The Gardener’s Shadow – A look at the Grand Hotel’s Bounty of Blossoms 8/23/2010

Once upon a time someone said, “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.”  At the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, the truth of that statement is realized by the bountiful flower gardens forcing even the most hardened beauty critics to simply stop in their tracks, inhale deeply, and whisper, “Oh my.” 

Ten gardening employees work constantly to ensure that each flower bed and planter box is filled and maintained over the summer season. As one who passes The Grand nearly every day (and sometimes several times a day), I can count on one hand the times I may have strolled on by without stopping.  The small and large triangles that fill in the space between Cadotte and The Grand driveway nearly always beckon me to lift the backpack over my head, dig out the camera, and snap at least a few shots of something I’ve spotted that wasn’t there yesterday.  Maybe a new batch of zinnias has opened overnight, maybe a brilliantly hued dahlia has crept high enough over the low-growing nasturtiums to be seen this morning, or it could be I’ve spied a pink spider plant, where yesterday only white ones were swaying in the sun.

When I met Mary Stancik, the Director of Grounds and Golf at the Grand Hotel, back in the spring, a little notion entered my mind to ask about a garden tour.  After all, I go from one end of this island to another every day, talking about plants and trees and apologizing because I don’t know the names of any of them unless it’s a Geranium or a Pine – which we have at home in Georgia.  Now summer is almost over, and I’m still apologizing.

When I photographed Mary taking that beginner’s riding lesson, I asked if I could meet her one day and get a beginner’s flower lesson – something like Flowers for Dummies 101.  We set up a time, and last week I walked down to meet Mary at Margaret’s Garden, The Grand’s flower shop.

Waiting outside Margaret''s Garden Shop at The Grand. One of the florists in the shop saw me photographing flowers as I waited for Mary (I was early) and walked outside to ask if I wanted her to take my pic.

Mary arrived promptly at 10, and we walked up to the Grand Hotel porch, busy as always with arriving and departing guests.  At that time of morning, there were also quite a few guests just sitting and rocking and sipping their second – or third – cup of coffee.  Mary conducts two or three garden tours a week for Grand guests, and I would certainly encourage anyone who stays there to take one of those tours.  Mary is an awesome guide.

Of course, the trademark feature of the porch – besides the length of it and the white rocking chairs and the unbelievable “grand” view – is what seems like miles and miles of planter boxes filled with red geraniums.  Mary told me these are the Rocky Mountain variety.

Over 275 planters that follow the entire width of the porch, nestle under the windows of the dining room, and march down the steps of the portico are filled with nearly 1,500 Geraniums.  I learned earlier in the summer that our neighbor, Chief “Duck” Don Andress, built each and every one of those boxes when he worked for The Grand “back in the day”.  Mary told me that the boxes are all emptied on the last day of the season and receive a new coat of white paint every winter.  During the summer, two workers start at either end of the porch and deadhead the Geraniums once a day – a process that usually takes about an hour.  They are watered every three days – by hand.

The Geraniums in the portico boxes are planted and blooming by opening day in May, and the other boxes are filled with blooming Geraniums by the middle of May.

We walked down off the west end of the porch into an area I had passed hundreds of times without realizing what it is.  Here, in a beautiful setting between a side portion of the hotel and the gateway to the West Bluff, is the “English Niche”, The Grand’s herb garden.

Although the garden is mainly for "show", Mary said there are many mornings she arrives to find a chef from The Grand kitchen out clipping herbs to be used that day in some special recipe.

Each herb is labeled, and there are dozens of varieties. I only photographed a few, such as this Purple Sage . . .

. . . Pineapple Sage (didn't know there was such a thing - sorry, Lana) . . .

. . . Spearmint . . .

. . . and Parsley. Anyone humming "Are you going to Scarborough Fair" except me?

Julia Viel

We continued the tour back around to the front of The Grand and to the planters that line the area between the hotel driveway and the top of the hill on which The Grand sits.  I learned that Julia Viel, the hotel horticulturist, is responsible for the design of all the flower beds and boxes.  It takes her about a month to draw up the design for the next year, and she is usually done with that by the end of September.  One of the last things on her check-off list at the end of each season is to order, from five different growers, all the plants that will be used in the spring.  The only plants ordered at a different time are the tulip bulbs.  They are ordered in July, arrive at the beginning of October, and are planted mid-October so they will be up and blooming in May.

Take some Purple Fountain Grass . . .


. . . add some White Scaevola (Fan Flower) and Petunias . . .

. . . and some Black Sweet Potato Vine, Geraniums, and a few other annuals . . .

. . . then add compost, fertilizer, sunshine, water, and TLC - and this is what you get!

Below that long porch that runs the length of The Grand is a seemingly endless flower bed.  It’s called “carpet bedding” and was a staple of the Victorian era.  Julia’s design uses a repeating pattern of flowers – just like the pattern in a carpet. 

