Voices of the Bay: Dan Christina Gets Blithewold’s Gardens Ready for the Holidays

How a Bristol resident fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming director of horticulture


Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum has played a pivotal role in shaping Dan Christina’s life. Some of the Bristol resident’s earliest childhood memories are of reading books on the great lawn with his family. It was during one of those outings young Christina said to Julie Morris, then Blithewold’s horticulture director, that one day he would fill her shoes. Those words came to fruition on the first day of spring last March, when Christina took on the position, filling a void left by the death of 20-year horticulture director Fred Perry who had passed away the previous November. Christina, a 2001 Mt. Hope High School graduate, was studying early elementary education at the University of Rhode Island, when, after a summer internship at Blithewold, he switched majors and graduated with a degree in urban horticulture and turf management. He then began his professional career at Blithewold as assistant grounds manager until 2014 when he left and became the chief horticulturist at Green Animals Topiary Gardens for eight years. These days Christina and his staff at Blithewold are gearing up for the return of Sparkle, the garden’s festive illuminated stroll, which had been scaled back in recent years
due to COVID.

DECK THE GROUNDS: Blithewold is reengaging the whole [Sparkle] experience with outdoor fires, music, roasting s’mores, and adding on a tour of the mansion. I want to make sure people have the opportunity to really enjoy what they’re getting to see by providing wholesome engagement in the environment without it feeling forced. The majority of the exterior decorations are handmade through the last 20 years out of bamboo and other natural materials. They’re very unique, one of a kind, so to see those and to experience being surrounded by these massive trees are ways of enjoying an outdoor space in the winter.

LUMINOSITY: It’s hard to quantify how many lights there are because so many of them are handmade. There might be a single light per flower or a bundle of three or five lights, and we do strands of lights on a lot of trees. We probably have tens of thousands of lights. We’ve started the transition to all LED lighting for the exterior, which will reduce electricity consumption – we are trying to be conservation-minded. A lot is involved in breaking down the various handmade ornaments, rewiring them, and restructuring, which takes a lot of time, so it may take three or four years [to completely switch over to LED].

MUSCLE MEMORY: I was riding a lawnmower down in the nutgrove toward the water garden, and as I’m chugging along, I ducked and moved my hand up to push the limbs out of my way. It was the same kind of maneuver I had done for years previously. I felt as if I had jumped back in time; it’s the same motions, and my body just knew to do it without even thinking about it. A nice little experience.

PAST AND PRESENT: Fred [Perry] helped to really form my concept of the landscape, how it could change and how people could really enjoy the space, both horticulturally and with programs and educational events. I’ve had such a long history here, so I feel very personally connected to the way I float through the property. I want our visitors to experience that same kind of tactile feeling you get when you touch some of the trees and experience the kinetic energy in the age of the landscape.


Gardens Aglow

Sparkle kicks off Friday, November 24 and runs through January 1, 2024, with sweet snacks around blazing campfires, amid the glittering lights and ornaments decorating the gardens. Blithewold.org



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