Pull out the stepladder, line up the clips and unroll the coils of light—it is time to put that annual magic into the night air! A yearly ritual for many families, hanging the holiday lights on the roof and trimming the trees in glowing strands marks a seasonal celebration of exuberance. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas or the Winter Solstice, putting light into the evening landscape is a good way to brighten and enjoy the cold, bare December garden and create a welcoming entry to your home.

Night Lighting in the Winter Garden

The type of outdoor lighting you use often depends on your own cultural heritage and sense of style. Families with children may use illuminated figures of Santa and red-nosed reindeer. Religious households display stars or Madonna with child or oversized menorahs. Purists opt for white-bulb-only linear strings. The perennially young-at-heart might want dancing lights and flashy multi-colored strings. Popular trends in more recent years include foot-long icicle strands and crisscross nets to toss over shrubbery. My particular favorite practice is to line the driveway and front walk with paper bag and real candle luminaries for that special holiday party.

This year, the Missouri Botanical Garden has its own lighting display. Called Garden Glow, the nighttime exhibit will highlight historic and special features of the Garden, including the Maze, Climatron, Linnaean House courtyard and Tower Grove House. The installation uses highly energy efficient LED (light emitting diode) displays. Deborah Frank, the Garden’s VP of Sustainability, enthusiastically embraces the new LED technology for its huge energy efficiency and controllability of spectrum.

“Garden Glow will use one-tenth the amount of energy as the lantern festival in 2012,” Frank says. Recent changes in light bulb engineering account for much of this significant savings in energy consumption. In addition, Ameren is donating carbon-offset credits for the run of the show.

The Garden’s Horticulture staff has been involved in the production of Garden Glow from the beginning. Particular care is being taken to minimize the impact of the show on the plant collections. Most of the lights are wrapped around trees, but some installations have required special supports, including frames for lighted nets and protective staking to keep foot traffic out of beds. When heavy wires are attached directly to trees, soft rubber hoses protect the bark with the same methods we already use to stake new trees at planting time.

Innovative displays will include a new, custom-designed light-stick style that will illuminate the beds between the Tram Shelter and the Climatron; and tiny, pinpoint pearl lights used as tree wraps in the Zimmerman Sensory Garden. There even will be a section of solar-powered lighting through the bottlebrush buckeyes. So come pick up some tips for your home display!

Bring in the New!

Many people have asked about the effect of lights on trees and other garden plants. If we lived in Southern California, the answer would be different; but here in Missouri, our trees lose their leaves and perennials go dormant. This is important because the primary pigments in plants that are affected by light are in the leaves and green stems. In the winter, most plants have dropped their leaves and soft stems are now frozen down to the ground with winter. During this season, the temperatures are so cold that almost all internal metabolism slows down or shuts off, even in evergreens such as conifers, boxwood and holly. Those processes may start up again with warm conditions whether from a sunny winter week or excessive heat from incandescent light bulbs. Water begins flowing through the plants on these sunny days and must be replaced for them to remain healthy and prevent winter burn. For this reason, it’s important to water your evergreens in the winter even though it seems an odd season to water. The chances of stimulating your plants to break dormancy with LED lights on cold winter nights in Missouri is low. Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, from which nearly 95 percent of the energy consumed is released as heat and only 5 percent converted to light, could be a problem for plants, and should no longer be used.

As you plan this year’s holiday display for your own garden, set aside some time to shop for new fixtures. The advances in lighting technology are amazing! The new LED holiday lights have no moving parts, will last many years longer than the old incandescent strings and use only a fraction of the energy of the older bulbs. One old-style, 15-watt incandescent nightlight bulb takes the same amount of energy of 280 LED lamps, enough to power some 100 feet of holiday light strings. In addition, the energy savings are cumulative.

Another great way to make your winter lighting more energy efficient is to use a timer to turn the lights on at dusk and off at bedtime, so they don’t burn all night or haunt your beauty sleep by bleeding in through the windows. For safety’s sake, use only outdoor-rated lights, electrical cords and timers. Improper use of indoor-grade electricals outside could lead to unpleasant outcomes. House fires from electrical shorts are very common during the holiday season. Any gardening work involving ladders should include a spotter to steady the ladder and help balance the strands being hung. Plus, it is much more fun working together on such a pleasant project. Some families make hanging the holiday lights a Thanksgiving weekend tradition and burn off some turkey gravy calories in the exercise of toting the ladder around.

Garden Glow at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Wednesdays through Sundays, Nov. 23 to Dec. 19, 5-9 p.m.

Open nightly, Dec. 20 to Jan. 4, 5-10 p.m.

Exhibit closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31.

For tickets and additional information, visit mobot.org/glow

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