Brent McHale has come a long way since his first light show. He started buying strings of small incandescent bulbs as a child on Boxing Day, when they were half price. At the age of sixteen, he lit up his parents’ house with 10,000 lights.
Fast forward a few years, and this is his third year in a row as the lighting designer for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ lighting show, Gardens Aglow. Here, its lighting count has been boosted to around 750,000 LEDs spread throughout Boothbay Gardens.
This year, McHale was the self-described “mastermind” behind the process of twisting, twinning, twisting and generally coaxing 66 miles of string lights into place.
Entering Gardens Aglow via the wide wooden bridge from the Visitor Center is nothing short of time travel. The trees conveniently fade behind luminous pendants like curly black satin around diamonds. You have a strong urge to crane your neck and look up.
McHale didn’t realize they had a light show when he came to work at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens as a horticulture intern in 2019. At the time, the show was a drive-thru operation on a budget of $5,000. But after the previous lighting designer stepped down, McHale took over the project. It takes him and 100 employees nearly three months to light the gardens. Last year, Aglo Gardens received about 120,000 visitors.
Gardens Aglow revenues are used to cover the Gardens’ general operating costs, including employee salaries, building maintenance, and the purchase and maintenance of its many plants. The additional cost of electricity is greatly mitigated by replacing gardens with high-efficiency LED lights which use 15 times less energy than incandescent bulbs.
“I have a lot of freedom, which is really nice,” said McHale, who says his favorite thing to do is to light an “old, well-branched tree.”
“I’m already thinking of ideas for next year,” he added.
For Meredith Steele and her family – residents of Bath – Miss Rumphius’s garden has been a huge success.
Steele noted that many of the area’s Christmas events are designed for viewing through a car window.
“There’s not a lot for your kids to really explore,” she said.
Not so at Gardens Aglo. There are more than 300 illuminated statues peeking out from the folds of the trees along what is now a mile-long walking trail. They include three deer, a ruby-throated hummingbird, a fox, a turtle, two owls, and too many mushrooms to count.
Two of the park’s five wooden troll sculptures, Ruskva and Lilja, shine like trees like light sabers within the reach of their massive hands.
“It makes you want to decorate your home,” Steele said.
Gardens Aglow at Coastal Main Botanical Gardens is open Thursday through Sunday and select Wednesdays through December 31. Tickets are on sale online at mainegardens.org/events-exhibits/gardens-aglow/ or by phone at 633-8000. The price is $19 per adult, $10 per child, and $48 for a family (2 adults, 2 children). Discounts are available to members.
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