Hollis Malone’s hort team needed less than six months after the Cumberland River’s rampage to restore Opryland’s incredible greenery

On May 3, 2010, the Cumberland River, swollen by seemingly unrelenting rains, chased people from their homes in and around Nashvillle, Tenn., and covered downtown streets of Music City U.S.A. with muddy water. At least 29 people died in the floods and tornadoes spawned by the storm that pounded Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Who would expect this tropical wonderland in Nashville?

The Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, Nashville’s landmark hotel and tourist attraction, didn’t escape the carnage. Brown floodwater reached as high as 10 feet in some parts of the building, including the atriums that had delighted millions of guests and visitors with their incredible tropical gardens since the resort opened in 1977.

Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center

Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Opened: 1977
Guest Rooms: 2,881
Resort Footprint: 100 acres with 8 acres of indoorgardens and many small landscaped and turf areassurrounding the resort
Three Indoor Atriums: The Garden Conservatory, The Cascades(covered by an acre of glass) and The Delta at 4.5 acres (8acres featuring 50,000 trees and plants, mostly tropical)Horticulture and Pest Control Manager: Hollis Malone
Size of Horticulture Staff: 43
Cumberland River Flood: May 3, 2010, gardens inundated
Resort Reopens with World-Famous Gardens: November 15, 2010

The day of the flood the hotel evacuated more than 1,500 guests without injuries or incident, but the structure itself suffered millions of dollars in damage. Remarkably, the hotel and its gardens and landscapes bounced back. On November 15, 2010, just 195 days after the historic flood, the hotel reopened with its luxuriant gardens in place.

“We were working the very next day,” says Hollis Malone, manager of the resort’s 43-member horticulture and pest control department. “A lot of people after the flood were sympathetic and tried to offer us a lot of things. That was nice, but we didn’t take very many of them in because we were trying to keep the theme of the collection of the palms, the crotons and other tropical plants.”

Malone says his vendors were very helpful during the flood. “All of the nursery people in Florida tried to help us out,” he says. “I’m sure they appreciate it, too, because at that point in time, we were buying a lot of things to replace inside.

“If you’re a nurseryman, you like to see your product displayed and well-maintained. They’ve all been behind us for years about that. They all appreciate the fact that we put a devotion to the gardens and maintain it, and that’s important. So many landscapes are done and they’re not maintained and get a bad name.”

Malone says he continues to tweak the gardens, adding orchids and finer touches, “Sometimes we’ll redo an area that is quite a few years old,” Malone says. “As sad as the flood was, we were able to do that in the gardens. People brought a lot of new interesting material and a lot more varieties are available now than back when I shopped for them in the 1980s.”

Malone likes planting rare and endangered plants. “If I can get a hold of it, I like to plant it in the gardens because someday it may be the only place, like a museum, that you’ll be able to see it.”

The Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, with its 2,881 guest rooms, is spread over a 100-acre site along the Cumberland River about a 20-minute drive from downtown Nashville. The site is dotted with small turf zones interspersed with parking areas. The real landscaping attraction, however, pops up at visitors when they walk through the doors and find more than 8 acres of interior gardens. Foliage of every shape and description, waterfalls, small ponds and hardscapes invite visitors to explore or to find a quiet corner and relax.

Guests are amazed when they stroll the resort’s three mammoth atriums and see tropical plants, many of them rare or endangered, and unlike anything near their homes.

Ensuring the landscaping is well-maintained daily is Malone’s task. Nineteen members of his 43-member staff work on the interior gardens, seven do pest control and four are floral designers. The others tend the grounds surrounding the resort. In all, his team is responsible for taking care of a total company complex of 410 acres when you add property across the road maintained with a bush hog, as well as a sister hotel and the corporate property nearby.

“Everyone is licensed,” says Malone. “We have more licenses than any personal private pest control company in the state.”

The Gaylord Opryland would almost certainly be inconceivable to the folks at WSM radio that started it all back in 1925 with their hour-long WSM Barn Dance program. Two years later, the phrase “Grand Ole Opry” was first uttered on air. Today, in addition to Opryland, which continues to host a parade of famous Country & Western stars, Gaylord also owns resorts in Orlando, Fla., Grapevine, Texas, and near Washington, D.C., in Maryland.

“The other hotels are set up to have one huge garden on about 4.5 acres, like the Delta garden here,” says Malone. “Most of the other hotels are 1,500 to 2,000 rooms. They’re just a little bit smaller. This one is a biggie and kind of unique.” It features 50,000 plants and trees, many of them unlike anything they’ve seen near their homes in the Northeast or Midwest.

“I don’t think they expect to see that here in Nashville,” he says. “It’s quite a commitment on our part. I know from working at the Tennessee Botanical Gardens in Nashville how difficult it is for a botanic garden to be able to afford a facility and put on a show in a conservatory like we can. It’s difficult for nonprofits to do that, so we’re kind of unique.”

