Turf Magazine - February, 2009
Back to Basics
The landscaping on Mackinac Island offers a tranquil escape from the real world
|Photos by Carolyn Tomlin.
|The Grand Hotel was built in 1887 to accommodate summer travelers who came for
the cool summers on the island.
Nestled in the straits of
Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where the upper and lower peninsulas of
Michigan meet, is Mackinac Island, a National Historic Landmark. The
National Trust for Historic Preservation says, “Mackinac
Island’s breathtaking scenery, richly detailed architecture,
well-preserved historic sites and striking natural wonders have been
captivating visitors for centuries.”
Trish Martin, a naturalist on the island with a
master’s degree in field botany from Central Michigan University, has
lived on the island all her life. She writes newspaper columns and Web
articles about the wildflowers and other plant life growing on the island.
This master gardener often conducts workshops and classes on wildflowers to
educate the public about plant life. Along with other environmental
professionals, Martin understands the value of lawn and landscape
maintenance programs and the effect this has on the thousands of visitors
who frequent Mackinac Island annually.
|Hand watering and adding liquid fertilizer is part of the weekly
maintenance program for hanging baskets on Mackinac Island, Mich.
Covering 3 miles in length, 2 miles in width and with
an 8-mile circumference, the 2,200 acres contain coastline, hills and a
forest filled with a variety of plants. Eighty percent of the land has been
designated as the Mackinac Island State Park, rated by National Geographic
as one of the finest in America.
In the 1890s, America’s wealthy midwestern
industrialists built summer cottages on the east and west bluffs. They came
to the island seeking the refreshing breeze and cool waters with a promise
of a slower pace of life. To accommodate overnight guests, boat and
railroad companies financed the building of the Grand Hotel.
Although many of the elaborate mansions have
disappeared or have become hotels or privately owned bed and breakfast
establishments, a few things remain the same. One is the mode of
transportation. Today, as in those days long ago, no traffic is allowed on
the island. People and supplies move by bicycle, foot or horse-drawn
carriages. Also unchanged is the beautiful turf and green landscape that
complement the deep blue of the surrounding water. Evidence of exceptional
landscape maintenance is visible from the moment you step off the ferry.
Hanging baskets filled with geraniums, impatiens and ivy highlight the main
streets, window boxes adorn bed and breakfast lodgings, and, during the
summer months, the “Turtles Around Town” offers a whimsical
view of the area and are part of the landscape design.
Drew Butterfield, superintendent of the Jewel Golf
Course at the Grand Hotel, says each employee makes a difference in the
environment of the facilities. With a degree in turfgrass management from
Ohio State University, Butterfield talks about the island landscaping.
“The grass around The Grand Hotel is a combination of Kentucky
bluegrass, fescue and rye. Irrigation for the grass is only available
around the high-traffic areas, near the outdoor pool and the tea garden. If
rainfall is lacking during the summer months, hoses and attachments are
“Working and living on an island is exciting,
but there are challenges that must be met,” says Butterfield.
“When equipment is needed for landscape maintenance, there is no
store down the street. We have to purchase supplies and tools from the
mainland and pay for transportation cost. For example, I order fertilizer
in bulk, as extra expenses mount up quickly.”
Julia Viel, garden foreman for the Grand Hotel, is
responsible for all the landscape plants in beds and containers. Viel
worked as an intern before completing an associate degree in horticulture
and a bachelor’s degree from Ferris State University in Michigan. She
supervises eight full-time employees from mid to late April through the
first week in November. “As spring comes late in this northern
climate, bedding plants are purchased from five different Michigan
growers,” says Viel. “Approximately 2,000 Rocky Mountain Red
geraniums fill flower boxes around the hotel each season. Due to low-light
conditions inside the hotel, about 500 pots are rotated in the greenhouse
and are changed out every three days.”
|Horse-drawn carriages transport guests from the ferries to the Grand Hotel.
Viel depends on Scott’s Bloom Booster and
Osmocote slow-release fertilizer to keep the flowers around the hotel
healthy. For insect control, she uses Bayer All-in-One. Flying insects are
limited on the island as the bat population controls these pests, but
rainy, damp weather brings out slugs around plants.
With this many flower pots and boxes, deadheading is
always a challenge. Watering by hand is preferred, as irrigation systems
are not always available.
With its northern location, only about 500 year-round
residents remain on the island through the winter. The summer season brings
in approximately 1 million visitors annually. Mackinac Island relies on
summer help from college students all over the U.S. and many foreign
countries. “Many of these students are studying gardening design and
architectural landscape,” says Butterfield. “With the heavy
tourist season running from mid-May to the end of October, the vast lawns
and green spaces require a large landscape maintenance staff and a tight
schedule of work-related responsibilities.”
|A topiary of a horse and carriage grace the front lawn of the Grand Hotel.
Creating a place of peace and quiet is of top priority
among the landscape staff. As automobiles are not allowed on the island,
other power equipment is limited. Therefore, no equipment, such as gas
mowers or electric blowers, is used before 9 a.m., and the work is
completed before noon. Push mowers are often used to cut small areas of
The lilacs of Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is also known for its century-old
lilacs. One of the highlights of the tourist season is the annual lilac
festival, held in June. Several thousand visitors attend the parade and
participate in scheduled events. The 2009 event will mark the 60th
anniversary of the festival. With the focus on lilacs, it’s no wonder
that the lawn and landscape maintenance program gives priority to
protecting and caring for these fragrant plants.
|The “Turtles Around Town” add a whimsical look to the island during the Lilac Festival.
|The soil and climate are ideal for the
hundreds of fragrant lilacs that grow
on Mackinac Island.
The lure of the natural world
Mary Slevin, director of tourism, recalls a quote from
a university professor who said, “During tough economic times, people
return to the natural world.” She is seeing this with the tourists
who visit Mackinac Island. “Several years ago, people visited the
island to shop and enjoy the restaurants. Today, they rent bicycles and
explore the forest and paths around the coasts of Lake Michigan and Lake
Huron. With 80 percent of the island a national park, guests are just steps
away from this magical landscape. People want to capture through
photography the turf, plants and trees and even share digital images on the
Web for others to view.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the landscape
professionals want to make certain those photos bestow the right message:
That Mackinac Island is the “Gem of the North” and the
“Crown Jewel of the state of Michigan.”
The author writes from Jackson, Tenn.