|St. Augustine grass is planted in the area of the Musuem of Art. Over 300,000 people visit the Ringling Estate annually.
Sarasota, Fla., the city
on the western side of the Gulf of Mexico, has been for generations the
home of the rich and famous. However, humid summer weather, Gulf breezes,
salt mist and occasional hurricanes present challenges for lawn and
landscape professionals in the area. Maintaining the lush lawns of these
historic mansions requires knowledge of dealing with the elements.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art site
welcomes over 300,000 visitors annually, and is the legacy of a circus
entrepreneur and his wife who collected art and traveled Europe in search
of unusual circus acts. When John Ringling died in 1936, he left his art
collection and estate to the state of Florida. In 2000, the Florida
transferred stewardship of the Ringling Museum to Florida State University.
The 66-acre tract contains the Museum of Art, Cá d’ Zan
Mansion facing Sarasota Bay, Circus Museum and Historic Asolo Theater.
Kevin Greene, landscape superintendent for the estate,
is a graduate in ornamental horticulture with a major in landscape
operations from a two-year technical school. “I am a certified
landscape designer and a certified arborist through the International
Society of Arboriculture. Ten of my 13 years’ experience in landscape
are in a managerial capacity.”
|Pots of bougainvillea are plentiful at the Ringling Museum of Art. This slow-growing plant is also
used as a shrub and planted in various places on the grounds.
|Unusual art combines with tropical plants in the
Ringling Estate. Salt spray from hurricanes can
damage some of the plant material.
|Nine full-time employees of the grounds
department take care of the 66-acre
Ringling Estate. The mansion, built in
the Venetian Gothic style, was the home
of John and Mable Ringling.
Throughout the year, outdoor maintenance is ongoing.
Greene understands the need to perform the majority of ground maintenance
before the public arrives for the day. “[Only] on rare occasion would
we perform a duty that would pose any possible conflict with the public. On
these occasions, we practice due diligence that protects both the public
Nine full-time employees within the grounds department
take care of the 66-acre estate. Occasionally, high school students perform
volunteer work as a requirement for their college application.
The estate includes the grounds and gardens, as well
as Mable’s Rose Garden planted in 1913. Through their various
travels, the Ringlings obtained many plants as gifts. Mable often referred
to these as her “onesy-twosy” garden, and she shared them with
friends. As Sarasota is home to many retirees, adult volunteers help in the
rose garden. Often, these volunteers had careers in agriculture and
landscape development prior to retiring and moving to the area.
Within the museum gardens, the St. Augustinegrass
provides a lush shade of green. The varieties are Floratam in sunny spots
and Seville in more shaded areas. Other sections of the campus are planted
in bahiagrass and some sections have bermudagrass.
An underground irrigation system operates off of a 20
hp submersible pump that pumps from a 700-foot-deep Florida aquifer. The
irrigation system has more than 1,500 sprinklers situated on more than 40
different valves, covering over half of the 66-acre estate.
Although the estate does not have a field nursery for
seasonal plants, it does have a holding place. During construction, such as
moving a walkway or paving, plants can be relocated for a brief period,
then returned to the grounds. Another purpose of the holding area is for
preordered plants waiting to be set in soil.
Division of labor on a large estate
“With the landscaping responsibility of a
66-acre estate, there are many duties that must be scheduled,”
replies Greene. The work load is divided into zones. Greene uses this zone
system of landscape maintenance rather than a broadcast approach, because
he believes it provides a greater sense of ownership and helps with
employee morale. There are a few duties that are considered a broadcast
approach, such as mowing with the riding mowers and heavy equipment
operations, which are performed by the appropriate qualified staff.
As with other southern gardens, annuals have a long
growing season in the South. The annual flowers are cared for by in-house
personnel, and the tree work is divided among contractors, consultants and
the in-house crew. Estates of this size often hire outside contractors to
perform work-related jobs.
Care of Unusual Trees
“The estate owns a large collection of
trees,” says Greene. “For example, we have the largest group of
Banyan tress in the region, and we also have a ‘State Champion’
Ear Tree, Enterolobium cyclocarpum.” A “State Champion”
tree is the largest tree (either in diameter at breast height or overall
size or spread of its canopy) within its respective genus in the state.
Located throughout the tropics, Banyans can be damaged
by freezing temperatures. The majority of the Ringling’s collection
of Banyans dates back to the Ringling era (1900-1930s). Although their
aerial roots extending down from the canopy are fascinating to view, they
pose a challenge with their aggressive nature and ability to grow on almost
anything—including roads, sidewalks and statuary. Another challenge
is keeping walkways and ground clean of the
fruit the Banyan produce. As the trees age and become massive, the fruit
produces a mess as it falls to the ground.
The right tool for the right job
Greene says, “We use a wide variety of power
equipment in our operations at the Ringling Museum. Our riding mowers are
predominately Gravely, but we still have an older Toro riding mower. Our
push mowers are Toro, and our hand-held power equipment is mostly Echo and
Stihl.” They use John Deere Gators and a John Deere compact utility
tractor. Other gear includes a JCB mini excavator and a JBL 45-foot lift.
Blowers are used extensively in the operations at the
Museum. “We use backpack, hand-held and PTO-driven blowers,”
says Greene. “We also use the Billy Goat lawn vacuum and the good
old-fashioned lawn rakes.”
Control products on the grounds
Sarasota has adopted a fertilizer ordinance that
prohibits fertilizer from being applied within 10 feet of a body of water.
With the Ringling Estate bordering Sarasota Bay, they must abide by this
ordinance. “These guidelines really do not hinder our
operations,” remarks Greene. “We select the right plant for the
right place and create the best environment for these plants and we do not
have to fertilize.”
The estate uses a wide variety of chemicals in their
efforts. Sarasota County requires that all persons applying fertilizer
commercially obtain a “Certificate of Completion from a Sarasota
County approved Best Management Practices training class.” The entire
staff has obtained their certification for the application of fertilizers,
and they have six certified pesticide applicators in the grounds
One slow-release fertilizer lasts six months and is
not influenced by temperature or moisture; it also reduces the number of
annual applications from four to two. Another factor is the reduction of
insect infestation that would attack an excessive amount of new growth
caused by a high nitrogen application. The landscape staff uses biological
controls and encourage beneficials as part of the integrated pest
management (IPM) strategy.
Gardening by the sea
With the estate facing Sarasota Bay, salt spray from
hurricanes can damage some of the plant material. “We are fortunate
that we haven’t lost any plants to salt spray,” says Greene.
“However, the salt spray has defoliated plants.” The trees are
kept clean, so the clean-up after a storm is usually routine and limited to
smaller branches and old palm fronds. Like other Florida cities, Sarasota
has had plenty of opportunity within the last few years to fine-tune its
What do visitors say when they tour the Ringling
Estate? Guests are genuinely awe-struck and often surprised by the
beautiful grounds. Greene says, “We sometimes like to refer to the
grounds as the ‘Fifth Museum—the living
The author is a freelance writer from Jackson, Tenn.,
focusing on the lawn care and landscape industry.