Designing Gardens


The chance to design large and multiple gardens for a resort hotel firmly committed to a landscape of distinction for many years-this was a dream come true.  Did I dream about gardens?  Absolutely.  Did the owners of the hotel dream about gardens?  Oh yes, and by the way, long before me.  My tenure with Grand Hotel was a good one; I was hired into a very friendly garden oriented environment.  They encouraged and supported me.  I grew lots of different kinds of plants in challenging conditions.  I sweated every detail.  When I design a garden now, I assess those conditions first, before I ever put a pencil to paper.  Mackinac Island has almost no native soil.  It is comprised of big rocks, and little rocks, with a thin layer of compost over top. An island means any materials have to be freighted over on a boat.  Yes, we brought soil over on a boat, until the composting program was mature enough to supply all of the garden’s needs.  Mackinac Island is in northern Michigan; the cold comes early, in the fall, and stays late in the spring.  Plants that tolerate cold did well.  The thousands of the geraniums that are a signature on the porch-they hated the May cold.         

There are no motorized vehicles on the island but for the fire truck and ambulance.  Plants were hauled from the dock to the garden holding area on horse drawn wagons.  Plants arrived loaded on tall racks; flats frequently came in their own custom made box.  In between the design and the planting, there were lots of steps needing lots of energy.  The gardens were beautiful-none told the tale of how difficult it was to make them.   

A resort hotel has to be ready for guests every day of the week, every month of the season. A big stand of shasta daisies yet to bloom, or past their bloom-this scenario would not work.  I met so many guests for whom their visit marked a special event or anniversary.  The gardens needed to be a special event for them, and new guests came every day. I took to designing with annuals that had the look of perennials.  Generously sized and lushly growing borders, in the English style. Pink hollyhocks and Park Princess dahlias, red geraniums and white alyssum-you do not have to be a gardener to relate to this.  A garden that invites guests to react emotionally to their moment, their visit-this is a garden that is designed to serve a specific viewer.     

The cold temperatures made certain plant choices obvious.  Red cannas so beautifully represented the red color integral to the identity of the hotel.  This robustly growing dill served to hide to slow growth of those cannas that only longed for some heat. Herbs grew beautifully here, and were an integral part of the garden.     

The tea gardens, on either side of the fountain-a wild mix of tall and gracefully growing annuals.  Not one bit pretentious or formal, these giant and generously designed gardens were friendly to the eye.  Lily bulbs would go in these gardens by the hundreds.  Various nicotianas,  green eyed daisies, marguerites, goldenrod, calendulas, and verbena bonariensis all spoke to profusion.    

On the border, dianthus and sweet william provided solid blocks of color.  Park Princess was the only dahlia I dared use.  It performs well under duress. The air on Mackinac Island is so cool and clean-no vehicles.  The color there, like no other color I have ever seen.  Brilliant and crisp.      

The hotel itself is white.  I designed with intense and saturated color up next to it, knowing it would read strongly against all that white.  The gloriosa daisies and nasturtiums spilling over the curb-I was especially fond of any plant that would soften the borders.     

A horse drawn carriage is a trademark, and part of the logo of the hotel. That we interpreted in the landscape via a lifesize topiary saculpture.  An iron frame was home to many thousands of ivy plants.  The manes and tails-Stella D’Oro daylilies.  The Triangle garden was any visitors first view of Grand Hotel, coming up the hill.  I would have named this the enchantment garden, had it been up to me.  That garden set the stage for the experience to come.  

The Victorian era celebrated the planting of bedding annuals.  I designed true to the period in certain gardens.  An election year featured stripes ands stars in the ribbon garden.  Big gardens need big and clear gestures.  This garden was primarily viewed from a distance.  A simple pattern with big blocks of color would read well from far away.

Small gardens bordering a walk-what do they ask for?  If you are a big resort hotel, that garden may ask for company at eye level.  We did grow lost of Carefree Beauty roses here; they perform reliably. The best part of my time at Grand Hotel?  Learning about what it takes to enable people to relate to nature.

Speaking Of A Garden

I speak to groups on occasion.  As I believe that exchange between gardeners is a form of gardening, I am happy to do so.  I have met lots of interesting people this way.  Today I hosted a local chapter of the PEO.  I don’t know much about their organization, except that they make a point of encouraging and funding women who seek higher education, and need help getting that.  A group with a mission such as this-I felt a story about an experience which served to educate me seemed appropriate.  In the early eighties I worked for the landscape designer, Al Goldner.  My brief tenure with him before he retired proved to be an experience that greatly influenced my design life.

He had that bel’occhio gene-the beautiful eye- so aptly described by Thomas Hobbs. I discussed this last week;  gardeners are optimistic, and  appreciate and require beauty in their lives.  Al  loved all manner of plants.  He was a landscape designer with as much heart as skill, and great instincts.  When I first went to work for him in 1983, he had already struck a deal with Grand Hotel. 

Anyone reading who lives in Michigan knows that the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island has been in business since 1887-this would be 124 years.  A resort hotel dating from the Victorian era still hosts countless guests and groups beautifully every year.  A stay there-lovely, luxurious, relaxing, and gorgeous.  Dan and Amelia Musser-they too have the bel’occio gene.  Once they met Al, they decided more beautiful gardens were in order.   I am making short written work of what proved to be a long and important relationship.

By the time I came to work for Al Goldner, Grand Hotel had already invested much time, money, and people to the development of their landscape and gardens.  I would be sent there on occasion to plant.  Later, I would be sent there to design, and then plant. The property is enormous.  The hotel has an identity which is crystal clear, and an equal committment to providing everything that makes for a great experience. When Al retired, they asked me to take on the design of the gardens.  Why would I not?  They were clients with a bel’occio gene; I designed and supervised their gardens for ten great years.

