This Is How You Do It!


     Pat Cullina, past Vice President of Horticulture and Science at Brooklyn Botanic Garden once said, “Mulch is not a groundcover!” Truer words were never spoken. I heard him utter these words at a talk he gave, last year, at Pleasant Run Nursery. What was meant by that comment, during that moment, was that plants appearing in landscapes, surrounded by mulch, looking as though they need to be rescued by a life preserver is not good design. “Mulch is a layer of material applied to the surface of an area of soil. Its purpose is to conserve moisture, improve the fertility and health of the soil, reduce weed growth and to enhance the visual appeal of the area.” (Wikipedia) “Groundcover refers to any plant that grows over an area of ground, used to provide protection from erosion and drought, and to improve its aesthetic appearance (by concealing bare earth).” (Wikipedia) Recently my family took a quick vacation to Las Vegas and while my wife enjoys the bells and whistles inside the casino, I prefer to admire the landscapes surrounding them.

Las Vegas, for me, is a great example of what virtually unlimited resources and creative minds can conjure up. Almost every big hotel, on the strip, has their own theme and a landscape to match. However, two hotels that are just over the top as far as creativity, plant materials and props are the Bellagio and the Wynn. These two hotels use space, both small and large, so well and their introduction of art in the garden, whether it is living art or sculpture, is quantum.

The Bellagio, as you enter through the front doors, has you pass under a giant ceiling of glass flowers done by Dale Chihuly. Heading straight on you have the conservatory and botanical gardens in front of you. Here the attention to detail is astounding! This past July, inside the conservatory, was an enormous aviary, lighthouse, bridge, boat, 15-foot birdhouse and numerous water features. Plants that surrounded all of these features were huge hydrangea sweeps, Grecian Pattern Plant, Acanthus mollis ‘Oak Leaf’, for dark, unusual texture in the background and a smattering of some of the most unique trees ever. Highlights for me included a personal favorite the Madrone Tree, Arbutus menziesii. This one-of-a-kind evergreen tree has bark that shreds, showing the cinnamon-brown bark on the outside while exposing the reds and greens on the inside. Other showstoppers were the century old sculpted Sevillano Olive trees and a snail that had 1500 roses depicting its shell. These vertical elements helped frame the smaller plantings and at no point did you ever see any mulch.

The outside of the Bellagio, by the pool areas, showcased the quintessential Mediterranean plant. Perfect for the Bellagio, I’m speaking of Italian Cypress, Cupressus sempervirens ‘Stricta’. These fastigiate evergreens are over 4 stories tall and impressive to say the least. Conjuring up memories of the Cypress Alley near Arezzo, Italy depicted so well in the movie Gladiator and Van Gogh’s, Cypresses, these monstrous conifers left me speechless. Often I am asked, since Italian Cypress is not “hardy” for New Jersey, what plant could replicate such a footprint. While no plant will be an exact copy, consider either Degroot’s Spire Arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’, or Cupressina Norway Spruce, Picea abies ‘Cupressina’. Both trees offer a strong vertical element for your garden and with time could create such a look.

The Wynn’s front entrance has you walk past the atrium and into a beautiful, indoor forest and garden that is lit at night. Huge expanses of hydrangea and Rieger begonias were backing large sweeps of tiny ferns. Planted pot to pot, the carpet of fern helped punctuate the white planters filled with phormium and agave types. Hanging from the trees were 3-foot spheres of roses, chrysanthemums and orchids that were as impressive in the day as they were at night.

I had an opportunity to speak with one of the140 expert horticulturists at the Bellagio. She told me that every flower and every plant is touched at least once a week. The arrangements and combinations that these horticulturists and designers offer really are second to none. Rare natural finds from all over the world speak to almost anyone at any time of the year. Displays that are swapped out as often as most of us go grocery shopping provide inspiration and nourishment to your soul. And if all this hasn’t convinced you yet to hop a flight to Vegas, consider the “Water Wall” at Aria and the “Lake of Dreams” at the Wynn… that will surely do the trick.