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The Subtle Art of Lighting the Tree Canopy
Lighting by Garrett Churchill, Willow Grove, Pennsylvania


For the backyard of this Rydal, Pa., home each of the Kousa dogwoods (left side) are uplit with three MR11 lamps. The two Japanese maple espaliers against the house, one visible between the two Kousa dogwoods, are each backlit with one MR11. The small Sargent hemlocks (right) flanking the patio are each uplit by an MR11.

Garrett Churchill was founded in 1999 to provide landscape design/build and horticultural services. Initially the majority of the work was planting design and installation. As time progressed, the company began to expand its services to include hardscape installation, landscape lighting, water features, fencing and landscape maintenance. The company is led by Andy Sykes. He received his masters of landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, and a bachelor of business administration from Temple in 1989. Andy is a Certified Landscape Professional (National Association of Landscape Professionals, formerly PLANET), and a Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturalist (Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery). He has nearly 30 years of experience in all aspects of the landscape industry. The Garrett Churchill staff includes a full time office manager, three landscape foremen and six laborers. This featured lighting project is located in Rydal, Pennsylvania, a small unincorporated community in Abington Township, Montgomery County. Rydal is in the southeastern portion of the state, about 17 miles north of Philadelphia, and is home to the Abington campus of the Pennsylvania State University.

During the installation of a paver driveway for the Rydal residence, the client mentioned they would be interested in landscape lighting.


Three small 'China hat' path lights illuminate the home's bluestone walkway and highlight the colorful bordering planting band of hellebore and begonia. Styrax and southern magnolias are in the interior bed. The southern magnolia to the left of the front door is not lit. To the right of the front door is a boxwood hedge, with holly next to it. The front door is lit by one bullet light with a glare and light-reducing filter. One ground-mounted bullet light to the left of the front door washes the wall. The home's façade to the right of the front door is lit with two wall wash fixtures mounted on risers to get the fixture up to the height of the azaleas.

"Fortunately we had planned ahead and had put conduits across the driveway for future use," explains Andy Sykes. "Our client had an older landscape lighting system with a few fixtures in the rear of the home, but nothing in the front. There were extensive floodlights mounted to the home that were suitable for security lighting, but too bright and improperly placed for landscape lighting."

The client wanted an easily controlled lighting system to enhance the arrival experience to the home, and to highlight the landscape, while providing a sense of depth to the landscape from within the home. Since part of the home was already automated with Z-Wave switches, the simplest solution was for the new circuits installed for the transformers to be controlled with Z-Wave switches. Z-Wave is wireless secure technology that lets smart devices communicate with one another, i.e., allowing the lighting to be controlled with a smart phone, tablet or laptop.



The approach to the home, whether by the driveway or walking up the grassy knoll, is dominated by three stately sycamore trees. Each tree is uplit from the ground with three MR16 bullet lights. Three ground-mounted bullet lights were used on each tree to highlight the lower canopy and the bark of the trees. Three or four tree-mounted MR16 up lights were used in each tree to extend light into the top of the canopy. This technique eliminates the chance of hotspots, which can occur with ground-mounted fixtures with higher wattage lamps. In addition, three MR16 down lights mounted in each trees light the driveway, azaleas, turf and pachysandra beds. Two MR16 bullet LEDs also illuminate the front and right side of the corner of the house.

Andy Sykes describes what ensued and the timeline: "The site was measured and all the features and plants documented for planning purposes. The lighting plan was completed during the winter and approved in the early spring. The proposal was approved and the project began in the middle of May 2015. Two days were allotted to excavate and backfill lines for the remote outlets, which were installed by an electrician. The installation of light fixtures and burying of cables took three days."

"Since the majority of the lights mounted in the trees were near the driveway, we used a bucket truck to speed the installation. All wiring for the lights in the trees was done with 18-2 brown wire to minimize the visibility and run up the trees in locations where they would not be noticed. The wires were zip tied loosely to allow for the growth of the tree, and secured with stainless steel screws."

