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Idaho Botanical Garden Lights It Up

How IBG makes its garden glow

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Rebecca Needles is a woman with a plan: a plan and a lot of Christmas lights--lots and lots of Christmas lights. As in 308,000 Christmas lights.

Wandering amid 55-gallon barrels in the tented staging area, Needles explained how each barrel houses one of 12 different types of lights, sorted by color and style; how commercial light strands differ from regular strands; how LED lights have made her life easier; and how it's best to wrap light strands in balls (with the male end of the plug on the outside) for storage. It's the kind of specialized knowledge usually reserved for professional lighting designers, but it's also a necessary skill set for the operations manager at Idaho Botanical Garden.

For 16 years, IBG has donned a glittering winter coat, transforming from a quiet garden into a shining display lighting up the cold nights. But trimming the trees isn't as peaceful as the final result. The festive event--filled with lights, choirs, Santa, bonfires and hot chocolate--is the endgame in a yearlong campaign.

"I'm thinking about it as I walk around the garden all year," Needles said as a platoon of volunteers balanced on ladders while wrapping intricate patterns around the garden's trees.

With the work finished, nearly every surface of the garden is decked out in some form of electrified accessory--be it dangling ornaments, looping strands or well-placed spotlights. But there's no slapdash light tossing here, and you'll never find a Christmas Vacation-inspired ball of electrical connections.

Each year, Needles lays out a careful plan for each section of the garden to guide the hanging efforts that start each September.

"I draw up a plan and then change it as we go," she said.

Planning for the next annual Winter Garden aGlow starts with the prior year's event, when Needles starts seeing what works, what needs adjustment and what inspires her to shake things up a bit.

"We try to make sure everything doesn't look the same," she said, explaining how the direction in which lights are wrapped is as varied as their size and color. Of course, decorating a living garden means adaptability.

"We try to keep it organic; light the garden as it is," said Renee White, IBG events and marketing manager. But "organic" can sometimes be code for "OK, plan B."

"I got 18 new trees this year," Needles said with the hint of a sigh.

Additionally, lighting crews had to figure out how to light the garden's new treehouse and covered plaza structures for the first time, as well as create a new lighting plan for the Meditation Garden. The area at the heart of the garden has traditionally not been part of the holiday light show out of fears that visitors would damage the grass. But this year, the back part of the Meditation Garden--traversed by gravel-lined paths--is part of the display.

It seems only fitting considering the Meditation Garden was where IBG crews first hung lights when the event was started in 1997. That year, about 1,350 people enjoyed 15,000 lights strung across the area for seven nights.

Now, as many as 11 acres of the 15-acre garden are decorated and, last year, attendance was approximately 56,000 people. White said attendance continues to grow each year, adding that when she started at IBG three years ago, nearly 36,000 people visited the winter display.

"It has worked into the heart of the community," she said, noting the families which have made it a tradition, as well as the near-nightly marriage proposals and occasional impromptu weddings.

While Needles is the keeper of the plan, it takes a lot of hands to put the lights in place. Following IBG's September Harvest Festival, putting up lights becomes a full-time job, with a core of a dozen volunteers joined by garden staff and rotating groups of 20-30 volunteers providing the elbow grease.

It all starts with the task that anyone who has ever hung a holiday light hates: testing every single strand to make sure they work. Even after they are checked, a volunteer comes in three times a week just for the purpose of fixing troublesome bulbs.

"I can spot a broken bulb clear across the garden," Needles said.

Volunteers are given a few hours of training, but most of the learning comes via the hands-on method, with Needles carefully watching the process.

"After six weeks, I want to change my name and not tell anybody what it is. ... I hear my name 900 times a day," she said, describing how her walkie-talkie chirps with her name as crews look for advice or approval.

Every aspect of preparing the display requires planning: electrical connections must stay dry; light colors in each garden are changed every year; warming fires must be set.

A cherry picker helps crews get to some of the heights they must reach, but heavy machinery isn't always practical--that's when the tree-climbing professionals are called to duty.

Each year, volunteers from Idaho Tree Preservation scale the tallest trees--some pushing 60 feet--to add some height to the display.

The tree service has been helping hang lights in the garden for the past three years, and for crews who are usually worried about which branches to cut, it's a welcome escape.

"It's a nice change for the guys," said Terri Ham, operations director at Idaho Tree Preservation. "[They] just get to have fun just climbing and not worrying about pruning."

Additionally, volunteers from the Southern Idaho Garden Railway Society set up a large G-scale model train in the English Garden throughout the run of the event, staffing it nightly with volunteers.

Needles laughed when she said crews finished hanging lights Wednesday, Nov. 27--the day before the event opened to the public.

But after the first week of January, the lights must come down and go back into the buckets, a process that takes about three weeks. When all is said and done, IBG's electric bill runs between $700 and $800 for the season.

Needles and her husband work so long to deck out the garden, it's logical to wonder if they hang lights at their own home.

"Sometimes," Needles said sheepishly. "Usually not... the front windows get done..."