Turf Magazine - February, 2009


Back to Basics

The landscaping on Mackinac Island offers a tranquil escape from the real world
By Carolyn Ross Tomlin
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 used.

“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 grass.

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.