Cover Story: Fantasy in lights

When the seasons change in west-central Georgia and grounds maintenance work slows, the landscaping staff at Callaway Gardens begins annual preparations for what is quite possibly the largest Christmas light display in the country. While commercial and residential landscape companies throughout the United States are beginning to add holiday light services to their businesses on a large scale, this Southern oasis has been helping visitors celebrate the holidays for six years.

Gardens founder and second-generation Georgia businessman Cason Jewell Callaway always dreamed of a place where man and nature could coexist. Initially, he decided to develop a residential community for friends and business associates. But as the land began to take shape as a garden, Callaway and his wife, Virginia, realized it was too beautiful for just a few people to enjoy. His vision changed and on May 21, 1952, Callaway Gardens opened to the public.

It would take 40 years for the Christmas lights display to be added, but Virginia always desired to incorporate Christmas lights into the Gardens similar to the ones she enjoyed as a girl on the lawns in her hometown of Pelham, Georgia. In 1992 Callaway Gardens opened “Fantasy in Lights” and it’s grown in popularity ever since. Last year, 196,000 people toured the display in their vehicles or as a passenger on the Jolly Trolley established to take visitors through the grounds.

Sixty-nine landscape department employees, not including golf course staff, keep Callaway Gardens in top shape year round. All told, the grounds encompass 13,000 acres highlighted by three distinct showcase gardens.

Overlook Garden is the original garden planted and consists of more than 700 azalea shrubs hand-picked by azalea expert Fred Galle. The 71/2-acre Vegetable Garden, setting of the PBS television show “The Victory Garden,” grows much more than vegetables including fruit, herbs, flowers, an All-America Trials garden and includes its own composting area.

The 40-acre Azalea Garden, opened in March 1999, captures Mother Nature at her best. With more than 3,400 hybrid azaleas, the garden erupts with a colorful palette of pinks, reds and whites each spring. Additional plantings include 2,000 trees and shrubs that provide myriad of blooms and foliage throughout the year.

Unfortunately, this year’s drought throughout the southern United States has taken a toll on the Gardens’ foliage. “Harris County (Georgia) has been under severe water restrictions since May,” explains Hank Bruno, director of horticulture. “We are trying out new, drought-tolerant plantings in parts of the Gardens to help ensure we don’t cause a water deficit going into next year. The climate changes are definitely going to change the way we landscape.”

Holiday lighting adds another season
Callaway Gardens’ “Fantasy in Lights” show is so spectacular that a visitor once commented, “If light shows were baseball, this would be the World Series,” according to Rachel Crumbley, corporate relations manager for the gardens. And that’s exactly the kind of response Crumbley and her team want to evoke from holiday visitors.

Everything about the event is over the top: “Fantasy in Lights” comprises more than eight million lights on 731 miles of strings – enough to illuminate 26,666 six-foot-tall Christmas trees. The more than a dozen scenes take six weeks and 3,900 man hours to install.

“Each of the scenes relate to Christmas or nature,” Crumbley notes. And many displays combine both elements. An example is the Garden’s nativity scene. “It’s part of our landscape protocol to use the reflection of Robin Lake Beach as part of the design,” Crumbley explains. “By coordinating the lights with the reflective qualities of the Garden’s lake, we give visitors a breathtaking view as they round a blind corner and see the bright lights on trees looking like thousands of tiny stars both in the sky and on the water.”

The Bill Ferrell Company is contracted to do most of the light installation for Callaway Gardens each year. This landscaping firm, consisting of employees under the direction of Scott Simpson, are on site each day from mid-August through the first week of January to install, maintain and control the light show.

When Total Landscape Care visited Callaway Gardens in mid-October, the Christmas light installation was in full force. Simpson and two crew members, Jimmy Clagg and Chris Dail, were in aerial lifts positioning strands of white lights in “Snowflake Valley – one of the original scenes.

“The light display scenes are stored in a warehouse year-round where two or three people work to maintain the lights,” Crumbley says. “Each year, one scene is rehabilitated to keep the displays looking brand new.” Each animated scene is surrounded by its own sound system and set to tailored musical arrangements.

Bruno is charged with ensuring the light installation does not harm any of the natural plantings on the grounds.

“Most of the light frames are suspended from cords and are not attached to trees and plants,” Bruno says. “However, where we do have lights attached to trees, it is done with bands that are removed and replaced every two years to ensure the trees do not grow over them.”

“Fantasy in Lights” is open at 6 p.m. nightly through December 30. Visit this site for more information.

22nd Annual Southern Gardening Symposium
For landscapers and horticulturalists looking for the opportunity to learn more about gardening in the South, Callaway Gardens will host the annual Southern Gardening Symposium January 18-20, 2008.

Pre-conference workshop topics include: landscape design solutions, a landscape design practicum and topiaries. In addition, the workshop will include speakers on tropical gardens, Southern shade plants, landscape design inspiration and more. Continuing education credits are available for beginners and professionals. The deadline to register is January 11, 2008.

For more information or to pre-register, call the Education Department at (706) 663-5153.

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