that's one of the best trees to grow in pots perfect for this sort of scheme. We used LED 1 watt spotlights positioned on the ground and angled to create a wash over the pots and plants.' 

The pots sit on a pedestal, raising them from the ground to create added drama in this small garden. The design team added an informal hedge behind the pots to frame the look with a backdrop that helps to silhouette the foliage.

2. Go for an on-trend tree lighting look

alfresco table with lit trees surrounding

(Image credit: Lights4Fun/Oliver Perrott)

The soft glow from fairy lights and festoons is always popular for modern garden lighting, especially when used in trees. 'When it comes to lighting up your garden for the warmer months, string lights are a huge trend,' says Claire Bassett of Lights4Fun. 'We recommend styling them amongst garden foliage and tree branches. 

'Adorn trees around your entertaining space with connectable string lights. We suggest daisy-chaining multiple sets together from a singular power source for a fuss-free set-up that’ll give your garden a lovely soft glow. Our rule of thumb for any outdoor tree is 30 feet of lights for every 3 feet of height. For deciduous trees, this is ideal. For fir trees, double it up.' 

3. Frame trees against a night sky

rooftop garden with lighting

(Image credit: Charlotte Rowe/Light IQ)

Just because your roof garden or small terrace is modest doesn't mean you can't do something creative with outdoor tree lighting ideas. Smartly pleached or lollipop trees in sleek raised beds are a good idea to keep the aesthetic modern.

'On this roof terrace in Bermondsey, London, we used in-ground uplighters to graze the trunks and the underside of clear-stemmed olive trees which are a focal point on the terrace,' says garden designer Charlotte Rowe. 'We also used uplighters at the base of the pots to give an ambient effect beside the dining area at night.'

4. Hang mini-lanterns from tree branches

outdoor lanterns in trees

(Image credit: Joseph Esquivel/Eyeem/Getty Images)

Beautiful hanging lanterns add a unique accent to outdoor tree lighting ideas. If you use lanterns creatively, the reflections will add depth and magic to your outdoor space. When you choose lanterns for outdoor use, you need to make sure that all fittings come with a good waterproof IP rating. 

'Hang a mix of string lights and lanterns through foliage or woven through trees to create a romantic feel,' says Sabina Miller, buying director at Heal’s. 'Solar-powered fixtures will turn on automatically, seamlessly blending day into night.' 

5. Use lighting to help create an harmonious space

modern urban garden with sphere lighting

(Image credit: Kate Gould Gardens/Helen Fickling Photography)

Small gardens can pack a punch too. This elegant and contemporary social space by garden designer Kate Gould is a combination of beautiful design, lush tropical garden planting and stunning glass outdoor lights positioned at the base of trees and throughout the lower storey planting. 

The lights are by Catellani & Smith and illustrate how the latest outdoor lighting ideas reflect the move outside onto terraces to create an extension of the house. 'Catellani & Smith make the most incredible handblown glass Italian outdoor lighting, and we're big fans of their products,' explains Kate. 'The lights we chose for this garden not only added pretty illumination but also structure and interest to the tropical planting scheme.'

It's key not to overdo it though. 'Lighting is most effective when complimented by darkness,' adds Kate. 'Not everything in your garden has to be lit at once. Think of the garden as a room that needs different levels of light to create different effects.'

6. Add statement tree lighting to a path

freestanding garden lamps in night time garden

(Image credit: Linea Light)

Designer lighting can be used to create focal points when placed near trees. Choose statement outdoor lamps with plenty of indoor styling in interesting and unusual shapes and colours to add a sculptural element to your outdoor tree lighting. 

This Peggy design by Linea Light is perfect for modern outdoor spaces and looks great enhancing trees that flank a front path, helping to create curb appeal that offers a real welcome.

7. Choose festoons and fairy lights for outdoor trees

festoon lights in garden trees

(Image credit: Ruslanshramko/Getty Images)

Make the shift from associating fairy lights and festoons just with Christmas by using them in summertime too. They can be used as a year-round design feature to illuminate trees, as well as lending a special charm to parties and events. 

The best way to add atmosphere is to mix several different lighting sources. Choose twinkling festoons and fairy lights for a soft glow, and max up the look by hanging lanterns filled with electric candles from branches. Draped net lights are a quick way to turn a piece of clipped topiary into a sparkling feature too.

8. Include tree lighting as an integral design feature

urban garden with steps up to lit trees

(Image credit: Detail Lighting)

Even the smallest garden can benefit from the transformative powers of lighting to turn the space into something really special. Be sure to include sophisticated lighting as part of your tree landscaping ideas in your plan right from the get-go.

The outdoor tree lighting ideas in this sleek design are the focal point but never underestimate the power of lighting to connect different zones either. Here it also helps to create a sense of journeying through the garden as the lighting helps to lead the eye through to a destination point, adding interest to a small space.

'It’s also important to study how light falls on your outdoor spaces and understand what they look like as daylight fades,' says Piero de Marchis, director of Detail Lighting. 'Then you can decide what needs lighting and how. You may have trees that would add drama with carefully placed lighting.' If so, make the most of them.

