The backyard lighting feature at the home of Dr. Taylor and Mrs. Bettie Ann Johnson, 516 Moss Tree Drive, Landfall. The lighting was installed by George Hartner of Outdoor Illumination. Staff Photo By Mike Spencer/STAR-NEWS

Let it Glow

Designers’ bright ideas bring beauty, drama to local landscapes

By Susan Hart
Star-News Correspondent and Photos by Mike Spencer, staff photographer

Jane Cockrell and her husband, George Hartner, deal in moonshine.

When the couple gave up successful careers in the corporate world a few years ago, they had two objectives: to do something creative and to work outdoors. Making money along the way wouldn’t hurt either.

After months of research, the Gaithersburg, Md., residents started a landscape lighting company, Outdoor Illumination of Coastal Carolina, and in 2005 moved to Wilmington. They felt the prospects were excellent in the rapidly growing landscaping/horticulture market.

Now, less than two years later, the Hartners have a thriving business. Cockrell is the lighting designer and business manager and her husband is the operations manager responsible for installation and maintenance.

Both share a passion for their work – making landscapes a brighter place for Cape Fear residents. And they are quick to point out that outdoor lighting has come a long way from the days of floodlights and tiki torches.

For example, instead of high-watt bulbs, the couple uses only 20-watt infra red lights that generate about 35 watts of power, an eco-friendly measure that’s also more cost efficient.

They also put their lighting systems on timers so electricity is not being wasted during the night – unless homeowners want light for security reasons.

Hartner and Cockrell’s lighting designs tend to be subtle but dramatic. They don’t like harsh spotlights and reduce glare by using directional lights and softer well lights sunk into the ground.

They’re adept at duplicating moonlight, like they did at the home of Taylor and Bettie Anne Johnson in Landfall.

Warming up

In a small sitting area on the side of the Johnson house, discreet directional lighting bathes a lone bench and surrounding plants in a soft, blue-tinged glow.

“This really does look like natural moonlight,” Cockrell said.

The couple uses moonlighting in more expansive areas too – like the large live oak that canopies the deck in the Ability Garden at the New Hanover County arboretum. Directional lights mounted on the tree some 30 feet up makes visitors swear they’re standing under a full moon – on even the darkest night.

The Johnsons, who wanted to add better outdoor lighting to their home so they could spend more time outdoors in the evening, met the lighting designers at the Wilmington Garden Show. To make the Johnson home more welcoming, Cockrell and Hartner used a technique called “grazing” to wash the front walls with light and added cross-lighting for the steps and doorway. Uplighting brings a cluster of river birches into focus in the front yard.

Like a necklace of bright beads circling the landscape, pools of light illuminate specific features in the backyard overlooking a lake. In one corner of the backyard, light spread evenly across a group of ornamental grasses and a palm captures the plants’ unique textures.

The Johnsons now have views of their garden at night from most of the rooms in the house “My favorite part is standing here in the kitchen and looking out,” said Bettie Ann Johnson. “As I make dinner, I can see it all.”

Dramatic finish

At the home of Jim and Helyn Wisner on Greenville Loop Road, the Outdoor Illumination team took a more dramatic approach. They lit small sabal minor palms so they are silhouetted against a yellow wall surrounding a small courtyard. This “silhouetting” technique also works especially well with architectural plants like cactus and palms.

Local landscape architect Donna Ray Mitchell recommended Outdoor Illuminations and collaborated with the company on a lighting design that brought nighttime drama to the Wisners’ garden. Especially striking is the area around the large pool and columned loggia in the rear of the house. At one end of the pool, soft lighting puts stately pines into silhouette against the night sky.

Mitchell, who is best known for her work on Bald Head Island and is now working on the landscaping design for Wilmington’s new Convention Center, calls lighting the “icing on the cake” of landscaping.

“Subtle effects can add so much to the beauty of the landscaping and all the money you have invested in your property,” she said. But don’t overdo it, “Balance is very important.”

Star News Online. January 11, 2008. Let it glow.  Original article >