All transformers, wire, fixtures, accessories and lamps were from Coastal Source Products.


Two MR11 lamped fixtures mounted in the magnolia accent the blossoms and highlight the liriope and turf. The lamps lighting the trees and landscape are from 1.5 to 9 watts (2,700 K and 3,000 K). The 3,000 K LEDs were used to light the trees and plants; the 2,700 K LEDs lit the hardscapes. On the Kelvin scale, the 2,700 to 3,000-color range is described as "warm." The 5,000 K range and up is considered "cold."

Design Challenges
"Their wiring comes in precut lengths from 5' to 100' sections," explains Andy. "Unlike other systems where you pull wire off a spool and cut what you need, more thought needed to go into this design."

All connections are marine grade gold plated pins and o-ring sealed, so there are never any worries about corrosion with the connections.

The Materials List
5 300-watt direct burial transformers (DBT300GR)
1 150-watt direct burial transformer (DBT150GR)
3 small China hat area lights (FP18C7VB)
14 MR11 bullet up/ down lights (BT11VB)
23 MR16 bullet up lights (FBTU16VB)
19 MR16 tree-mounted bullet uplights (BT16VB)
17 MR16 tree mounted bullet down lights with extended shrouds (BT16VB)


To illuminate the two large Atlas cedar trees bordering the rear property line, well lights were placed in the lawn to light the front of the canopy, with one bullet light on each trunk to light the interior.

Note: MR (multifaceted reflector) is a pressed glass reflector lamp with an inside (reflecting side) surface of facets covered by a reflective coating. These facets gather the light from the filament to form a concentrated beam of light. The "16" refers to the diameter of the lamp, which is 16 eighths of an inch (2 inches). A MR11 has a 1-3/8 inch diameter).
2 wall wash lights (WL4W2.7KVB)
5 well lights (WELLVB)
1,750 feet of 12-2 cable (12 gauge and 2 insulated current carrying wires, plus a bare ground) in precut lengths
950 feet 18-2 wire in precut lengths
14 MR11 2-watt LED lamps (3000 K)
64 MR16 LED lamps, 1.5 to 9 watt (2,700 K and 3,000 K)

All plants were highlighted with 3,000 K lamps and all hardscape surfaces lit with 2,700 K lamps. The 2,700 to 3,000-color range is described as "warm." The 5,000 K range and up is considered "cold." All the fixtures for the project are solid brass with brass fasteners and a "vintage brass" finish. Lighting accessories included glare-reducing filters, light reducing filters and risers.


This large rhododendron is lit from above with a tree-mounted MR11 fixture, and lit from underneath with a MR16 uplight.

Lighting Techniques
The lighting designer used a number of techniques to achieve the dramatic lighting of the canopy, the façades and the plantings. Path lights were employed to evenly wash the front walkway with light. For the larger sycamore trees there is uplighting from the ground to show off the texture and color of the barks, uplighting within the canopy to bring light to the top of the trees, and downlighting from the canopy to highlight the driveway and entrance of the home. All bullet lights installed in the trees were set with two stainless steel hanger bolts using solo tree mounts (SMTVB). For the façade of the home, wall wash and bullet uplights were installed on risers to bring the light fixture to the level of the top of the plantings.

"The risers allow us to put the light were we needed it, without pruning the mature plantings," Andy Sykes explained.

The Japanese maple is dramatically uplit with two MR11 bullet fixtures. An additional bullet downlight is mounted in the tree to cast light onto the stepping stone walkway and shed some light on the rhododendrons and hostas around the tree.



The lighting for this residence is so well crafted that at night you just see the stately character of the trees beautifully lit, and the glow of the landscape. During the day, if you look closely, you can, for instance, spy the MR11 down light bullet fixture in the Blue Atlas cedar, or the MR16 bullet lights peeking up from the pachysandra bed.

As seen in LASN magazine, April 2016.

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