Malone believes the gardens are an amenity just like the in-room services or other resort features.

“Guests can have a drink and walk around and eat inside the gardens,” he adds. “The gardens are very relaxing, especially in the summer with the air conditioning. You don’t have to worry about the ants and flies and everything else. It really makes it a lot more pleasurable for them, especially the way the heat can be.”

When guests visit the hotel, most request garden terrace rooms first, which generate more revenue for the hotel because the rooms’ balconies overlook the lush landscaping.

“As we added onto the rooms of the hotel, we added more gardens as well,” notes Malone. “They become the most popular area.”

From construction of the first conservatory in 1982, the Gaylord Opryland’s management set a goal to put money into maintaining the gardens, notes Malone. The facility started winning industry accolades within the first few years.

The tropical-themed landscaping is most appreciated during the winter months for those visitors longing to experience greenery and flowers, Malone notes.

“There’s never a bad day inside the gardens, rain or shine,” he adds. Ditto for the employees who maintain it – there’s never any downtime due to weather.

“We try to get our watering done by 9 a.m., because convention people get up and move around pretty early,” Malone says.

Malone starts the day walking throughout the indoor and outside gardens, looking for what needs attention. Some employees may be working on special projects. For example, in mid-July, four employees were installing Christmas lights for a special celebration starting November 18.

“They’ll work on that to November, and from then on they’ll maintain them through the lighting period into January,” Malone says.

Four employees tend the turf: mowing, weed eating, fertilizing, aerating and reseeding, as well as establishing new turf after construction, such as a new facility that will house a Christmas ice exhibit.

The horticulturalists, as employees are called, are also involved in special events, such as preparing an area for a wedding or party, which may also involve outside designers. While the horticulturalists like to stay out of the guests’ way, they will go out of their way to help guests when needed.

“A lot of people have an interest in the gardens and ask a lot of questions. That brings a lot of good guest comments,” says Malone.

The horticulturalists answer questions and conduct free tours for high school and college horticulture students, as well as outside professionals. Convention visitors receive tours upon request.

“We get the same inquiries about plants they have never seen before,” Malone says. “Being a convention hotel and getting a lot of international guests, we have a lot of people from places like Hawaii and some of the tropical Caribbean islands who recognize a lot of plants and are amazed that we have those in the collection.”

“We have areas we want the guests to be able to use, so selections have a lot to do with sight lines,” Malone says. “Ninety-nine percent of everything in there is very tropical or subtropical in nature. Occasionally, you’ll see things in there that might grow outside, but basically I don’t like to waste the room inside to use something I can grow outside and display just as well. We’re in a 6B zone as far as the temperate plants on the outside.

“Palms are very unique in the fact that people don’t get to see those as much, so we have a very good collection of palms here and some of them are very rare,” he says. “They’re like everything else in the environment – in some parts of the world, they are becoming very extinct.”

One benefit of palms is they do not take up a lot of light in a space, Malone says.

“A big tree, like a ficus, shades a lot under the canopy and I wouldn’t be able to grow as many things because we are a little different from what you’d call a tropical rain forest,” he says. “We are growing a lot of material on the ground and above it, and we have to keep it pruned and opened up so we can keep the light coming in.

“Our light is key to the reflowering of our existing collection, plus we do add flowering material depending on the time of year.”

Most of what is in the gardens of the Gaylord Opryland is sourced from south Florida or grown in Florida from cuttings Malone has obtained elsewhere.

Nineteen members of Malone’s horticulture staff maintain Opryland’s indoor gardens, but the 43-member team is responsible for the resort grounds and pest control, too.

“I’ve worked with Phil Cialone there since the first garden in 1982,” says Malone. “He helps me locate a lot of things in Florida. He is one of the main interiorscape suppliers. Interior people have unique nurseries that supply them, because a lot of our material is grown under shade and acclimated, so when you bring it up and put it under lower light, it does so much better versus plants that are grown in the full sun in Florida.”

As such, it’s more expensive to build facilities with large shade structures and maintain them separately than it would be just growing them outside, he points out.

The Gaylord Opryland’s bromeliads come from Bullis Bromeliads in Princeton, Fla.

“They do an outstanding job,” he says. “Bromeliads are one of the most interesting plants to the guests. The orchids also bring a lot of comments.” Malone also deals with Silver Vase nursery in Homestead, Fla., for orchids and bromeliads. He obtains palms from Kraft Gardens in Fort Pierce, Fla.

“I’m always adding more varieties of palms and other plants to the collection,” says Malone. “For us in the U.S., it’s not as important a plant as it is all over the world. People don’t understand how much other people depend on them, such as the date palm.

“We have eight native palms in the U.S. Native American Indians used them for shelter, food and for making things. When I do garden talks, I try to emphasize how important a palm is in the world.”