In the middle of this pic is a "V" of yellow Marigolds. Further down the row is another "V" of Marigolds. Between those two anchoring Marigold "V's" is a design of Kale, Salvia, Petunias, Ageratum (Floss Flower), Sweet Alyssum, several varieties of Black-Eyed Susans, Flowering Tobacco, Zinnias, and Nasturtiums. That exact pattern repeats from one end of the porch to the other.

Stairway down to the Rose Walk.

Across from the portico where guests enter the hotel is a stairway leading to the bottom of Wild Flower Hill.  This large open area of land holds the Rose Walk, the Tea Garden, several shade gardens, the pool and tennis courts.  The Rose Walk is just as it sounds – a pathway lined with white benches, which are surrounded by roses and other profusely blooming flowers. 

The Rose Walk.


Each post is entwined with John Cabot Climbing Roses . . .

. . . and the bed is filled with Care-Free Beauty Roses . . .


. . . and the Knockout Rose, which we have in our rose gardens in the South.

Beyond the Rose Walk is a fairly new bed, a shade perennial garden planted only a couple of years ago and anchored by the Jack Frost Brunnera, a perennial with blue flowers.


The bed also contains several dwarf lilac trees, which were still blooming in June when other lilacs on the island had faded. The white flowers are hydrangeas.

On the other side of the fence, where the pool is located, are two other beds – the Pool Peony Bed and the Pool Peony Lilac Bed.  The Peonies are “bloomed out”, but other annuals are still going strong.

Like these Yellow Rockets . . .

. . . Profusion White Zinnias . . .


. . . Ornamental Cabbage . . .

. . . and Blue Angel (one of only a handful of true blue flowers) and Victorian Blue Salvia. You can see the difference in the shades of the two - one blue and one a shade of purple.

Of course I asked about compost, and as we walked over to the compost pile, Mary and I chatted about her schedule.  Mary calls herself the “trouble-shooter” and admits that there is really no “routine” to her day.  One minute she might be repairing a lawn mower, the next she might be installing a new irrigation system along a sidewalk.  She works 7 days a week (half-days on Saturday and Sunday) from the first part of April until the first week in November.  She supervises the hotel and golf course grounds employees, and this is Mary’s seventh year at The Grand.

At the bottom of a wide ditch at the edge of The Grand's property is the beginning of what will be used three years from now as compost. I was amazed to learn that no horse manure is added - only dead flowers and the coffee grounds from The Grand's kitchen.

The pile of dirt seen here is an older pile of 2010 compost. Mary uses a tractor with a front-end loader to occasionally stir the pile, making sure it "cooks" evenly. This pile will remain where it is over the winter.

The pile you see here is from 2009. In the spring of 2012 it will be moved to the edge of the schoolyard and brought back to The Grand as it is needed for planting.

This is the pile of compost that is being used this year. It began it's journey in 2007 as dead flowers and coffee grounds and is now rich, rich dirt. To this, a good 14-14-14 slow release fertilizer is added.

The greenhouse is used mostly for nurturing pots of geraniums. The Geranium Bar inside The Grand is surrounded by the beautiful live plants, and every three days they are switched out to allow them to receive real sunlight instead of the artificial lighting inside.


The Tea Garden at the base of Wild Flower Hill is a huge expanse of lawn and flowerbeds. This is also where The Grand's fountain is and the horse and sleigh topiary.

The Tea Garden beds are a riotous mixture of annuals, including this tall version of Verbena.

I've fallen in love with these two white flowers this summer. The one with the trumpet shaped bloom is flowering tobacco, and the other is a white spider plant.

A gorgeous dahlia growing among the Tall Verbena.

The Tea Garden's fountain is drained on the last day of the season.

The horse and sleigh topiary is transported downstate to a greenhouse for the winter.

The sleigh is so heavy it takes eight workers to lift one end so the dray can be driven under it.

This gives you some idea how tall the topiary horses are. One year the horses were ready early to be moved down to the freight dock, so they were taken down late in the afternoon and left overnight on the dock. The next morning they caused such a commotion among the REAL horses (anything different spooks a horse), that now they are only moved to the dock just before they are to be loaded on the ferry.


This profuse bed of impatiens has long been an annual planting along a hedge in the Tea Garden. The loss of several large trees along Cadotte in a severe storm last October left the bed in a lot more sun than normal this year. Mary said they might have to rethink what is planted there next spring, but to me they look as beautiful as always.

Hostas line the steps leading up to Cadotte from the Tea Garden . . .

. . . and Non-stop Begonias, Petunias, and Blue Angel Salvia spill out of a planter at the top of the Hosta steps.

We walked back up the sidewalk past the small and large triangular gardens which separate Cadotte from the Grand Hotel.


These two beds are filled with dozens of varieties of flowers - including Lantana, Black-Eyed Susans, Snapdragons, Marigolds, Zinnias, Dahlias, Flowering Tobacco, and Spider Plants.

Only three areas have in-ground irrigation systems – the large triangle, the beds in front of the porch, and a small area along the sidewalk on Cadotte, where new grass was planted this spring after the loss of those trees last October.  Everything else is watered by hand.

