PGMA winner: Mohonk Mountain House

High atop a mountainous glacial ridge named the Shawangunks in New Paltz, N.Y., sits the Mohonk Mountain House. This beautiful Victorian Hotel, built in 1869, perches on the ridge's west-side escarpment, surrounded by more than 9,000 acres of woodland. To the east of the hotel lies a glacier-carved freshwater lake. The resort's breathtaking panorama overlooks the wide valley below and includes an impressive view of the Catskill Mountains.

The 400-acre estate's natural beauty is emphasized by its many specialty gardens. The landscape features 15 acres of flower gardens, a 3-acre show garden, a memorial rose garden, rock gardens, perennial borders, three cutting gardens, herb gardens, sunken gardens, an aquatic area and an ornamental-grass garden.

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Additionally, 300 acres of ornamental trees and shrubs build up to the transitional woodland areas. The property's expansive green carpet includes 35 acres of turf and 25,000 square feet of bentgrass sports facilities, which includes a putting green, croquet greens and a bowling green. Annually, we place 47,000 plants on our grounds. With the exception of trees, shrubs and bulbs, we grow most of them--about 45,000--ourselves.

In the greenhouse, we grow 125,000 plants annually in 6,500 square feet of growing space. We provide plants for the grounds, gardens and hotel interiorscape. Our flower shop is a full-service shop, providing fresh-cut floral arrangements and decoration for the hotel's interior. We also provide floral sales and full wedding floral service. The Scottish-designed 9-hole golf course celebrated its centennial year last season and is an authorized Cooperative Sanctuary by the Audubon Society of New York State.

As the grounds superintendent at Mohonk, I supervise the three aforementioned departments--golf course, flower shop and grounds/greenhouse--which are distinct only in terms of their budgets. My crew, which includes 8 full-time employees and 16 seasonal workers, works as a team performing regular maintenance duties as well as special tasks.

Organic gardens As part of our environmental-stewardship efforts, we initiated a full-scale integrated pest management (IPM) plan for the grounds, gardens, greenhouse and golf course. Our goal was to reduce pesticide use through IPM implementation. After fine-tuning our IPM plans, we were able to define our aesthetic-damage thresholds and take the next step to using complete natural organics.

Established 110 years ago on a 3-acre lot, the show garden is our largest endeavor and main attraction. Each week it welcomes 4,000 visitors. Designed with a seasonal blend of plant material, including annuals, perennials, biennials, herbs and tropical plants, the garden comprises 78 flower beds containing about 23,000 plants. We grow all of our plants in our greenhouse facilities. We grow seven-eighths of the plants from seed, one-sixteenth from vegetative propagation and the remaining one-sixteenth are purchased rooted cuttings.

The show garden is 100-percent natural organic. No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides of any kind. We primarily rely on biorational products for the management of insects or disease. Our natural-organic-fertilizer program has been a foundation for the garden's success.

The next step was to expand our organic-management strategies into our memorial rose garden, medicinal herb garden, cut gardens and perennial borders. We now maintain about 6 chemical-free acres. The challenges of this undertaking include identifying sources for organic products and staying within the confines of our organic protocol.

Seasonal interior plantscaping Fifty-two weeks a year we maintain tropical, seasonal and heirloom Victorian plants and floral arrangements inside the Mountain House. We grow many specific crops for the hotel, such as Primula, Cineraria, Calceolaria, forced winter tulips, iris, daffodils, hyacinths, Scilla, amaryllis, regal geraniums, Gerbera, Clivia, Haemanthus, Oxalis, Argyranthemum, fall mums, cabbage, Cyclamen and, finally, poinsettias to round out the year. Our growing facilities produce nearly 125,000 plants yearly, including more than 300 different varieties.

We always do our interiorscaping or decorating with live plants and plant material. The less-than-perfect growing conditions in the hotel require us to change plants weekly throughout the year. Seasonal displays are our biggest projects; Christmas decorating is by far our most demanding. For the holiday, we select-tag our 13 sheared Fraser firs, ranging in size from 5 to 18 feet, in August from a Vermont plantation. We cut them fresh the day before we set up and adorn them with Victorian decorations. About half of the decorations are handmade from dried plant material harvested from the gardens. We grow and harvest our greens to produce 25 fresh wreaths ranging in size from 24 inches up to 7 feet. We also specialize in freshly made Victorian decoration swags, fruit trees, topiaries and kissing globes.

Challenged only by seasonal diversity, we create scenes for holidays, theme weekends and special occasions. The hotel is an excellent show area for our plants. Because the hotel's interior decor is reminiscent of the 1860s Victorian era, we select plants and flowers to complement the decor. We grow heirloom plants, old-fashioned varieties, topiaries and standards of Fatshedera, fuchsia, Cytisus, heliotrope and Lantana, to name a few of yesteryear's plants.

Wildlife intrusions Damage caused by the area's deer population and occasionally by other mammals dramatically influences our approach to plant use when we design our gardens and landscapes. Our site analysis prior to design has a totally different routine than normal landscape and garden sites. Because Mohonk Mountain House is a national Historic Landmark, our first considerations are to research original designs and plant material from the era in which the house was built. Next, we access our database to see the deer's degree of preference for the plants. Finally, we match up proper site selection, blended with seasonal diversity, texture and overall aesthetic considerations to develop a design.

Along with careful plant selection, we set up seasonal deer fencing and, during the growing season, we use repellents on herbaceous material. We have started to incorporate our use of ornamental cedar fencing in our landscape designs as another tool to increase our plant options.

We also design to attract beneficial insects, butterflies and birds. On the golf course, we have established wildlife-habitat-enhancement areas, bird-nesting projects and other habitat opportunities. Being challenged by expanding mammal populations, we know it is essential to try different approaches to reach biodiversity.

John Van Etten is the grounds superintendent for the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y.

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