Grasshopper Mower is a sponsor for Gaylord Opryland. “They give us new mowers every year, and we do a little advertising with them,” says Malone. “We primarily use the Grasshopper mowers outside. They do a great job for us.”

Regarding pests, the staff primarily does battle with the two-spotted spider mite, mealybugs, whiteflies and thrips. “We use a lot of sticky cards for indicators in capturing,” Malone says. “We use a lot of soap. We try to use things that are not harmful to us or the guests.”

The department also uses predaceous insects that feed on the insects they’re trying to eradicate. For instance, a spider mite that is a predaceous insect to the two-sided spider mite. The horticulturalists also have had success with the green lacewing. To get rid of mealybugs, they use cryptolaemus.

“With the predaceous insects, you release them and they’ll eat down the plant supply or the insects that are detrimental and they die out because the food supply does,” Malone says. “You’re always adding them. It’s not a cheaper method. In fact, it’s probably a little more expensive, but it’s a definitely a more natural method and a lot safer.”

Drip irrigation, run off 14 controllers, keeps the 4.5-acre Delta gardens nourished. “We have a drip irrigation system that’s on a separate water line into which we can inject the fertilizer or whatever we need to when we want to in that system,” Malone says. “Then we have a separate quick coupler system that we hook our hoses to if one was to break down. All of our water is well water. We have three wells on the property, so that saves tremendously in being able to use well water outside and inside.”

Outside irrigation is nearly all spray except for a few areas where drip is used. The resort uses a variety of systems from Rain Bird, Toro, Hunter Industries and Buckner.

A waterway fed by 400,000 gallons of water runs through the Delta area of the resort. This “Delta River” is stocked with fish found in the nearby Cumberland River – large and small-mouth bass, three different species of catfish, sunfish and bluegills. There also are wood ducks for which the resort has a federal permit.

“Seeing the fish makes a nice environment for the guests. The fish are unique. I think people love every bit of nature you can add to it,” Malone says. “We have to be so careful with them – even with the very low toxic-type chemicals that we might use at times – that we don’t get anything in the water because they are very sensitive to everything.” The water is cleaned and filtered with sand. Two employees maintain the pools and fountains.

Ponds elsewhere in the resort feature koi and different species of goldfish and ornamental fish. There are also fish in some outdoor ponds.

When Malone looks to hire someone, he considers attitude first, then expertise and a passion for horticulture. Sixty-five percent of employees are college graduates in horticulture, forestry or public horticulture, a recent curriculum available for those working in public and botanical gardens, Malone says.

“We are very oriented toward our guests and we need people who are very outgoing and engaging with the guests,” he says. “We mix with the guests pretty quickly as they check in. We try to help them get around. We talk to them and break the ice so they feel like they are at home when they first get here.”

The in-house horticulturalists mix with landscape architects hired from the outside as the resort has been built in four phases and share trade knowledge, Malone says.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “All of the architects we’ve worked with have a synergistic approach to design where they listen to everything we say and follow through to accomplish the goal we set.”

The Gaylord Opryland Resort with its 2,881 guest rooms is spread over 100 acres, with 8 acres of gardens inside the resort and small gardens and turf areas comprising its grounds.

International visitors and his own trips abroad to Europe have shown Malone that horticulturalists overseas are valued like skilled craftspeople.

“Horticulture in this country, sad to say, is not paid professionally like it is in Europe and England, where they are paid just like electricians and plumbers. Basically, you have to have a passion for the work,” he says.

Malone says his department’s biggest challenge is in covering all of the work. “It’s a matter of people being able to enjoy themselves at work, pitching in and helping each other,” he says.

Malone says he has loved his work for the 42 years since he graduated from college.

“You can never learn it all,” he says. “There is so much there that is so interesting, I could never understand how somebody could be burned out with it. If it’s something you have a passion for, then you never get tired of it. It’s not only here, but I enjoy doing it at home, too. I think everybody here feels the same way or they wouldn’t be here. There is not a lot of turnover in this company. A lot of these people have been with me since 1983.”

Malone says the resort retains good employees with a “great” benefit program.

“I’ve never worked anywhere that tried to do so much for their employees – constantly throwing parties for them and doing things for them,” he says. “I’ve got an ice cream social for my crew on Friday because of all of the things they’ve been doing. They just love it, they know they have a good job here and business is good.”

As the Gaylord Opryland continues to grow, the landscaping grows with it.

“We continue to use more interesting plants as we can find them and as they become available,” says Malone. “A lot of nurseries are growing a lot more unusual plants than they grew in the past. They used to grow the basic plants that everybody knew, but there’s so much more available out there and a lot of personal collectors who are growing a lot of things.” Malone adds that the Gaylord Opryland often receives offers of plants. “People know our facility is large and it can house things that have outgrown them,” he notes. “The Tennessee Botanical Gardens has given us a few nice plants.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.