In the basement of the library at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, a team of people — mostly retired men and women but also young adults — builds displays for this year's Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights, "Naturally Ever After: Stories in Lights."
Over the course of 10 months, 300 volunteers check every light, build metal armatures, recycle organic materials from the garden, help brainstorm each year's theme, and install the final vignettes under the supervision of exhibitions manager Kristin Thoroman and operating manager Justin Brown.
Like many of those who visit the light display each year, volunteering is often a family affair. Bob Lincoln of Henrico has been volunteering for more than a decade and became seriously involved in GardenFest after retiring. He is building an armature for Humpty Dumpty while his wife works across the room gluing dried flowers; Lincoln's daughter also volunteers.
This year's theme features three-dimensional interpretations of well-known fairy tales, mythologies and classic books. Stories include Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree," depicted by an inviting Darlington oak tree, which will be covered in 16,000 lights – and not be cut down. Also included are Jack and the Beanstalk, featuring a 12-foot tall giant and a 70-foot tall loblolly pine tree wrapped in lights from top to bottom as the stalk, and the Origin of the Orchids, a New Zealand folk tale that will include a rainbow of orchids.
Other new installations for this year include a room-sized igloo in the children's garden made from repurposed milk jugs that have been collected from visitors and a night of live storytelling by the local group, Secretly Y'all.
Inspired by the light display at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina, GardenFest of Lights began in 1995 as the brainchild of then-Executive Director Frank Robinson and then-public relations manager Elizabeth Daniel Bickford. They wanted to drive attendance to the garden during the winter, a period of low visitation. Each year introduces a new theme, though returning visitors can still see what Thoroman refers to as fan favorites, reworked annually, including train displays, a wolf that appears to be running, and a peacock whose tail will serve as a tunnel in "Naturally Ever After: Stories in Lights."
Even though the numbers associated with the event are staggering — more than 500,000 lights and 90,000 expected visitors — GardenFest is just another way to engage the community with the garden and the natural world around them. Beth Monroe, current public relations and marketing director, explains that this event, like all of the exhibitions at Lewis Ginter, is meant to "connect people through plants to improve communities."
Thoroman agrees: "Anytime people walk through the door, we want them to have an experience that connects them to the garden and makes them want to come back over and over again. Then we sneak in the educational component that teaches them the importance of the natural world and the connection between people and plants." S
Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens opens Nov. 24 and runs through Jan. 8. For information see lewisginter.org.