Nurturing yesteryear’s turf with tomorrow’s ideas

Tom Wright, superintendent of parks and grounds at Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, N.Y., is a believer in organizations and associations. He credits his education as a turf professional to groups like the New York State Turfgrass Association, Cornell short courses, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the Hudson Valley Golf Course Superintendents Association.

Tom Wright oversees 1,350 acres of grounds, including the turf, trees, shrubs, gardens and a host of gazebos (called summerhouses) and other structures.

Those groups are the places he turns when he looks for contractors to help maintain or repair the turf under his watch at the luxury resort.

“I’ve been in professional associations all my life,” Wright says. “I have good relationships with my go-to people in the business. If it is not work that they do, I’ve found they will make reliable recommendations for other suppliers.”

A local resident since birth, Wright favors local companies with a solid reputation like Masseo Landscape in New Paltz. Other contractors are on his list of frequent contacts for tree work, when the budget allows renovation work, or repairs required by projects like new water lines or expanded roadways.

For Wright, it always comes down to finding a contractor who will respect the property.

“Turfgrass is my passion, even though I oversee a lot of other things here,” he says.

He is in charge of a “mere” 1,350 acres of grounds, although much of that is wooded. The property has access to 40,000 more acres of preserve land and hiking trails along the ridges that surround Mohonk Mountain House.

High-profile, low-impact

The lawns surrounding the Mountain House are eye-catching. Add to those high-profile areas the plots in the show garden, the cuttings garden and the rose garden, and one might think the grass would be subject to intensive maintenance. After all, Wright managed the resort’s golf course for 17 years before his management promotion in 2006. Not so.

“I use a can’t-miss mix of Kentucky bluegrass, rye and fescue,” Wright says, explaining that the grounds do better with a general mix. The mixture includes 30 percent creeping red fescue, 20 percent chewings fescue, 15 percent perennial rye, 25 percent Kentucky blue and 10 percent hard fescue. “The grass guy in me says to use separate mixes for the shady areas, the high-traffic areas, and the open areas, but the mix works,” he says.

Wright credits the ability of the turf to compete to the tough, old local grasses which have long been established there. Much of the grass is old bentgrasses, “and any other seed that was swept out of the barns a hundred years ago,” he says. The grasses are native to the area, have proven themselves since the late 1800s, and still provide tough competition to invasive weeds.

Mohonk’s Quaker Background

It is not just the grounds program that is non-traditional at Mohonk Mountain House. The Smiley family was Quaker, and for scores of years ran a hospitality business that did not serve liquor. They were so good at providing a green, outdoorsy experience, however, that guests accepted that restriction (or concealed flasks in their jackets!). Of note, an award-winning wine list and Carriage Lounge bar are now available.

Credit for the idea behind the League of Nations and later the United Nations can be traced, in large part, to discussions initiated on site by Mohonk’s founder, Albert Smiley. Among the guests at the Mountain House were Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William Taft.

Quakers are noted for talking about contentious subjects until a sense of agreement is reached. The Smileys hoped that nations could do the same. Beginning in 1895 and continuing through 1916, Albert Smiley offered the hotel and grounds as a place where politicians could talk about using arbitration to solve problems, rather than declaring war. While the Lake Mohonk Conferences on International Arbitration set the stage for establishing a “permanent tribunal,” in the end, after World War I, the Hague was chosen as the site of the first truly international conference.

Other aspects of the Mohonk program also are non-traditional. The turf barely gets fed. In humid New York State, Wright feels that fertilizer only encourages the grass to get ahead of his mowing crews.

Mohonk Mountain House makes its own compost, which is applied in the fall. Otherwise, it has been five years since a fall fertilizer application has gone on the lawns. “In spring, we are always short-handed. It would be crazy to encourage the grass to grow more,” he says. In fact, he has just two full-time grounds people and one part-timer or intern during the summer. The management thrust is to keep as much labor available on Mondays as possible.

High-visibility lawns are mowed weekly, Wednesday to Friday. Wright and Garden Nanager Andrew Koehn will walk the grounds Friday afternoon to make sure everything is up to snuff for the weekend rush. The story is different in the sports turf areas, where grass is mowed two or three times a week and fertility follows a somewhat more traditional program. “Our sports turf areas receive regular organic fertilizer applications with a product that does not contain potassium. Since December of 2008, our putting green has received only one pesticide application. It is my belief that the combination of the organic fertilizer and not using potassium has allowed us to really push our IPM program,” Wright says.

