It’s late October, and there’s moonlight beneath the trees in JC Raulston Arboretum. It falls through the branches and leaves overhead and casts believable shadows on the ground.
The mind doesn’t question it – this is what moonlight looks like, after all – until John Garner of Southern Lights points out the actual light source. On this evening, there’s not even a quarter moon overhead. Rather, these pale shadows are cast by three fixtures tastefully placed dozens of feet overhead in the branches. A few smaller fixtures around the perimeter complete the illusion.
“It creates on the ground all the same effect,” Garner says.
Garner is the founder of Southern Lights, a Raleigh company that has specialized in creative and functional outdoor lighting systems since it was founded in 1994. He has stopped by the arboretum this evening to put a few final touches on his displays for Raulston’s Moonlight in the Garden.
The garden fundraiser takes place Nov. 9-11 and 16-18 (with a member preview on Nov. 7).
On this day, most of the fixtures – there will be 500 total – were set up, but Bob Simchock’s stone lanterns weren’t installed yet, and Garner hadn’t brought in orb lights or the fragile stained-glass flower garden that would accent the rooftop terrace. Still, this Raleigh arboretum glowed with a variety of lighting schemes.
Now in its fifth iteration, Moonlight in the Garden brings food trucks and music – seven bands in total, including Johnny Cash tribute act Johnny Folsom 4 on Nov. 17 – to an arboretum that’s not often open after dark. The idea is that outdoor lighting can be as tasteful and carefully considered as the plants themselves and that it can extend a garden’s hours well after dark.
“Right now, there’s basically no light out here, so they shut it down at sundown,” Garner explains. “The garden has a lot to offer, day or night.”
During the day, the live oaks just inside Raulston’s gate provide shade. During Moonlight in the Garden, however, Texas lighting designer Kelly Francis’ FireFly system turns them to sources of light. The “fireflies” themselves – dangling lights designed to move with the wind – work together with two hidden spotlights to illuminate this entryway.
By the Raulston parking lot, a Japanese maple glows red and yellow. Garner often places lights inside of the trees’ branches and leaves to emphasize their structure, causing them to glow from within. He says visitors are supposed to see the effect, not the source of light.
“This is an experimentation with this tree, the blue with orange trunk for contrast,” Garner says of a red lace Japanese maple. For this tree and in a few other spots, he used a color-changing system that’s controllable via smartphone app.
“It shows the contrast and the shape, because this is an interesting tree,” he said. “This is a wonderful specimen. So we introduced a color system here.”
In the Japanese garden, Garner decided to go one more step with the color-changing system. Spotlights illuminate the boulders, while colored lights cast dramatic shadows in the raked gravel of the Zen garden. Not everything’s going to need rainbow illumination like this, he notes, but he wanted to show what was possible.
“This year we’re going to try to introduce light and motion into the garden. We’re going to shine light at whirligigs, those sculptures that turn in the wind,” Garner says. “We’ll have some underwater lights, lights in the waterfall, to introduce something different this year.”
Yet many of Garner’s efforts blend into the landscape, emphasizing and de-emphasizing what’s already there. Trees at the edge of the “long view” meadow and around the central entertainment area, for instance, are lit to establish each area’s boundaries or to make it light enough to walk. It still feels like night, and the light – true to billing – is sometimes indistinguishable from moonlight.
“Shadow is very important,” Garner says. “What you don’t light can be just as important as what you do light. We didn’t want it to look like a football field.”
Corbie Hill is a Pittsboro-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter at @afraidofthebear.
What: Moonlight in the Garden
When: 6-9 p.m. Nov. 9-11 and 16-18
Where: JC Raulston Arboretum, 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh
Cost: $10 for members, $20 for nonmembers and $5 for children under 12
Info: jcra.ncsu.edu, 919-515-3132
At a glance
Moonlight in the Garden features about 500 light fixtures, requiring close to 2 miles of wire to power. While this is more lights than those at the first Moonlight in the Garden in 2000, LED technology means it operates on only about 15 percent of the energy cost.
Sculpture in the Garden
Over in Chapel Hill, the N.C. Botanical Garden’s 29th annual Sculpture in the Garden is on full display through the lush trails and pockets of different gardens. Visitors will find more than 41 sculptures from 27 artists in all kinds of materials. Not all have a garden theme, but blend in with their surroundings and offer their own sense of beauty and curiosity. A map will guide visitors to the sculptures’ locations and give details for purchasing them.
The sculptures will be up through Dec. 10. The garden is open daily except for Mondays and UNC’s university holidays. It’s open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. The garden is at 100 Old Mason Farm Road, Chapel Hill. For information, call 919-968-0522 or go to ncbg.unc.edu.