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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!