Behind the Scenes at Gardens Aglow

Gardens Aglow

It takes a village to launch an event like Gardens Aglow, and to learn how we get there, I sat down with lighting designer and horticulturist, Brent McHale.

Brent, horticulturist by training and trade, has always loved lighting design. Given that both jobs require a clever combining of light, height, artistry, and color, this probably isn’t surprising. “I’ve actually been designing lights since I was 16,” he says. “I’ve always loved the holidays, and I’d save my birthday money to buy lights and decorate to the hilt. Then, on December 26, I’d buy lights on sale for next year.” At one point, Brent had 10,000 lights on his parents’ house. 

Granted, the Gardens, with its upwards of 650,000 lights, is a bit of a bigger project. But Brent is unfazed. “When I came here as an intern a few years ago,” he says, “I was really excited and hoped to be kept on for Gardens Aglow, and it was so much fun. I loved it. Last year, I was given some creative leeway, and people seemed to really like those structures, which felt great. Ever since, my mind has been coming up with ideas–color schemes, themes.”

Since Gardens Aglow, for safety reasons, was going to return as a driving experience again this year, Brent wanted to make sure it was a different experience, longer and more immersive. “We had to figure out how to bring the show closer to the cars. The parking lots provide lots of open space,” he says. Open space–and lots of opportunity to build structures, in Brent’s words, “cost-effectively and beautifully.”

“The goal was to make it a more immersive, consistent story, so people really feel like they’re IN the show. We wanted them to see the detail work that goes into what we build,” he adds. And he’s not kidding–Brent made some ambitious goals for himself and Gardens’ welder/sculptor, Pete Rawden. Already Pete has exceeded Brent’s expectations with 265 iron flowers, and several mushrooms and lily pads, not to mention the animals he’s created that we’ve featured in years past. “Pete’s definitely an artist,” Brent says.

We’re not giving away ALL of of our secrets though–to see the full range of sculptures, you’ll have to come see the show yourself. But Brent does tell us that the story he wanted to tell was one that celebrated Maine, its forests, waters, and wetlands, all with a botanical theme. Beyond the sculptures, structures, and wrapped trees, Brent has incorporated more uplighting to highlight the pieces of nature so iconic to Maine, like ledge formations and stately pines. 


The planning and implementation hasn’t been without its challenges, however. Supply chain issues have been a real hurtle in 2021, necessitating a constant tweaking of Brent’s original designs. “We’ve had to wait on light supplies, which has been the biggest challenge.” Gardens Aglow uses Versaline LED lights, a low-voltage, energy-efficient line of lights that are rugged enough to survive our winters for several seasons, so they’re definitely worth waiting for. But those issues, beyond safety concerns, accessibility, and giving our gardens the chance to recover, were another good reason for choosing the driving option this year. “Since everyone stays in their cars for the show, they can also bring their dogs with them,” adds Brent, “and that makes lots of people happy.” 

Gardens Aglow runs November 20-January 1. Tickets are only available in advance. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit GardensAglow.org