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Holiday lights – Ideas and Tips from the Garden

By Tom Brinda and Lynn Kirk. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Published November 2008 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

You may not have on hand a half-million holiday lights like Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, but you can glean lots of clever ideas from their annual GardenFest of Lights extravaganza. The staff occasionally purchases a few illuminated topiaries and light forms, but most of the seasonal show is personally designed and handcrafted by the executive director, staff and volunteers. Some of their lighting design philosophies and tips gathered over the last 13 years can easily transfer to your home holiday decorating.

“Your light display is an artistic expression of your self and what is important to you,” shared Tom Brinda, assistant executive director of horticulture. “It demonstrates your personal style, sets the tone for your landscape and is limited only by your imagination – and of course your budget.”

“The Garden always highlights nature,” said Danny Fleming, operations coordinator and lead installer for this year’s light show. “Before we decorate each section, we decide whether to mirror or contrast the colors, forms and shapes of nature’s flowers and wildlife.”

How to’s
To personalize your own light show, the Garden staff recommends beginning with a sketch pad and an observant walk through winter’s garden – which is quite different than the green, flowering setting of spring. Look at your landscape with “fresh eyes,” noting where evergreens demonstrate visual predominance, where hardwoods exhibit their intricate branching and where focal points naturally exist. Seek decorating opportunities not only horizontally at eye level, but also vertically and diagonally along both high and low planes.

For example, instead of just outlining rooflines or wrapping shrubs with mini-lights, highlight arbors, trellises and gazebos with light strings that feature hanging clusters of lights gathered and taped into forms that resemble flowers and fruits. Look down and consider options for ground lighting not just along walkways, but also intermingled among groundcovers of garden beds and ponds. Rather than hanging light strings solely on tree branches, opt for a different treatment by wrapping only the trunk in white lights. Up-lighting with soft spotlights especially emphasizes the beauty of smooth-bark trees, such as crape myrtle and beech. Fleming also suggests using spotlights to focus attention on garden statues, topiaries and berried shrubs.

When deciding on colors, explore complementing and contrasting color palettes. A bed of purple and cream pansies comes alive when accented by soft rose-colored ground lights, while a variegated boxwood becomes a point of interest when accented with teal.

Repeating geometric patterns add drama to the landscape. If lighting a hedge, string lights in a continual pattern of repeating triangles, rectangles or loops. Patterns create interest and subtly guide visitors’ eyes across the landscape.

Fleming suggests that after developing and implementing your plan, check it out after dark several times and be prepared to make adjustments. “We wrapped trees at the Conservatory three different times because it looked different at night,” noted Fleming. He recommends using a camera, too. “After we get everything as we want it, we take photos for review next year.”

• Use miniature lights whenever possible since the heat of large bulbs can scorch leaf surfaces, especially among evergreens.

• Reduce heat transmission and plant damage by positioning floodlights and spotlights at least a foot away from plants.

• Avoid damaging deciduous trees and shrubs by considering the overall weight of light strands and working carefully among brittle branches.

• For safety, use plastic clips or non-metal ties (instead of staples and nails) to secure lights and extension cords.

• Invest in LEDs (light emitting diodes) to save electrical costs, lengthen bulb life and prevent heat damage to foliage. LEDs also safely support longer continuous light strings – up to 20 strings end-to-end compared to three when using standard light strings.

• If limited on resources, concentrate on making an impact in one area versus sparsely lighting several areas.

• Visit the Garden during the day and photograph the handcrafted light forms for reference when making your own.

To make a butterfly, cut a square of dark plastic construction fencing or sturdy black plastic mesh. Draw a butterfly shape, outline it with one color of lights, and then crisscross with varying colors and patterns to add interest. Secure light strings with plastic clips and hang the form in a high place. When illuminated at night, the mesh background will practically disappear as the butterfly seems to take flight.