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Spread a little holiday love with a yard that sparkles and shines

Christmas lights are getting a workout in 2020. Think back to March when people around the country put up holiday displays to bring a little light to the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, outdoor holiday decor is lifting spirits and bringing families together.

“People are looking at the home as a place to be with family and hunker down,” says Jim Kolb, owner of House of Flowers in Oshkosh. “Decorating and doing home improvements is a safe activity people can do with their families.”

As we approach the holiday season in earnest, it’s time to dig out the lights, garlands and ornaments (perhaps for the second time this year) to bring a little holiday cheer to your neighborhood. Use these tips from local experts to create outdoor holiday displays that will brighten the season.

Plan ahead.

Making a list and checking it twice – it’s not just for Santa Claus. The pros all agree that a well laid holiday lighting and decor plan makes all the difference, and it’s best to start planning early.

“Measuring and planning is really the key,” says Shaun Forslund, founder of Fox Cities Festival of Lights. “The best time to plan a display is December of the previous year because you can see everything up and you can move things around.”

Fox Cities Festival of Lights has been canceled this year due to COVID-19, but Forslund points out that the current holiday season is a great time to find inspiration in other homes and businesses. Take a drive to admire your neighbors’ displays and make notes of ideas and themes you like, and what equipment you will need to create something similar next year. Pinterest and other online discovery sites can be sources of inspiration too.

Once you have your ideas compiled and vision in place, make a sketch of your house and yard. Consider which available outlets can be used and plan your light display accordingly. Measure architectural features and trees you’d like to decorate so you can purchase enough lights.

Andy Debbink, client consultant at Vande Hey Company in Appleton, shares his formula for the perfect amount of lights per tree. “You take the tree height times the width and times that by 10 and that is the number of bulbs you need,” he says.

Photo by Vande Hey Company

When it comes to fresh accents like garlands and greenery, planning ahead is especially important. “Growers, suppliers and farmers are cutting things to order, so when we are out of something it’s becoming more difficult to replenish,” Kolb says. “Shopping early and planning ahead would be the most helpful, so you have the best selection and most access to everything.”

Assemble the right tools.

Gather all the necessary supplies ahead of time to avoid last minute trips to the store. In addition to lights and decorative elements, there are a few tools the professionals swear by to ease setting up displays.

Photo by Vande Hey Company

Zip ties, or cable ties, are an often-cited tool used by lighting professionals to quickly and easily attach lights to displays or to other lights. If you plan to utilize zip ties, Forslund recommends purchasing them by the 1000s and also suggests picking up a zip tie gun.

“My zip tie gun is my most used tool in my tool box,” Forslund says. “Zip tie guns are a way to tighten zip ties and cut them as well so you won’t have extra hanging out. It makes it nice and clean.”

David Barkow, facilities and maintenance coordinator at Green Bay Botanical Garden, is the creative mind behind the WPS Garden of Lights display. He suggests getting a spray can of dielectric grease to use on power connections.

“Wet snow and salt is rough on lights,” he says. “Dielectric grease is like a silicone, you spray it on a plug-in and it seals it up like a gel. Buying it in an aerosol can is very handy. Just a little squirt to each of the connections has saved us several times from power outages and blown connections.”

WPS Garden of Light. Photo by John Oates Photography.

Roof clips are another trade secret among professional light installers. These plastic clips can attach to gutters, shingles or both and they help keep light strings secure and straight. Roof clips are affordable, can be found easily at most hardware and home stores, and help elevate the look of holiday lighting.

Avoid common mistakes.

While holiday decorations and lighting are a matter of personal preference, there are a few common mistakes that can be easily remedied.

“One thing I notice is if you are going to plug in an extension cord, get one that’s the appropriate length,” says Barkow. “Don’t use a 100-foot extension cord if you only need an extra 25 feet. You lose all that electricity in the extension cord.”

WPS Garden of Lights. John Oates Photography.

Barkow also says to select outdoor-friendly extension cords that will blend into your natural landscape. Dark green is often a good choice, while blaze orange cords will detract from the overall look.

Troy Campbell knows a thing or two about electrical needs for holiday displays, a tricky issue for many novices. Campbell has been hosting The North Pole Christmas Village for the past 15 years. Now located in Chilton, the village consists of more than a dozen Christmas-themed displays in an indoor exhibition space, as well as several outdoor displays.

Overloading circuit breakers is a common problem with holiday lighting. Campbell says residential decorators can avoid blowing their circuit breakers with the help of an amp meter.

“If someone is going to light their entire house I recommend getting an amp meter. Your lights cannot exceed the amperage on your circuit breaker or it will blow,” he says. “You plug the amp meter into your outlet and then plug in your lights and it will tell you how many amps are on here.”