My point to my group this morning is as follows.  No other hotels on Mackinac Island had gardens or container plantings when I first went there to work.  Today, the gardens and plantings all over the island attract countless visitors. Three people with a vision transformed the landscape of an entire community.

The time I spent working there was an incredible experience.  It was a winter’s work to design and order the plant material for all of the gardens.  They took every bit of 6 weeks to plant.  I have never since seen so many flowers in one place.  Though I have not been there for a very long time, I hear the gardens are still beautiful.   

Sunday Opinion: Community

So much of horticulture is really about community.  Plants have very specific requirements in terms of soil, light, water, drainage, exposure and winter hardiness.  If a plant does not get what it needs, it will languish at best, or die.  Plants requiring similar conditions would indicate a community, would they not?  This part can get tricky. 

 Good gardeners understand vigor.  Some plants are robust, chatty, and spread their cheer with abandon.  To have them is something akin to being occupied by an army.  This phrase, a line from a poem by Marge Piercy –  I have never forgotten it, as it is so seminal to the art of gardening.  The art of gardening that comes after one has mastered the basic science of gardening, that is.  In this group, I would put butterburrs.  They own a spot in my garden bordered on one side by a concrete curb and driveway.  The other borders-I maintain.  OK, I police the butterburrs.  A local nursery digs them out of my yews, my driveway and my hosta garden, and grows them on for sale.  They do me a big favor.  I would not want to do without them, but they are a poor candidate for a community.  A desolate boggy place needing plants by the thousands-they are happy to oblige.  Gooseneck loosestrife is another such plant.  Should your garden require a a bed the size of Indiana, plant a few.  In this group, I would place baltic ivy, ostrich ferns-you get the idea. 

Other plants are hesitant growers.  They lack self confidence, they are fussy, they find the reality of community overwhelming.  They may be beautiful, but they whisper.  In this group, in my zone, certain roses, heaths and heathers, big leaved rhododendrons, lupines and delphiniums.  What gardeners call plant habit might better be understood as plant personality.  A description of plant habit seems a fairly cut and dried affair, reeking of science.  Personality-a big fluid topic.  A consideration of personalities can better inform your decisions about what garden communities you intend to sponsor. 

My roses tolerate the community in which they live.  They tolerate the asparagus and hibiscus that they live with,  they ignore the vigously growing boltonia. The roses somewhat benefit from the Japanese anemone that covers the ground, and conserves moisture.  No relationships are perfect, but this community garden has prospered.  Every voice gets heard.  The climbing roses love the heat of the south facing wall.  The only exasperated voice-me trying to wade in there to deadhead the roses, or read the gas meter.  Peace is not necessarily about a lack of voices.  It is more about the balance of voices.

My small patch of meadow features panic grass, echinacea, hyssop, and monarda fistulosa Claire Grace.  I have to intervene on occasion.  I chop out pieces of the grass, and fill those holes with soil-the grass would overrun the entire bed, given free rein.  I do not plant fancy new hybrids of echinaceas here-I need vigor more than I need an unexpected color or form.  Hyssop can be fleeting in my zone-I have to replace them on occasion.  I am not an impartial observer here.  I am a supreme court justice, enforcing the law.  This community thrives, given some stern intervention.

I had big beds of baltic ivy when I moved here 15 years ago.  The lily of the valley has no problem representing in spite of its tangled thicket of stems and roots.  Both plants race and spread, equally.  If you have ever had occasion to dig out baltic ivy, you know from whence I speak.  Running a rototiller through an ivy bed-hold on to your hat; golf cleats would be an excellent idea.  My stands of crocus look fragile-nothing could be further from the truth.  They suffer the cold, snow, and sleet as if it were nothing.  I have had ample evidence of that these past few days.  Their slender leaves come up through the ivy like a warm knife negotiating a cold stick of butter.  Though they appear to be delicate, they write a definitive essay about determination. 

I am a fan of rupturewort-herniaria.  I have planted lots of them, in two separate communities.   I observe that they like good snow cover, and protection from wind.  Rupturewort can be good, or it can be horrid, given the character of any given winter. I want them in my community-so I do what I can to insure their success.  I protect them.   What I learn about plant community informs everything I do in the landscape.

Our first ever spring event is this coming weekend, April 9 and 10.  This I planned last fall, anticipating the fifteenth anniversary of the shop.  We planted every garden at the shop with spring bulbs.  The front gardens-2600 tulips.  The driveway garden-a glorious mix of many hundreds of hyacinths.  I planted hundreds of containers with all manner of spring bulbs.  This spring has been cold and slow-but I did prepare for a community gathering as best I could.  I have invited growers and landscape service people whom I buy from and admire to bring their spring plants, and information about themselves. 

The garden industry-I am a member of that community.  We all have our strengths and our quirks.  Should I not have something a client needs, I send them straight away to that place that could help them.  Other plces do the same for me. We are by no means a full service plant nursery-we have specialty plants.  This means whatever we take a fancy to at that moment.  We are willing to talk about why we choose this, and not that.   Other places have more selection.  Our greater community-some are big and strong, some are small and very personal.  All of us have our own personalities.  But to the last we are committed to great plants, great gardens, great landscapes-and great service. Should you have the time, please stop by.  My idea-a celebration of my professional and my client community is a good thing for everyone involved.        

Lots of what I know about plant communities has to do with experience.  I try things.  Should they not work, I try something else.  It may take years to get something right.  I view most things through this gardening lens.  The group of us are bound to get something right. Spring in Michigan is fast and fleeting; I invite you to participate in our version.  All of us would be so pleased to see you next weekend.

At A Glance: Ready, Or Not?