Garden Glow opens Saturday night in Brookings


BROOOKINGS – “It is a signature event,” noted Lisa Marotz, director of operations at South Dakota State University’s McCrory Gardens. She’s talking about the annual Garden Glow extravaganza of lights – about 250,000 of them decorating displays that are spread out over about four acres – and the sounds of the season that fill the air on crisp, cold winter nights. The director is also a spokesperson and historian for what the gardens and its annual Glow are all about.

She explained that the building that is the hub for yearround operations at McCrory Gardens was built in 2012. “Fast forward a couple years to 2015,” she added. “(The first) Garden Glow was open for seven nights. Santa came to visit two of those nights. There were 51 people (who visited) and 11 trees.”

Marotz came onboard McCrory Gardens in 2016. “My first year we opened it up pretty much the entire month of December and we had 800 people visit. We installed more trees.

“In 2017 we added Candy Land, and I started telling people about the next year’s fundraiser being for Reindeer Meadow – because we had a reindeer in the Meadow.” That first reindeer, a “little buck,” continues to show up every year.

About 1,500 people showed up in 2018 to see the ever-growing gala and fundraising got underway for “Mrs. Claus’s Retreat.” Basically every year attendance had been doubling.

Marotz noted that back in 2020, with COVID-19 numbers climbing daily, “people were looking for things to do outside.” Despite the pandemic, the show would go on. Because of the need for reduced numbers of people gathering at one time, a ticketing schedule was instituted.

“But if there’s anything to be said about some of the blessings that come from the things that we have to do differently, we had over 11,000 people come to Garden Glow,” she said. And she anticipated that 2021 visitor numbers would surpass the previous year’s. “But we had 11,000 people again. The weather impacted us the most; last year there were five nights that we could not be open, because it was so cold. That was hard.”

However, Marotz is upfront, straightforward and confident about visitor numbers, when she smiles, laughs and admits, “I’m expecting more this year. To have the people here, it’s why we do what we do. It’s the joyfulness, it’s the amazement, it’s building tradition, it’s building the rituals, it’s all-generational.”

She did admit that a second reason for Garden Glow is that it’s a major fundraiser for the gardens, which is part of South Dakota State University. “We are partially funded by SDSU and we need to partially fundraise for the remainder.”

Ever new, ever classic

While each annual Garden Glow will have something new that its predecessors didn’t have, Marotz noted there are some “classics” that will always be there: “I don’t see that we’ll really ever change Candy Land. There’s Rainbow Pass where you lose track of how many pictures are on Facebook by people who had to have (their) picture here, always had (their) picture (taken) here.”

This season’s “new and a first” comes through the Mark and Kathy Norgaard and Adrienne Olson Buel Garden Glow Fund: the Cottage Garden gorgeously lighting up as joyful sounds of the season fill the air.

Add to the above classics something that’s becoming traditional over just the few years of Garden Glow history: sponsoring trees. “There are some people do that every year,” Marotz explained. “They’re either remembering a loved one; they’re honoring a co-worker; they’re just thankful for what they had for the year; they’re wishing people ‘Merry Christmas.’”

A nice benefit to a Santa visit is that the children and their parents get to tour the gardens for free that night and see all the wonder and hear the music that are part of Garden Glow. “That’s where it hits the heart,” she said.

Get it going, keep it going

“There’s lots of pieces to it,” Marotz said, in describing the annual event. “A lot of people want to know how long does it take to install everything. Rough idea, it was started the third week in October. So by ‘Giggles and Ghouls,’ when we had our trick-or-treat event for Halloween, Candy Land was set up.

“There’s a fine line between when can you get things in the ground before it freezes,” Marotz explained. That decision is left to “Chris Schlenker, our horticulture and grounds manager; he’s been here at McCrory for 15 years.”

Admitting it’s a “ballpark figure, a very rough estimate,” Marotz puts the total number of Garden Glow lights at about 250,000.

And how many manhours to get Glow up and running? “Even already, Chris and I were talking about this before a (final check-it-out walk-through) group came. We’re saying 700 hours. But that’s the four full-time people, 30 hours a week, six weeks.” That doesn’t include her time and that of several other garden staff members. Additionally, volunteers pitch in to help.

To ensure that the lights continue to show their glow, bulbs need to be replaced when they go out. Wires need to be monitored and sometimes repaired or replaced. “Little critters like to chew on wires,” Marotz said.

The director sees McCrory Gardens and Garden Glow as a destination, drawing visitors from outside and around the Brookings area: “Quotes from other people would be: ‘Wow, this is so nice, because you can touch everything, you’re in it, you’re immersed in it.’ It’s enchanting, with the sights and sounds. The chill on your nose, hot chocolate in your hand. People can be free. They can enjoy themselves, grown up, remembering how to be a kid again.”

“It’s really accessible to all abilities,” she added, noting that “Garden (staff are) very intent on keeping all paths clear: strollers, wheelchairs, people bring wagons with their kids and stuff in them.”

Private parties can be booked in the Great Hall. “This is a room with a view year round,” Marotz said. “For those who book a party, their guests get to experience Garden Glow at no cost.”

One aspect of McCrory Gardens that Marotz wants people to understand is what she calls “the story of the fence,” that was erected in 2015. “It’s not a hidden fact that people have been upset with the installation of the fence, but if they were able to know the entire story of the vandalism and protection that’s needed; Garden Glow wouldn’t be able to exist if it wasn’t for that protection.”

A second aspect that she explained was the entrance fee: “I came when we’d been almost a full year of charging admission; that was the other sticking point. Now a lot of what I do is about fundraising.

“It’s about telling a story, about honoring those that came before us. It’s a botanical garden; it’s not a park. We have collections of trees and plants. It’s intentional. It’s almost like walking into a museum of plants. We are building on the foundation of people who came before us.”

General information

Beginning Dec. 3 (Saturday) and continuing through Jan. 6, 2023, (Saturday), Garden Glow will be open from 5 to 9 p.m, with the last admission at 8:30 p.m. (Garden Glow will not be open on Dec. 24-25 and Jan. 1.) Tickets must be purchased in advance: Log on to or call 605-688-6707. Ticket prices are: Youth and adults, $9; children under 5 are free; SDSU students and Friends of McCrory Gardens are also free.

Scheduling the date and time of visits will be provided at the time of ticket purchase. Plan on about a half-hour to complete a tour and see all the displays.

Additional information about dates and times for horse-drawn trolley rides through the Arboretum and for Meet Santa Claus visits may also be made by contacting McCrory Gardens as noted above.

Contact John Kubal at