By Ken Denney
Nothing captures the magic of Christmas quite like an outdoor light display. There’s something about a spread of small, twinkly lights wrapped around trees that really brings the holiday to life.
Unfortunately, for some people something seems to go wrong between the stages of planning a light display and actually putting it up. Either there are too few lights or way too many; or, giant patches of dark where there are no lights at all.
When your concept of an outdoor display falls far short of your results, it can be a bit depressing. You may have expected something out of a magazine cover – and wound up with a pretty but disheartening mess.
Well, this magazine wants to help you achieve a magazine-quality yard this Christmas. Now, to be sure we aren’t talking about setting up some plastic Santas and some inflatable snow globes. If you want a truly elegant display, that’s probably not the look you’re going for.
We’re talking about a sophisticated display of lights that turn your backyard into a holiday wonderland – a perfect place to entertain guests and a tasteful display for neighbors to enjoy. And, done right, such a display doesn’t have to be relegated to Christmas. You can enjoy the elegance of this kind of lighting all year.
Brian McLeod is the owner and CEO of Archstone, a landscape construction and design company based in Carrollton that does this kind of outdoor décor all over west Georgia – from tony homes in gated communities, to corporate venues, to the houses of more modest means. McLeod offered to lend some of his experience to our readers so that you, too, can introduce some holiday magic into your backyard.
Pick Your Tree
“The first step is picking out what you might think would be the best tree or trees in your yard.” McLeod said. “Typically, what I try to do is I try to get a little bit of balance – I want one single tree, or I’m looking at two trees that would be somewhat symmetrical.”
What the decorator should be looking for, he said, is an anchor point in the yard; a large, showy specimen of tree, or a grouping of smaller trees (even bushes) that, when lit, would naturally draw attention. The key in using several trees, he said, is the symmetrical part.
“You kind of spread it around, because if you just had them in spots it would look off-weighted. Try to find one specimen type tree that you want to light up, or kind of a grouping or symmetrical balance of trees.”
There are lots of different types of trees you could select for your focal point, and they don’t have to be cedars or any kind of tree normally associated with Christmas time. But if you do go for something like a Leyland Cyprus, you should remember that such a tree growing in your backyard is not the same as the tree you cut and bring home from a Christmas tree farm.
“What they don’t realize is (those trees) been sheared two or three times that year to kind of harden up and get those limb structures a little tight.”
In other words, the soft, flexible limbs have been trimmed away in favor of the sturdier branches. Those are what you want if you want you lights to stay in place and not droop and sag. So picking out the right tree in your yard is just the first step; you are going to have to do a fair amount of trimming before you start hanging lights.
There are many varieties of trees you could choose, especially if you want to keep the lights on for a year or two, so that you can have the same kind of starlight effect for summertime backyard cookouts and get-togethers.
“Hollies are probably one of the easiest ones to light, just because they typically have a much harder, more woody cane to them to begin with.” McLeod said.
“The other type of trees that you might want to select are ornamental trees, whether they are a crepe myrtle or a Japanese maple or even (Chinese) Pistache tree.”
The key to your selection, McLeod said, is the shape. You want something with a very unique shape or look, when lit, to create a central focus point in your yard.
Once you’ve planned out your trees and gotten them pruned and shaped up, you will want to start planning how you are going to light them.
Most people, of course, will simply run extension cords from the house to the trees. If so, experts say you should be sure to plug these connections into ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet. That will ensure the lights will shut down if there is an overcurrent. If you don’t already have one of these, an electrician can install one on an exterior wall. And having such an outdoor electrical source could have benefits all year.
However, if you intend to do this kind of lighting project every Christmas, you could install a series of electrical boxes throughout your yard, next to the trees or other plantings that will repeatedly be the focal point of your holiday displays. That will certainly be more of an investment, but it would be a more attractive (and safer) option than running a series of extension cords across your yard.
About those extension cords: be sure to only use those that are rated for outdoor use, and keep the connections above ground – not in a place where they could get under snow or water during the winter season. You should also avoid running them across high traffic areas, and to tape them down if they go across paths and other walkways. If you can’t use the exact length, then make sure to tie up any excess length so holiday guests (especially children) don’t get tangled up in them.
McLeod also suggests that you plan to have all your connections at the back of the tree or bush, so plan your lighting scheme accordingly.
Choose Your Lights
There are a variety of lights you could choose for this job. Experts recommend that you go for waterproof or water resistant lights, definitely the kinds that are meant to be used outside. Never use indoor Christmas lights.
Many people may want to use LED lights, since they use less electricity and are cheaper overall than incandescent lights. But there are some limitations with those. While LEDs are good for multicolored displays, those who envision a backyard lit with tiny white lights may be disappointed with LED bulbs. Instead of white, those bulbs produce a light with a distinct bluish tone.
“If you want the candlelight look,” McLeod said, go for incandescent bulbs.
Be prepared to use a lot more lights than you do inside. Outdoor trees, of course, are much bigger than those you set up in your living room, with much wider trunks and branches that go up higher.
But how many lights? Well, that’s a matter of personal preference and
McLeod notes that the line between tasteful and tacky can be pretty fine.
“For us, we try not to overload the lights. Just try to pick a few main items in your yard,” McLeod said.
“I try not to mix different lights together,” he said. If you want to avoid a tacky display, don’t have a bunch of LED lights next to incandescent bulbs.
“They’re both pretty lights, but when they’re sitting side by side, or even on the same tree, it kind of gives a little bit of off-taste effect.”
Hang Your Lights
Putting lights on the tree is a pretty simple technique, not too different from how you decorate an indoor tree. It involves wrapping the lights along the trunk and working from the inside out.
As for the technique of wrapping, what McLeod generally does is to, first, work with lights that are already lit, and then to wrap them around the tree in evenly spaced lines. He suggests leaving them a little slack, so that you can come back and adjust them later.
If you think that you are going to use this kind of outdoor lighting in the other months of the year, now would be the time to think about how tight you want these turns around the trunk to be. After all, live trees will continue to grow and so the cords will only get tauter as the tree gets bigger. And because the lifespan of these bulbs is seldom longer than two years, you will be outside doing this quite often in years to come.
McLeod starts at the base of the tree and works his way up. When he reaches a branch, he works along from the inside of the tree to the outer part. Often, when he reaches the end of the branch (or at least as far as he is going to go) he will back down and wrap the cords in the opposite direction, crissicrossing along the branch and trunk.
Some specimens of trees will be bare during Christmastime; others will remain foliated throughout the season. When dealing with those trees, McLeod enjoys the fact that you can walk around the leafed tree at night and see the lights appear and disappear within the branches, as if they were animated.
At some point in hanging the lights, you’re going to need a ladder. And McLeod strongly cautions anyone about trying to use a ladder without a “ladder buddy”; someone to hold it steady while you work up high.
“I know everyone thinks ‘I got it’,” McLeod says. “But when your manipulating lights, limbs and other things, your balance is the first thing to go. It’s all about having fun with lights and enjoying the season, but it’s no fun if you get hurt doing it."