The planting schedule goes something like this:  At the first of October, all the annuals in all the beds and planters are pulled up and taken to the 2010 compost pile.  The soil is prepared and over 18,000 tulip bulbs are placed by hand in the small and large triangles and in the beds around Margaret’s Garden.  The bulbs are placed following Julia’s design for the spring.  After they are all placed, workers dig individual holes for each bulb, and they are planted.  By the first or second week in May, the tulips are in full bloom.  After they bloom, the tulips are dug up, and the bulbs go on sale.  Bulbs are not reused by the Grand – all new bulbs go in each season.  The soil is once again prepared and the annuals are planted.  By the first week in June, everything is in the ground for another beautiful, blooming flower season at The Grand.

I asked Mary what she liked to do when she wasn’t gardening and learned that she loves to sail.  Her dream is to own her own sailboat, and with as much time as she spends in the summer with soil on her hands, it’s no wonder that the clean, sparkling water of a lake or ocean would call her.   I’m not worried though.  All the water in the world couldn’t wash the green thumb off this lady!  Thanks, Mary!



25 thoughts on “The Gardener’s Shadow – A look at the Grand Hotel’s Bounty of Blossoms 8/23/2010

  1. The flowers are beautiful to see. If only I had a green thumb instead of the one I have. My flowers come nowhere near looking so good. Thanks for taking us on a tour of the Grand flowers.

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  3. ….rosemary and thyme… I loved that song and thought of it as I started seeing the herb pictures 🙂 Mary is an awesome gardner! I don’t have a green thumb at all. all those flowers are just breathtaking. And that must take some planning to get them all looking so beautiful.
    Happy Monday!!

  4. The last time we were on the island was in the middle of October. We had the pleasure of watching the tulip bulbs being planted. That was quite amazing. Even still, all the flowers that were still growing and looking beautiful. The Grand has some amazing gardens and now I know who takes care of them! I was wondering if there was any specific reason for the “V” of Marigolds or just a design thought?

    • Good question, Hilde, and I should have asked that. If I see Mary today, I’ll ask her – or maybe she will read your comment and answer herself!

    • Good morning, Hilde-

      The “V” is just part of the design this year. No specific reason for it. Julia comes up with a different design each season and tries to make it a very distinct geometric pattern so the design is easy to see once everything has grown in.

      • Thanks for your response Mary! You guys should be very proud of yourself. The gardens are to die for. 🙂

  5. What a nice tour! Mary is quite the “artist”, gorgeous grounds, beautiful flowers. Lots of hard work, and it certainly shows the wonderful result.

    That picture of you reminds me of Doris Day. I always loved her movies when I was a young girl!

  6. I used to love to garden, both vegetables and flowers. As a matter of fact, my son told me one day that people were stopping their cars to admire the yard. I hadn’t realized that. However, if they had seen the Grand Hotel gardens, they wouldn’t have even noticed my yard. I can’t garden like that anymore; just a small vegetable garden and a few flowers plus roses, hibiscus and althea etc. With age, my green thumb has lost most of its color. However, when I saw your blog, my whole body turned green with envy. Beautiful gardens. Beautiful blog. Thank you so much.

    By the way, Brenda, this morning my wife and I canned tomatoes. With the green beans we canned, they will make good Greek Beans this winter.

  7. Absolutely beautiful garden tour, B! And, yes, I have a pot of pineapple sage on the deck. I put some in with tea while it’s steeping sometimes.

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  9. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Most of us will never get to see these gardens and it was a real treat to go on your garden tour with you!

  10. Lovely! My daughter violin teacher Mary King would love to have Tea at the Grand Hotel someday, she’s 99 yrs old. I’d been to the island 3 times but always forget to buy a book on the flowers garden at the Grand Hotel to bring to her, I’d always remember to bring fudge. She’s an English Lady and an expert on having an afternoon tea. She’s still play at the Fargo Symphony. Thank you for sharing your photos, hopefully someday I can bring her to Mackinac Island.

  11. Ahh! My best again your flower tours. Once again you took me on a trip I’ll never go on. You see I’m home bound most of the tme now due to a illness and I thank you for all your pictures that you capture and bring to all of us.

  12. Beautiful pics and loved reading the post! My hubby Dan and I were at the Grand back in May before everything was planted and in bloom…but it is still beautiful. 🙂
    Take care Bree, God bless you

  13. How wonderful it is to have a personal tour of the gardens at the Grand! Our visits are usually in late Sept. or early Oct. and we don’t get to see them in all their glory! Thank you for sharing!

  14. How lovely to have stumbled onto this post. I was trying to remember a Chinese proverb and thus “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow” brought up this page. I’m going to pretend I’m strolling there after I come in from watering our plants. I’ll also give them my shadow.


    (The website below merely links to a group that helped sponsor the “Grow a Farmer” campaign at UC Santa Cruz. I’m on the board of the “Friends of the UCSC Farm and Garden,” and the garden is carved into terraces on a piece of unused hillside in 1967. Usually I’d be there, at the top of the garden, for the annual Poetry Reading in the Garden, but I wasn’t able to go today.

    Didn’t want you to think I was a spammer.)

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