Herculean Horticulture

You think your garden is a challenge?  Try keeping 60,000 flowers looking good every day. Paula Steers Brown takes a behind-the-scenes look at the folks who keep Busch Gardens lush.

Busch Gardens: The very name signals the importance of lush landscape to the Williamsburg theme park, which is a national destination for tourists of all ages. Yet, as Busch Gardens Landscape Manager Eileen Weldon acknowledges, the vast majority of the park’s visitors do not arrive intent on eyeing pretty plants. They come mainly to see the musical shows and to enjoy the rides. Says Weldon, “There is so much visual stimulation—roller coasters and street performers—that the landscape has to be [compelling] to get noticed. To enhance the guests’ experience, it has to be intense.”

And it is. Busch Gardens Europe occupies 117 acres, offering Weldon and her 50-strong gardening team plenty of room in which to work some horticultural magic. Much of the park property is covered with flower gardens that vary in size and floral composition, and often serve to accentuate the themes of nearby rides or venues. Vast is the word: Once springtime’s 50,000 tulips fade, they’re replaced (in early May, after the frost date) by sublime swaths of annuals—begonias, geraniums, petunias, lantana and annual salvias—for the peak summer season, where some 60,000 flowers are in bloom every day. Come autumn, chrysanthemums hold sway.

As one might imagine, sustaining the picture-perfect vision takes a huge amount of hard work by the landscaping crew, but it is accompanied by the satisfaction that comes from meeting some rather unique challenges. Among them: preventing deer and other animals from eating the plants and, of course, keeping all the flowers and shrubs watered during the summer.

It all requires an early start. At 6:00 a.m. every morning, a phalanx of workers in utility scooters, each carting a 100-gallon watering tank, fans out across the property. Their job is to spray the immense number of window boxes and other floral containers at Busch, which cannot be handled by the automatic systems that serve the in-ground beds.

Not surprisingly, it takes some in-house production help to keep Busch Gardens looking spectacular. There is a 17,000-square foot greenhouse on the property, in which 30,000 annuals are grown each year along with 200 large hanging baskets and 400 container plants. The greenhouse enables the staff to replace the annuals in bloom on the property about six times a year. As Weldon notes, even with plenty of care, flowers begin to look a little ragged after a few weeks in the summer heat.

And the work is year-round. In early fall, the chrysanthemums are bedded out; not long after, the tulip bulbs must be planted, and then in the spring, before the park opens, 4,800 cubic yards of mulch must be spread, among other tasks. It’s a Herculean job, but necessary to keep the colors dazzling and the fragrances sweet between late March, when the park opens, and the closing date of October 28. And, of course, the soaring scenery befits this land of colossal characters and grand imagination.

Typically, the flora complement the park’s many thematically styled venues. So there are parterre beds (evergreen hedges severely trimmed into geographic shapes) at “France’s” Le Palais Royal, imitating the formality of Versailles, while Killarney Crossing Bridge features more casual cottage-style plantings of shrub roses, dianthus, candytuft and other charming wallflowers.

Creativity abounds, not only in plant selection and style but also in the psychological space. At the Escape From Pompeii water ride, bedding areas have hot colors to simulate an erupting volcano—drifts of croton, golden chamaecyparis, Carolina jasmine and yellow tulips. Riders can take comfort from a bed of sparkling annuals moments before making the final plunge. Conversely, a crisp Alpine scent wafts through the German area. Cool purple flowers cascade from the Festhaus window boxes and alongside the steps where an oompah band marches through—men in green lederhosen and hats with jaunty feathers, young ladies in embroidered dresses with flowers in their hair. Some theme areas, such as the San Marco Vineyard, even include crop cultivars. The grapevines trained on fences make a great backdrop for any visitors who want to have a photo made in the huge half-barrels, pretending to stomp grapes.

Plants alone do not make a charming scene. The designers must integrate other elements into the mix—stone, water and strong material focal points. There are ornate wrought-iron pillars at the entry to Oktoberfest, a heavy-timbered covered bridge (brought over from Germany, where it traversed the Kocher River in Baden-Württemberg) and several cooling fountains, including one cast in 1914 as a memorial to the founder of Anheuser-Busch (Adolphus Busch) from his wife, Lilly. The formal Italian garden features a classical armillary sundial, with golden images of signs of the zodiac and Roman numerals around the central verdigris band. “All of the Busch facilities are known for high quality and attention to detail,” says Weldon, and that commitment is thorough. In “London,” hard-to-grow climbing hydrangea is nurtured on the back walls of the visitor loo, just behind a red telephone booth.

When a new area is installed, the landscape team gets its “theming direction” from management in Williamsburg and St. Louis. But Weldon and her team have enough autonomy to execute the plan as they see fit. At the Curse of DarKastle, for example, Weldon’s directions from the theming people were to make it “dark and creepy” and “frozen in time.” She chose an unusual dark-leaved witchhazel shrub with a smoky, red-fringed bloom—Loropetalum chinense “Roseum”—that eerily echoes the stark charcoal gray of the rock of DarKastle. The dark foliage of a purple plum tree adds to the shrouded look. On the inside wall, where the visitors queue, the design team placed a sculptured hedge and, to go along with the “frozen in time” theme, variegated plants with white tips and a weeping evergreen, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis “Pendula.” “Normally, we are trying to make the areas look as colorful as possible, so this section is a departure,” says Weldon. “I love the variety [of the work]. What we get to do is really fun. It is a very dynamic environment, and every day is different.”

The team is especially conscious of the Busch “season pass” holders, who are repeat guests. “We do not want them to see the same thing every time,” explains the landscape man-

ager, so change is a priority. When asked what background is required for such an unusual job, Weldon laughs. “Our training is mostly on-the-job training. I am not sure there’s any type of training we could get that would prepare us for what we do here. It is that unique and special.”

As the stewards of green, the park landscapers are also environmentalists. The park is in the process of creating a certified “backyard habitat,” featuring mainly native plants in the area around the Lorikeet aviary. Besides introducing the pleasant sounds of nature into the garden, birds play a key role in pollinating trees and plants. The landscape team facilitates the idea of a true ecosystem in other ways as well: Gray wolves and bald eagles, both of which help maintain Darwinian balance in nature, may be observed at the park. The wolves present a challenge as they are curious and like to explore any plant material that is added to their environment. The animals will gnaw on trees, for example, but in this case the landscaping team will not replace the greenery, leaving it as it would appear in the wild.

What’s more, Busch Gardens, in partnership with Sea World, belongs to a joint conservation fund dedicated to animal rescue, species research, habitat protection and conservation education. In other environmental strides, the department has experienced great success in switching from chemicals to the use of beneficial insects in their greenhouse production. Over 10 years ago, they introduced ladybugs, predatory wasps (non-stinging and almost microscopic) and lacewings to feed on the pests that destroy plants. Expertly traversing the delicate web of life, the Gardens part of the Busch experience is also an awesome sight.

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