Kolb says many holiday decor novices often struggle with scale. Decorations should be sized in relation to your home and landscape features.

“If you have a two- or three-story home and your entry pots are 14-inches tall and have little tidbits in them, it’s not going to have an impact,” Kolb says. “We are bigger fans of investing in fewer of the right things, but having them done really well.”

Perfect your lighting technique.

LED lights, which use less energy than traditional incandescents, are the industry standard for holiday lightscapes. They are also more durable, last longer and can be strung together in a longer series.

“People blow their breakers by putting up too many lights,” Campbell says. “Incandescents you can’t hook more than four strands together without popping a fuse, but with LEDs you can hook 35 to 40 strands together because they don’t use as much electricity.”

Photo by Vande Hey Company.

The lighting experts at Vande Hey Company have a motto when it comes to their displays: Go big or go home. Simply put, the key to professional looking installations is to use a lot of lights. When lighting trees, the technique used will vary by tree type.

“Our standard is double wrapping all deciduous trees,” Debbink says. “You wrap out one way and wrap back down that same branch to the trunk.”

Barkow agrees, recommending that you always wrap back to the trunk so lights don’t appear to be running through thin air.

Evergreen trees can be approached a little differently, Debbink says. “We swag evergreens by doing a loop around the tip of the branch, then doing another loop every couple feet, spiraling up the tree basically.”

Make sure to take proper safety precautions when putting up lights. Test all lights before hanging them and inspect strings for damage, frayed cords or exposed wires. If you are installing outdoor lights that will require the use of a ladder, it’s best to tackle the project with a partner.

Elevate your look with fresh accents.

Holiday decor is so much more than blinking lights and inflatable Santas. For a sophisticated look that can extend throughout the winter, consider fresh accents like door wreaths, evergreen garlands and porch pots filled with natural elements in various textures.

Photo by House of Flowers.

Kolb says when it comes to porch pots, mixing textures creates a look that’s visually interesting. He recommends choosing two to three different textured winter elements like evergreen branches, magnolia leaves and woody stems such as fresh-cut curly willow, dogwood and birch branches. For the holidays, glitzy faux stems covered in metallic paint and glitter can add a festive touch.

“Some designs are very understated and natural with elements like fresh pepperberry, pomegranate or eucalyptus,” Kolb says. “If you avoid the glitter and shine it’s less Christmassy and more wintery which takes you longer into the season.”

This winter Kolb is favoring modern designs, using materials in a “zoned” manner.

“For a cleaner, more contemporary feel, you can group elements in their container rather than intermix them throughout,” Kolb explains. “A zoned look is more of a modern approach and I think a little more impactful. Each element speaks for itself.”

A great way to learn how to create your own porch pot or wreath is by taking a class at a local greenhouse or landscaping company. Vande Hey Company is offering several classes this season, including exterior holiday containers on November 21 and December 5, and wreath decorating on December 3, 8 and 10.

Store decor like a pro.

Set yourself up for easy installation next year by storing lights and decor properly during the off season. Proper storage techniques also result in less damage, saving you money.

The biggest frustration often comes from improperly stored lights. The pros recommend wrapping lights into a ball, much like a ball of yarn, with the female end on the inside.

“Always start with the female end first and wrap the strand around your hand until you create a ball, then tuck the male end in last,” Barkow says. “Next year, you can test the lights right away with the male end exposed.”

Christmas light spools, available at many home and hardware stores, are another option for easy light storage. Packing items in clear plastic bags and totes will make it easy to find what you are looking for next season.

Bright Ideas

Get some design inspiration at these holiday light displays

Oshkosh Celebration of Lights
November 27-January 2
Nearly 1 million lights sparkle along a mile stretch of Lake Winnebago shoreline. This drive-thru display is open daily. On certain nights, carriage rides through the display are available by advance reservation for an additional fee. 5:30-9pm. Menominee Park, Oshkosh. 303-9200.

WPS Garden of Lights
November 27-December 20, December 26-30 & January 1-2
Botanically-themed holiday displays featuring more than 300,000 twinkling lights. Dated and timed tickets must be purchased in advance at GBBG.org/Lights. Th-Su, 4:30-9pm. Last entry is 8:30pm. Green Bay Botanical Garden. 490-9457.

The North Pole Christmas Village
November 26-February 1
Indoor and outdoor Christmas displays depicting Santa’s workshop, elves and other holiday mischief. Masks are required inside the exhibit. Free admission, donations accepted. M-F, 6-10pm. Sa & Su, 1-10pm. N5207 Lemke Rd., Chilton. 216-2940.

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