Christmas at Longwood Gardens: What a wonderful time of year! Unlike most of our visitors that may begin decorating for the holidays after Thanksgiving, we start a little earlier. In order to complete this Herculean task (in 2009 it took about 2,500 hours to install, maintain and remove lights on more than 100 individual trees or cones) the arborist crew begins light installation the day after Labor Day and finishes the second week in November, just in time to help out with Christmas Changeover the weekend prior to Thanksgiving.
The outdoor display consists of two basic design elements: wraps and cones. Wrapping lights around branches and the trunk draws the eye to the structural elements of the tree. The Scarlet Oak at the Longwood Fire Company and the White Oaks along Oak Allee are prime examples of this technique. Cones are created by stringing lines from a high central point to stakes on the ground arranged in a circle around the center point. Lights spiral from top to bottom around these lines giving the impression of a coniferous tree such as a pine, spruce or fir. Cones may be attached to trees, like those at the restaurant steps, or to poles, like those on Paulownia Allee.
In order to reduce disturbance to our guests the arborist crew begins work on the wrapped trees on the perimeter. These are followed by working on wrapped trees in the gardens. Cones usually draw more attention than wrapped trees and are left until later in the season. Similar to the wrapped trees, we start on the perimeter before working inside the gardens.
Since my first season at Longwood, the Christmas display has changed tremendously. Each year, the display is evaluated and alterations are made to improve for the following year. In 2005, the Outdoor Christmas Light Committee made the decision to experiment with LEDs (Light Emitting Diode) in certain areas of the display. As most people are aware, these lights draw a fraction of the power of incandescent lights (LEDs are 10 times more efficient) and are much more robust than glass incandescent lights. We can reuse the same strand of lights for five years where the incandescent strands rarely lasted more than one season.
The ruggedness of the LEDs also decreases the amount of maintenance we have to perform during the month of December. In 2004, the arborist crew spent upwards of 400 hours fixing lights while in 2009 we spent 73 hours performing light maintenance. What a time saver!
Light removal is the next step in our Christmas display. Most of the displays are removed from the trees each year. The reason for this is twofold. Lights that are left on year-round detract from the natural beauty of our trees. Also, trees with lights on them may grow around the lights. In some cases, tree growth may break the strands but the lights may also choke smaller twigs and branches, killing them. That being said, to save time during installation we do leave some strands on certain displays for two years. These strands are strung loosely enough to allow for growth from one year to the next and are loosened further during installation the following year.
As we finish up light removal, we have a dedicated group of volunteers who take the removed strands and pack them up for the next year. Before the volunteer team came to our aid, the arborists had to prepare all the lights during inclement weather. The volunteers have saved us hundreds of hours by taking this task off our hands!
To prepare the lights, electrical tape and outlet caps are removed from the strands before they are neatly wrapped into individual bundles and stored in bins for the following year. The volunteer team meets on Tuesdays in the winter, spring and summer to assure that the arborists have all the lights we need for the following year. Kudos to our volunteers!
The Christmas Display is the year’s biggest draw at Longwood. You can find everything from strolling carolers to larger-than-life trees decorated for the season both inside and out with breathtaking horticultural displays in the Conservatory. Whatever it is you are looking for, Longwood Gardens has what you need to fill you with Christmas spirit. I welcome you to bring family and friends to share a memorable holiday experience with us!