9. Choose a simple tree lighting idea that wows

olive tree with lights

(Image credit: Jonathan Snow Landscape and Garden Design/Lally Snow)

We're big fans of lighting potted olive trees as an all round top choice for small urban garden spaces. They work well as clipped topiary balls but older trees with fabulously textured trunks are well worth spotlighting too as part of your deck lighting.

'For this design I used spike lights in pots, to wash up the trellis, and more effectively, to illuminate the mature olive tree and pick out its gnarly trunk,' says garden landscaper Jonathan Snow

Uplighting is a great technique for directing a wash of light on to a tree trunk. Lights are typically mounted below, shining the light upward. Position lights close to the base of trees you want to highlight. Direct the light straight up on a tree if you want to highlight the shape, or alternatively angle the light if you want to create shadows.

10. Enhance trees with light as part of a bigger scheme

modern urban garden with tree lighting

(Image credit: Paul Upward/Bowles & Wyer)

This contemporary city garden in North West London features a complete evening lighting scheme, which includes lighting landscaping around trees and other major specimens to add to the space.

'If you’re adding a lighting scheme to your garden, why not consider tree lighting to create a real statement feature in the evenings,' says Stuart Wallace, director of special projects at Bowles & Wyer, who designed the garden. 'Multi-stem specimens look particularly special when lighting picks up the finer stem details. Lighting your feature trees will also help to extend your garden’s period of interest, meaning you can enjoy it just as much after dusk.'

11. Use symmetry in lighting design features

modern urban courtyard garden with lit trees

(Image credit: Detail Lighting)

If you have a rectangular space think about using a symmetrical lighting design to best enhance its features. If there are trees near a wall or fence, illuminate the wall by placing a bright spotlight in front of each tree so they match. 

The trees will create dark, dramatic shadows on the wall. If you place spotlights below and light facing upwards, the shadow looks bigger than the real size of the tree. To create a more refined and subtle effect, you can place the light above facing downwards. Multiple lights can be used to create softened individual shadows.

'Harsh, bright cold lighting isn’t exactly conducive to relaxation,' says Piero de Marchis, director at Detail Lighting. 'For external lighting, it can be too hard on the eyes which is why we always recommend using warm white LED lighting for outdoor spaces – something with a colour temperature in the region of 2700K-3000K. This bathes areas in a wonderfully golden light that feels cosy and comforting.'

There are other ways of controlling glare too. 'In-ground uplights and spotlights should always have a form of glare control cowl, honeycomb or baffle,' says Piero. 'For subtlety, avoid direct light – either wash walls with light or uplight to gently highlight features, including trees and shrubs from below. Spike lights are great too for tactical lighting.'

12. Use tree lighting to create a sanctuary

hammock in garden with tree lights

Tobias Outdoor String Lights by Heal's

(Image credit: Heal's)

Who wouldn't want to spend their downtime lounging in this hammock, gazing up at the night sky through a veil of leafy foliage lit with shimmering lights.

Create a place where you can kick back in the evenings by adding soft lighting to outdoor trees. This will help to create an ambient space that's perfect for relaxation. It will make your garden or terrace more of a sensory space too as you watch the lights throwing shadows and reflections around to lend an enchanting feel.

13. Highlight narrow trunks with lighting effects

parasol pleached trees with lighting in modern garden

(Image credit: Detail Lighting)

Trees with narrow trunks look particularly elegant when lit to create a striking dramatic effect. Place an in- ground light directly underneath the tree. Smart uplighting tricks like this will transform the appearance of a lean trunk.

If you want to cast more shadows and achieve a pronounced effect, a spotlight can be planted further away from the trunk of a tree. This up-lighting method is a good way of creating a unique look. The most suitable way is to position the light at a 45-degree angle upwards which will highlight the trunk and foliage easily. 

Which trees should I illuminate in a garden?

You don’t need to light every tree, particularly in a large garden. Pick out some of the feature trees and maybe one in the distance to show the scale of the garden and draw your eye through the space. 'Lighting trees is a bit like lighting sculptures,' says Luke Thomas, design director of John Cullen Lighting. 'Each tree is unique and requires a different solution.

seating area in modern garden with lighting

(Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

'If you're looking to put a light flush with tiling or soft ground, you need to test the effect before confirming the final positions. Whereas if your tree is in bedding or in a pot, you have the opportunity to use a spike light, which can then be adjusted and repositioned to achieve the best effect.' 

Depending on whether a tree is evergreen or deciduous, the way the light hits the branches may change from season to season. 'Sometimes you will just be lighting the underside of the trees and leaves,' says Luke, 'and sometimes the underside of the branches which will create a more sculputural effect in winter.'

Lifestyle journalist Sarah Wilson has been writing about flowers, plants, and garden design and trends since 2015. Having already studied introductory garden and landscape design as well as a course in floristry she is currently adding to her list of qualifications with an RHS Level 2 course in the Principles of Plant Growth and Development. In addition to livingetc.com, she's also written for homesandgardens.com, gardeningetc.com, Modern Gardens and Country Homes & Interiors magazines.