The lavish landscapes of a grand southern resort
Sea Island Resort has been welcoming guests to its coastal Georgia paradise for more than 80 years. At the heart of the property is The Cloister, a famed luxury hotel completely rebuilt and reopened in April 2006. There, guests find elegant interior décor complemented by a stunningly beautiful landscape outside.
The trick, says Director of Horticulture Roger Ditmer, is to keep the landscape meticulously maintained without interfering with the peace and quiet guests expect. “Before we do a single thing, we stop to consider how it will affect our guests,” he explains. That goes for world leaders (Sea Island hosted the 2004 G8 summit, which included U.S. President George W. Bush), celebrities and vacationing families.
Ditmer has a degree in landscape horticulture from Ohio State and has been with the Sea Island Co. for 23 years. The landscaping staff at the hotel, directed by Landscape Manager Derrick Reed, numbers about 23, with five subcontractors assisting with the mowing of some areas. The crews operate on a staggered schedule, with some starting at 5 a.m. and the rest coming in at 6:45 a.m.
“With the type of clientele we have—they expect to come here and not be disturbed—we formulate everything around the guests, and that’s the way it should be. So, we’ve set up times to mow when it will be least disruptive to them,” explains Ditmer. The result is a Monday and Thursday mowing schedule starting at 9 a.m. and ending by 11:30 a.m.—after breakfast, before lunch and hopefully at a time when the majority of the guests are enjoying the resorts activities, which in addition to a private beach include world-class golf, fishing, horseback riding and more. “On those days, between those times, everyone drops what they’re doing and just starts mowing, edging, trimming and blowing,” says Ditmer. On Tuesdays and Fridays, mowing takes place at the Beach Club—located across the street from the hotel—beginning at 6:30 a.m. and ending before breakfast is served at 7:15 a.m. “That is a really crammed session,” Ditmer remarks.
The crews use Scag zero-turn mowers to maintain much of the turf at Sea Island. Neuton electric push-mowers are used to maintain turf in some especially tight settings, such as around tennis courts and within intricate courtyard gardens. “They’re lightweight and can be lifted easily, and they’re quiet,” Ditmer explains of the battery-powered mowers. Stihl trimmers, Shindaiwa backpack blowers and E-Z-Go golf carts round out the rest of the most commonly used motorized equipment.
However, much of the work at The Cloister is done by hand. “We use the blowers during the windows when we’re mowing, but otherwise, you won’t hear a blower on the property,” he says. “Everything is hand-broomed. We used to use gas-powered hedge trimmers, but now everything is pruned by hand.”
In October, the St. Augustine and Seashore paspalum is overseeded with ryegrass, which provides a constant green look during the cooler winter months. “The transitions work very well here, so we’re fortunate in that,” says Ditmer.
When not mowing, each member of the crew is an “area gardener,” assigned to care for a specific portion of the hotel grounds. “They have an area that they maintain, that they can take pride in,” Ditmer explains. “It promotes some healthy competition.”
There are some 110 full-time landscape employees in various divisions within the Sea Island Co. In addition to the 23 staff members focused on caring for the grounds surrounding The Cloister and the Beach Club, there are some crews that care for the privately owned cottages on Sea Island, and another large group that handles new landscape installations. There is a specialized group devoted to flowers—both inside and outside the resort. “They do installation, maintenance and flowering, so those crews care for all the flowers. That lets our landscape staff at the hotel and the Beach Club focus on the trees, shrubs and grass,” says Ditmer.
One constant challenge is to maintain a balance between the trees, turfgrass and plantings, each of which plays an important role in the overall landscape. Another is to maintain the landscape in a way that meets the vision that the landscape architects had in designing the property. “For example, fig vine (ficus pumila) was used on a number of buildings because it grows up the sides and softens the hardscapes,” Ditmer explains, “but during the summer, each one of the runners has the ability to run about .75-inch per day. So, if you’re not watching closely, all of a sudden you can have shoots all over the building.” This can damage the masonry on the building and leave noticeable marks even after being removed. “So, we watch them carefully and use plant growth regulators, which helps and saves us a lot of labor,” he adds.
The local climate, obviously, influences the landscape maintenance program at The Cloister. “We’re in lower Zone 8, so even in bad weather it doesn’t get that cold here,” says Ditmer. “We may go below freezing five times a year, and that’s usually only for a few hours.” While freeze-damage to the plants isn’t a huge consideration, Ditmer says that Sea Island learned valuable lessons from the serious damage done during 1983 and 1985, when large portions of the southern U.S. were impacted. For example, the original landscape installed back in the 1920s featured many tropical and subtropical plants in an attempt to present a Florida-type look and entice people to visit the Georgia resort.
After seeing many of those Camphor trees and hibiscus plants damaged during the 1980s cold snaps, the resort looked for ways to retain those types of tropical plants while also protecting them. “We still have many tropical plants, but we plant them very strategically. So, if we do have another serious freeze, they’ll be protected by buildings, or by being inside courtyards,” Ditmer explains.
The Sea Island Co. operates its own field nursery, which allows it, in many cases, to move, store and then reintroduce historic trees and plantings during construction projects, helping to provide an instantly mature look to newly remodeled areas. “That also provides us with a staging area. It lets us get hard-to-find plant materials in far ahead of when it’s actually needed, so that we know we’ll have it,” says Ditmer.
While a Toro Sentinel irrigation system supplies water to the turf and plants in the landscape, local rainfall totals have been a concern lately. “Since 1998, this area—like so much of the South—has been experiencing a significant drought,” says Ditmer. “That causes a change in the way both plants and insects operate. For example, mites that normally have their populations held in-check by rainfall have seen been on the increase. And, in moving large trees—which already are under stress from having much of the root system removed—we’ve seen a problem with a soft scale and Kermes scale, which have been devastating. We’ve learned a trick, though, using a soil drench called Safari. That has really helped us move these large trees without having to spray chemicals up in the air that could be carried into surrounding guest areas or water.”
(Ditmer is also a certified arborist and recently has helped to oversee a major, ongoing tree-moving project. “To date, we’ve moved 1,180 20 to 70-inch live oaks,” he reports, adding that the success rate thus far is about 96 percent.)
For a number of years, Ditmer has conducted weekly “garden walks,” during which he tours Sea Island guests through the grounds, giving them a chance to ask questions and share ideas. “They’re often very knowledgeable about gardening; they ask great questions, and it almost feels like a test for me sometimes!” he says. “The other thing guests frequently comment on is how polite and personable our gardeners are when they’re engaged. They’re also amazed that we have nearly 25 people who work to maintain the landscape here. They say, ‘These grounds are so beautifully maintained, but we never see anyone doing the work,’ and that’s the biggest compliment we can get, because our goal is to increase the enjoyment of their stay without ever being seen.”
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.