The Henry Ford Estate keeps running strong

Photos Courtesy of Henry Ford Estate.

Henry Ford felt strongly about producing cars that the average person could afford. In the process, he pioneered the use of the assembly line in automobile assembly and paid workers at Ford Motor Company double the going-rate for the day. His business success allowed him to accumulate a fortune that placed his own lifestyle well above most of his customers—most evident at his sprawling 1,300-acre estate, Fair Lane—in Dearborn, Mich.

Today, Ford’s automotive legacy lives on, as does his grand estate. What once was a countryside enclave for Ford and his family to escape a constant stream of visitors at their Detroit mansion is now, ironically, a National Historic Landmark operated by the University of Michigan and open to the public as the Henry Ford Estate (www.henryfordestate.org).

Among the most popular parts of the estate for visitors are the grounds—highlighted by stately lawns and gardens and mature trees. Karen Marzonie is landscape manager at the Henry Ford Estate, a position for which she’s well suited. “I was an intern at the Henry Ford Estate when I was in graduate school [she earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan] in 1987 and grew up in the city of Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford,” she explains. After a 14-year career in landscape architecture and land use planning in Ann Arbor, Marzonie returned in 2001 to head up the grounds care program at the Henry Ford Estate.

While larger equipment handles the grand, open lawns at the Henry Ford Estate, smaller push mowers are used to maintain the turfed areas in the gardens immediately surrounding the residence. Landscape Manager Karen Marzonie, center, and Head Gardener Pamela Morrison, left front, direct a small team of assistants and interns—and a large group of volunteers—at the Henry Ford Estate.

Prior to her taking on the role, the grounds were managed in a somewhat ad hoc fashion: the facility’s former director (Dr. Donn Werling) managed the gardens on the property, along with head gardener Pamela Morrison and general manager Gary Rogers. Marzonie says she has built upon their work, while creating a more formalized grounds management program. “Together, we have increased our planning efforts, recruitment of garden volunteers, grant writing abilities, restoration and maintenance efforts, coordination with stakeholders and documentation of what’s been accomplished through simple quarterly management reports and year-end summaries,” she explains. “The results have been a clearer understanding of our goals each year, what is needed to meet those goals and greater financial support from donors and volunteers when those goals have been realized and made visible to the community.”

Still, there are limited funds available to maintain the grounds of the nonprofit estate. The two primary grounds employees—Marzonie and Morrison— work part-time throughout the year, putting in more hours during the growing season. “From May through early fall, we’ve been able to hire one landscape intern and up to two landscape assistants on a part-time basis with funding provided through tour ticket sales and sponsorship from the Garden Club of Dearborn and other private donors,” Marzonie explains. “The difference between the intern and the assistants is that the intern is typically a graduate student studying landscape architect, horticulture or another related field. We work with the intern to provide a variety of educational experiences such as planting design and plant selection; project scheduling and cost estimating; and stonework and irrigation repair.”

Nearly every aspect of the estate’s operation is heavily dependent on volunteer labor, and a team of about 30 Henry Ford Estate Garden Volunteers has been formed to help maintain that important part of the property. These volunteers typically work on Monday, Friday or Saturday mornings, usually focusing as a group on one specific garden each day. “We’ve also received a great amount of volunteer support over the past decade from the Ford Motor Company Volunteer Corps,” adds Marzonie. “This program encourages Ford employees to volunteer up to 16 hours per year at an approved site or with an approved organization. The employees are compensated by Ford Motor Co. for their community service.”

The Henry Ford Estate is a National Historic Landmark and open to the public, so all maintenance must be done with minimal disturbance to visitors.

Balancing environmental concerns while maintaining a beautiful landscape is a priority for Marzonie and the Henry Ford Estate. Happily, she points out, “in some cases, what is good for the environment is also good for aesthetics. For example, the removal of nonnative, invasive plant species such as garlic mustard, buckthorn and honeysuckle from the woodland areas for environmental stewardship also improves the appearance, too.”

