The show must go on

Preparation for Longwood’s biggest display of the year was underway and I put up more Christmas fairy lights in two weeks than in my entire life

lantern displayDuring November I worked with the Indoor department in the Conservatory. At 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) this conservatory is one of the biggest in the world and is home to perfect displays for almost 365 days of the year. Originally designed as a performance and entertainment space, it still houses a music room with one of the largest Aeolian pipe organs used for regular recitals.

Glass palace

Maggie at work in the ConservatoryThe greenhouse, which was built in 1921 in black, light grey and glass, definitely has a modernist feel. The technology installed was ahead of its time with heat, water and power systems hidden in tunnels beneath the house, including nifty hose pipes that can be pulled out of the ground, and winches where large hanging baskets can be lowered and lifted up accordingly. Every morning as I walked to work and the sky lightened from dark to dawn, it was like approaching a palace as the sun rose through the windows. Inside mirrors, around the walls of the Orangery, reflect the plants and remind me of stories from the Ottoman Empire and Topkapi Palace, where tulips were displayed with mirrors and candlelight to optimise the presentation of them.

It is rare to see such opulence in current times and for organisations to have the resources and expertise to create such displays.

Chrysanthemum - Christmas Changeover

team work to dismantle the chrysanthem displayThere is hardly ever a quiet moment in the Conservatory, during the Chrysanthemum Festival a lantern event took place over two weekends. After which an intensive ‘black out’ period, where the Conservatory unusually closed for two days and most of the garden staff, including many from other departments, came together to work day and night to dismantle the Chrysanthemum Festival and then install the Christmas display.

I helped to deconstruct the thousand bloom 'mum (see my last blog) and marvelled at the hundreds of nuts and bolts it took to put it together. I picked out thousands of metals ties out of giant Chrysanthemum balls, spirals and panels, planting and replanting until everything was just so. An opportunity for me to go up and down in a scissor lift, to take down and install new hanging baskets, was amazing.

Wow factor

Christmas display at Longwood Gardens

It was startling to see the plants that I had been working on in September come into fruition for display. Christmas display features such as undulating swathes of poinsettias, a succulent Christmas tree - a towering composite Christmas tree, the largest they have ever built, and comprised of euphorbias, poinsettias and Phalaenopsis orchids. Possibly the highlight of this fantastic display was an Abies fraseri fir tree, decorated with real instruments, on a moving platform with a turning key and spinning like a music box.

Thanksgiving for beginners

more of the Conservatory Christmas displayFrom the heady rush of the Christmas display to some downtime enjoying my first Thanksgiving ever. I was kindly invited for dinner by Doug Needham, Head of Education, and friends, for a proper American food experience.

I was also able to catch the best, and last, of the fading autumn colour in the one of the last remaining original woodlands of New York City on a trip to New York Botanic Gardens. Spring and autumn are the best time to visit, and I have been very fortunate to be able to do both.

Follow me

For more on my time at Longwood Gardens see my personal blog

More information

Discuss this

for the site or to share your experiences on this topic and seek advice from our community of gardeners.

Get involved

We're a UK charity established to share the best in gardening. We want to enrich everyone's life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.