The formal gardens, with turf borders, are beautiful. There is a light side, too: the paths are named after Candy Land locations for the 2011 season.

“Our soils are acidic but, as a rule, we don’t lime,” he continues.

“We are extremely environmentally proactive,” Wright says. Since he became head of parks and grounds in 2006, there has not been a single routine weed-and-feed done on the property. It is not that they are anti-chemical, they will use Roundup on pathways and edges. “But that’s about the extent of the herbicide program,” he says.

After high-level discussions, management agreed with this approach totally. “My belief is that the PR ramifications of the signage required on the front lawn [after a spray] would be more expensive than taking out weedy parts of the lawns and sodding them,” he says.

“You almost don’t notice the clover and broadleaves,” Wright maintains. “Those lawns are tough. They have been here forever.”

He admits to seeing a few formal bridal party photos with dandelions in bloom. “But I’ve never felt pressure to broadcast herbicides,” he says.

The putting green that sits right outside the front door of the hotel is as pretty and inviting as any green, yet it is lightly managed, as well. “Show me another putting green in a high-profile location that is pesticide-free from December 2008 to July 2, 2011,” Wright challenges.

Strong traditions

That conservative, earth-aware approach dates back to the strong traditions of the Smiley family and the Mohonk property (see sidebar). While no expense was spared to make the grounds a showplace, the family always wanted, and still wants, to respect the beautiful setting where they are located.

To that end, about 100 years ago, 9 feet of topsoil was hauled into the site to build an 18-hole putting green. An annual tournament was held and, legend holds, guests would head for the green to practice even before unpacking their bags.

Groundskeeper Ben Helt runs the 72-inch out front mower, rain or shine, from Wednesday to Friday so the Mohonk Mountain House lawns are ready for the weekend.

Today, the putting green remains an attraction for guests. It is located only a few yards from the hotel veranda. Elsewhere on the property are a nine-hole golf course, a croquet pitch, formal gardens and a greenhouse range with four greenhouses managed by Cindy Muro.

Wright reports directly to Tom Smiley, director of properties, and a descendent of the hotel’s founders. There is a lot of tradition built into the Mohonk operation and much of it focuses on the environment.

“The Smiley family are great conservationists,” says Erick Roosa, training manager for Mohonk Mountain House. As a result, to this day the grounds are managed for bird life and raptor habitat, as well as the human visitors.

A stone reservoir atop the nearby Sky Top cliffs holds 1.2 million gallons of water. Before electricity was commonplace, the reservoir supplied sufficient head of pressure to serve as the power source to run the elevators at the Mountain House. Now it serves as a backup for use on the property.

The grounds are dotted with hundreds of summerhouses, wooden gazebos with built-in wooden benches. They were constructed to provide guests a place to sit on long walks across the lawns, through the gardens, and along the hiking trails. They also provide touchstones of civilization for New Yorkers who wanted an outdoors experience, but also wanted assurances that their walk was not taking them too far off the beaten path. Today, the summerhouses are so ubiquitous that they serve as the logo for Mohonk Mountain House.

Gardens and plantings

Gardens and plantings are a huge factor in the overall landscaping at Mohonk Mountain House. Located just past the putting green is the formal garden, managed by Andrew Koehn.

“Andrew and Cindy helped me appreciate woody and herbaceous plants,” Wright laughs. “They have me looking up as well as down at the grass.”

Keeping in mind that not all of the guests are grown-ups, the theme for this year’s garden was based on the traditional children’s game, Candy Land. Gumdrop Alley, the Valley of Vanilla and Bubblegum Boulevard are among the pathways among the plantings.

It is gardens like these that enticed the Rockefellers and the Carnegies to journey to the hotel in an era that involved train travel from New York or Philadelphia and a 10-mile carriage ride to the hotel. Today, the sweeping lawns and formal gardens attract visitors from all over. The emerald stretches of lawn complement the stately hotel. The entire view is decorated with plants and fountain gardens.

The turf crew, with help from trusted contractors, sits in the background knowing they are maintaining turf that has awed guests since the 1800s.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer from Strongsville, Ohio, and a frequent contributor to Turf. You can reach him at