The grounds team at the Henry Ford Estate follows integrated pest management (IPM) guidelines developed by Michigan State University Extension and the Master Gardener program, says Marzonie. “These guidelines have helped us look at lawn areas from the point of view of acceptable levels of management. Some areas, like the front circle lawn, receive the greatest level of attention in terms of watering, mowing, fertilizing and weed control. Other areas, such as the back lawn, receive less attention, and the lawns farthest away from the estate’s residence receive very little care and go dormant during dry spells. So, we have compromised on the lawn aesthetics in order to be better environmental stewards and save on maintenance costs.”

Marzonie says there are two primary challenges posed by the constant stream of visitors at the Henry Ford Estate. First is the practical need to perform landscape maintenance work while minimizing the disruption to visitors. (The estate is closed to the public on Mondays, so all “noisy, odorous or otherwise disruptive maintenance efforts” are targeted for that day, she explains.) Second is the wear-and-tear on the grounds inflicted by the many outdoor weddings and special events. “Many people don’t necessarily understand the secondary impacts of an issue like soil compaction,” she explains, adding that she frequently meets with the estate’s other managers (including the general manager, tour manager, special events manager and maintenance manager) to “discuss upcoming events and avoid excessive impacts to any one area of the landscape.”

Fortunately, one generous supporter of the Henry Ford Estate has a special interest in the lawns and has financed their care, says Marzonie. “The donor has funded repair of the front circle lawn with sod and annually covers the cost of fertilizer and herbicide use immediately around the estate residence.”

Other donations are equally helpful. During the past 10 years, Ford Motor Co. has donated two trucks—a Ranger and an F-350—to help in the grounds maintenance at the Henry Ford Estate. “The vehicles are used for picking up plant material from nurseries, moving stone and compost, collecting bags of weeds and shrub trimmings, etc., and are important to the success of our garden volunteer program,” says Marzonie.

Because the estate is formally a part of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the school’s grounds crews assist with maintenance of the larger lawns on the property. With an array of equipment at their disposal, crews can select an appropriate mower for each section of turf, based on its size and layout. For example, a 144 Gravely mower is used to mow the impressive front lawn, while a John Deere 1445 is used on the back lawn and a Jacobsen HR 5111 is used on the estate’s Great Meadow and adjacent lawns.

“The rest of the smaller lawns are mowed with basic, gas-powered, push mowers by the estate’s garden staff,” says Marzonie. “Most of these small mowers were used previously and donated to the gardens or rescued from the trash. The garden staff maintains the small mowers with help from Ford volunteers. However, we purchased a Neuton electric mower a couple of years ago and find it helpful when mowing small areas, especially when people are lingering. The electric mower is very quiet.”

Tracking the local—and changeable—Michigan weather is especially important for lawn and rose care, says Marzonie, who works with John Bork of D&B Landscaping (www.db-landscaping.com) to schedule fertilizer and herbicide use on the lawns in a manner that avoids chemicals whenever possible. “For example, John helped us avoid a potentially severe dollar spot fungus outbreak last year on the front circle lawn by addressing the problem early on,” says Marzonie. D&B Landscaping makes these chemical applications to the lawns. “As contractors, they are much more efficient and accurate with applications than we could be because of their equipment and experience,” she says.

Marzonie is a certified pesticide applicator, and personally treats the 300 rose bushes with fungicides on a regular basis as a protective measure.

In addition to contracting out some aspects of the turf management, the estate also hires professional arborists to maintain trees on the property. “Mark Mayhoe with Wiseman Trees has taught me a lot about how trees respond to certain cuts, and his predictions have proven correct time and again,” credits Marzonie. “With his help, we’ve corrected the growth pattern of a lot of hawthorn trees (a species favored by the estate’s original landscape architect, Jens Jensen) that were being encroached upon by other trees along the woodland edge.”

Marzonie says that, in addition to accommodating the needs of today’s visitors, the grounds at the Henry Ford Estate are maintained with historic sensitivity. “We are fortunate to have copies of the original landscape architect’s plans (drawn between 1914 and 1920) and access to numerous photographs and garden-related invoices held at the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford in Dearborn,” she says. “These materials are always referenced before making any major changes, and our research has influenced the types of plants we have in the gardens. Our goal is to be a center for heritage gardening, giving the public the opportunity to step back in time.”

That’s something the estate’s original owner surely would have appreciated.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.