By day, these appear to be normal rocks.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. In a garden setting, rocks can line paths, add contrast in planters or be landscaping items. When the sun’s up, Bob Simchock’s rocks do exactly that. When it sets, however, they become sources of gentle light.
The effect is subtle: some cast patterns on the ground, while others’ lights are directed downward, illuminating garden paths without disturbing the night. Some simply glow. Simchock never wanted these to be particularly bright or conspicuous anyway. The stone garden lights he creates for his company, Simchock Stone, contain 20 watt LEDs at brightest.
“You can get more use out of your garden because you can walk around in the evenings when it’s twilight and see so much more of your garden,” Simchock says. He and wife Jenny sit on either side of a picture window overlooking the rock sculpture-rich yard behind their rural Durham home. They’re an unflappably positive couple, very entertaining (and funny) hosts who could easily hold an entire conversation in nothing but “Simpsons” quotes. The rock lights, Simchock jokes, have a “1,000-year warranty.”
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It makes sense, in a way, that such optimistic people would find a way to draw light from a stone.
“It’s amazing how much light they do throw if you don’t have street lights around,” Simchock says.
These rock nightlights are only one of the features on display Nov. 5, 6, 11 and 12 at JC Raulston Arboretum’s Moonlight in the Garden. This time of year, this Raleigh garden typically starts closing at 5 p.m., meaning the public is rarely here after dark. Moonlight in the Garden, however, showcases the personality and nuance that is possible in illuminating a nighttime landscape. Like Simchock’s stone lanterns, these lights are not designed to compete with the night, but to complement it.
“I don’t think people understand the beauty that can be captured by outdoor lighting,” says Arlene Calhoun. “That has a lot to do with plantings, too.”
I don’t think people understand the beauty that can be captured by outdoor lighting.
Arlene Calhoun, assistant director at JC Raulston Arboretum
As JCRA’s assistant director, the night garden is something Calhoun experiences often. Showing up at 6:30 a.m., she gets to take in the Arboretum when it’s dark and quiet. JCRA, which operates under NC State University’s aegis, is known as a research garden, yet Calhoun points out it features some 6,500 different types of plants. These take on different characteristics after dark.
Sometimes, surrounded by these plants in these pre-dawn hours, Calhoun hears geese overhead. After the Arboretum closes, she and the other employees sometimes watch the sun set over the grounds. “That, too, is an experience we have all had,” she says. “How do we bring that to our community and give them a glimpse of the time when the garden is closed?”
To share this experience with the public, JCRA worked with John Garner of Southern Lights of Raleigh. His team designed the lighting, donating labor, fixtures and time. Garner visited the garden, identified the path visitors would take, and planned the lighting accordingly. It wasn’t his first time doing this, either, as Garner designed the lighting for JCRA’s previous Moonlight in the Garden events, the most recent of which was a decade ago.
“It went over well,” he recalls. “It was a way to help the Arboretum raise funds.” He was happy to facilitate another Moonlight in the Garden event, too, and to volunteer his time. JCRA helps the landscaping community, as he puts it, so we help them.
As a designer of nuanced, distinctive lighting schemes, Garner brings in craftspeople whose work he respects. Simchock’s stone lights, for instance, but also Kelly Francis’ Firefly lights, which will hang in JCRA’s entryway. The Fireflies are single lights designed to dangle from branches. When the branches blow, the lights sway, ducking behind trunks and leaves and flickering in and out of sight like their namesake. They seem organic, the San Antonio, Texas-based Francis says, and more alive than most light sources.
“The amount of light they provide is very low light. You have to be acclimated to a certain extent,” he explains. “It’s easy to be dark-sky friendly when you’re barely on anyway.”
With this kind of illumination, night gets to stay night.
Reach Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to Go?
What: Moonlight in the Garden
Where: JC Raulston Arboretum. 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh
When: JCRA members get a preview from 7-9 p.m. Nov. 4; the public can visit from 6-9 p.m. Nov. 5, 6, 11 and 12.
Cost: Member preview night: $50; Public nights: $10 for members; $15 for nonmembers; $5 for children under 12
Tickets: Available online at jcra.ncsu.edu