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A Garden of Lights

November 26, 2012

Light and winter are inevitably linked in many societies. From the return of the sun in the Solstice to the star leading the Wise Men in the Christian Nativity story, the image of a light shining in the darkest of seasons strikes something deep and true. While candles have been the traditional method of symbolizing this light, American culture is a bit more colorful these days. Chris and I don’t put Christmas lights up on our house, but we certainly enjoy looking at other people’s light displays. So last week, I was quite pleased to see that Montgomery County’s Brookside Gardens had a walk-through holiday lights display. I was looking for activities to do with my parents over the Thanksgiving weekend and this seemed like the perfect thing.

Our region has a surprising array of botanical gardens, at least compared to other places I’ve lived. D.C. is the home of the United States Botanical Garden, the National Arboretum (which houses the Washington Youth Garden), and the Hillwood Estate and Gardens (which hosts the post bicycle-ride Seersucker Social). Northern Virginia has a few, both in urban and suburban settings. And Montgomery County has Brookside Gardens, which I never even knew existed until I participated in the Seed Exchange there this past spring.

While lacking in vegetable plantings, I appreciate how Brookside raises awareness of gardening and taking pleasure in nature. The Butterfly and Rain Gardens illustrate how gardening can serve ecological functions, by creating habitats for insects and regulating water flow. Their Children’s Garden, with its play toadstools and treehouse, helps kids realize that gardening can be simultaneously practical and fanciful. The Japanese-style garden helps connect gardening with the larger culture and aesthetic appreciation. While I sometimes poo-poo growing flowers, cultivating an appreciation for gardening – whether produce or floral – is a worthwhile aim. When I walked around after the Seed Exchange, I was enchanted with the place, so I was glad to introduce the rest of my family to it.

Butterfly light display

Fortunately, the display of lights lived up to my expectations. Although the walk-through set-up meant that all of your warmth was self-generated, rather than from a vehicle, it allowed for an unhurried tour. In a car, you have to move a certain speed or people start honking. In this set-up, I could gaze as long as I wanted, so long as I could stand the cold. And there was plenty to look at. The designs were appropriately nature-themed, with giant bugs, animals, and flowers among the displays. My favorite display was by far the largest – a huge rainbow that arched overhead. Rain clouds hung on both sides, with an occasional “lightning bolt” rattling down through the trees, followed by faint thunder. I admit that I’m easily amused, but you couldn’t help but smile a bit.

Rainbow holiday light display at Brookside Gardens

Other favorite displays included a flock of geese that flew up and down into a pond and a mythological sea monster and her baby.

Nessie light display

The infamous garden Nessie.

As lovely as the display was, I appreciate it for more than just its beauty. After all, you can see impressive holiday light displays in lots of places – people’s yards, other public parks, even the National Zoo. But with Brookside Gardens, I like how this exhibit is helping introduce people to a unique place. After all, plenty of families already know about the National Zoo before visiting the lights there. In contrast, few families might think of Brookside Gardens for a family outing. Just as community rides normalize bicycling, events like these set in gardens help bring an entirely different crowd than might see them otherwise.

It’s worth it to think about how we might apply this principle to vegetable gardening. Community gardens do demystify gardening a lot, but I wonder if there’s a way to make them even more enticing to folks. Perhaps we’ll see holiday light displays next to raised beds in the future!

Do you have any favorite holiday traditions related to gardening or agriculture?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2012 7:46 pm

    Thank you for the nice words about Brookside Gardens’ Garden of Lights. For the last three years we have had a garden-wide theme devoted to edible landscaping and sustainability. It’s been fun to show our visitors that you can have a beautiful garden that is also functional. We happily donated our harvests to the local food banks, and encourage visitors to donate as well. We host a CSA at the Gardens, and offer year-round programming dealing with sustainable gardening practices and more. We hope that you will come back often to enjoy all that we have to offer.
    Sincerely, the Marketing Manager at Brookside Gardens

    • December 6, 2012 12:17 am

      That’s fantastic! I was at the gardens last during the early spring, before much was planted, so I must have missed the edible landscaping elements. I’m so glad to see that you’re demonstrating that functionality, as well as directly benefiting the community with the food.

  2. November 30, 2012 8:24 pm

    Well, actually in our local zoo they do an incredible light display around Christmas. It’s just that I don’t want to pay the admission for this ….

    Cheapo me. Some day…

    • December 6, 2012 12:14 am

      I really enjoyed the lights display at our zoo, but it certainly helps that it’s free. D.C. has the wonderful advantage of having a huge number of free activities, and the Zoo is actually part of the Smithsonian.

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