Lighten up


Before you decorate, it helps to get insiders' tips

December 08, 2007|By ROB KASPER

When December snowflakes fall, I get overwhelmed by the notion that I should electrify the homestead for the holidays.

Usually, I simply remain stretched out in my Barcalounger, and this feeling passes. Then I promise myself that next year, sure as there are idiotic snow drivers and rising utility rates, I am going to put up tasteful outdoor decorations.

Recently, I pried myself out of the Barcalounger long enough to huddle with some outdoor lighting professionals to find out how they set the world aglow. I drove out to northern Baltimore County and sat down with Robert and Marion Mullan, proprietors of Mullan Landscape Nursery Co. Inc., whose crews decorate about 100 homes in the Baltimore area every holiday season. Then, on a frigid Tuesday morning, I watched Bob Fritsche, Gert Pretorius and Ryan Massey-Hicks of the Mullan company climb ladders, walk on steep roofs and secure extension cords as they readied a home for seasonal illumination.

Returning to my easy chair, I read Holiday Hero, a do-it-yourself outdoor- decorating guide published by Chronicle Books and written by Brad Finkle. Later, I had a long telephone conversation with Finkle, who runs a lighting business, Creative Decorating, and operates a Web site, creativedecorating, in Omaha, Neb.

I noticed right away that the lighting pros are different than me. For starters, they are not afraid of heights. The Mullan crews clamber around on roofs and once scaled an 80-foot pine tree in Ruxton to place a glowing star atop it.

The pros also don't mind working in the cold, and they are extremely organized. Their holiday decorations are, I surmised, light years ahead of anything I might pull off in a weekend. Yet there are certain practices that these pros follow that even dim bulbs like me could benefit from emulating.

One is drawing up a decoration plan. "Making a sketch is the single most important step you can take in designing your display," Finkle says. The sketch can be crude, a simple drawing on an 8-by-10 piece of paper. But it should include the basic architectural features of your house, the plantings in the yard, a rough measurement of dimensions and - this is really important - the location of electrical outlets. Stash this plan in a plastic cover, Finkle said, to avoid getting it wet and making it impossible to read.

Second, decide on a focal point. "Let one thing shine, and everything else shine around it," said Finkle. Often this focal point is the front door, said Marion Mullan, who as a landscape architect, has, I suspect, a better eye at spotting focal points than most of us. She also recommended keeping the color scheme of the lights simple and symmetrical.

Finkle agreed, saying clear lights were very popular for years, but now traditional lights - red, green and blue - are making a comeback.

Next is the general goal of avoiding male-female trouble. This does not refer to the tension between genders that has been known to manifest itself during the annual, often-spirited discussion of how to decorate the family Christmas tree. Instead, this male-female issue deals with positioning the male, or pronged end of a string of outdoor lights near a source of electrical power. (The female is the slotted end.)

This also carries over to the business of hiding the extension cords. "People want to see lights; they don't want to see extension cords," said Fritsche. Tucking an extension cord behind a downspout is a good way to discreetly supply power to roof lights, he said.

Heavy-duty outdoor extension cords now come in a variety of colors other than the common but hideous bright orange, said Finkle. When Finkle puts lights on an outdoor tree, he wraps the trunk in a hard-to-see brown cord.

Once they have successfully camouflaged cords, the pros record the cords' location, and their male-female orientation on their plan. The sketch that Fritsche and his crew used the other morning was color-coded. That means the crew knew that the light string with blue paint dabbed on it matched a blue line drawn on the sketch.

There some things I learned that fell under the label of tricks of the trade.

One was that you always test the light strings before you put them up.

Another was that you do not have to climb a ladder to place lights on an outdoor tree. Instead, you can use an expandable extension pole fitted with a light-hanging device on its end to gently position lights in trees. Poles don't work, Finkle said, when putting lights on a roofline. For that you have to climb. But the pros do have plastic light-holding clips (some sold in bulk at holiday specialty shops and on Finkle's Web site) that either tuck under shingles or attach to gutters.

For the technologically advanced, there is a software program that enables you put a digital picture of your house on your home computer, then, with a few clicks, experiment with various "looks" for your holiday lights.

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