I grew up in Wisconsin; my family owns a 5th generation landscape contracting business and nursery operation.
Part of our business during the "off season" was to decorate estates, homes, banks, churches, synagogues and public buildings for the holidays, and sell Christmas trees and flock them.
From the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve all we did was work, eat and sleep!
A lot of work at the time, but a great feeling when people get the WOW factor of the whole design and are put in the mood of the Season.
I still enjoy doing it; it puts me in the mood for the Season, uses my creativity and a fun way to wrap up the year.
Here are a few tips that I use when I put together a project:
Lighting The best way to approach lighting is to keep it simple. Think it through first; remember you have to take it all down someday. Better to light one or a few things dramatically than everything you can see. As my old Uncle Nic used to say; "It shouldn't look like a watt sucking fireball". Use primary color strands or up-light fixtures; red, green, white and blue, and don't mix more than any 2 colors together. Yellow and orange lights tend to make things look "Martian -like". If you use mixed colored strands, just use those alone. I still like the large 1 ½" bulbs, the colors are more intense and can be seen from great distances.
Under any circumstances do not use flashing bulbs. Come on now, this is your home, not a casino or strip club! Use the lights to emphasize the forms and shapes of what you want to light, more on this below. If you are buying new lights make sure they are LED, they last a long time and not prone to shorting out. Set your lights out during the day and fine tune at night. Another option is the Southwest Luminaria (brown paper bags filled with sand with a votive candle inside, electric versions are available) for walks and building parapets.
Use Natural Elements The best and easiest things to light are natural forms like: trees, cactus, shrubs, wreath and garlands. One option is flood lighting, make sure you place the light source far enough away so it lights the whole thing and not just an area with a "hot spot" of light, stand back and check it out and you will see what I mean. Contrary to popular belief, there is an art to placing lights, some techniques:
Accent Buildings and Forms Here again, simplicity is best. Use lights around door frames, entry areas, windows, roof lines and dormers. Red Chili lights or white lights are good for this, don't overdo it and stay away from those lights that look like icicles; they make your house look like its melting or on fire! Don't be afraid to use other materials, I once wrapped my house in a 1' wide plastic ribbon and put a bow on the door to make the bungalow look like a package. If you have a portable fire pit, place it in a conspicuous place for a onetime event or party: think Christmas Eve or New Years. Use large candles that are made for the outdoors (buy at Ikea).
Free Standing Elements These can be little tricky because they can be on the roof, on a building, up in a tree, freestanding or on the ground. If they are the flat board type (like reindeer, elves, Santa, sleighs, etc.) white spot lights are best, here again, don't place too close. Wreaths and garlands are usually nailed to a building and should be lit with lights intertwined in them. Be careful if you place things on the roof, I know a guy who spent the better part of night out because his ladder slipped away. Inflatables have their own lights usually, but they will eventually leak.
Nativity Scenes with animals, crosses, menorahs and wire armature animals ( deer, sheep, horses, bear and moose etc.) are another matter; depending on where you live, HOAs' and lots of other factors they have fallen out of favor these days, look into it before you make the time and investment to install them. I will warn you though: make sure they are fastened securely in place. They can "walk" away from your property at night, be moved down the street "to visit their friends" or will be subject to imaginative re-positioning!
My Favorite Local Places There are a lot of great places around Town to see things. Sometimes whole neighborhoods are open for drive-by for the public, the paper usually publishes these around Christmas, I used to and still love checking these out.
My Favorite Spots:
If you see something you like, take a picture and copy it.
As Oscar Wilde once said:
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery".
Enjoy your Holidays and Have Prosperous New Year,
Thaumas P . Ehr, Landscape Architect