A horticulturist's dream

Fueled by supply and demand and the desire to offer the best guest experience possible, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center has grown its gardens over the years in size and scope, and the world has taken notice.

Guests can take the Delta River Flatboat tour to learn more about the gardens. Photo courtesy of GAYLORD OPRYLAND RESORT.

In the 39 years Hollis Malone has worked as a horticulturist at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, he has never once gotten tired of the compliments from guests on the nine acres of interiorscapes winding through the complex.

“If you clean something up, prune something or plant something that gets people excited, that’s a good feeling,” says Malone. “It’s just great to see people’s faces light up.”

Humble beginnings

The resort didn’t start with nine acres, however. The indoor garden concept started in 1982 when architect Earl Swensson convinced hotel management to build a garden and put terrace rooms around it so people could have a spectacular view. Thus, the Garden Conservatory was born, a one-and-a-half acre spread of tropical plants that accommodated the addition of 500 rooms to the original 600 built in 1977.

Five successful years later, management was convinced that the indoor garden concept was a good thing and they needed more capacity, so they decided to add 500 more rooms and another garden. At the same time, they realized they needed another check-in lobby to accommodate the increased number of guests. The one-and-a-half acre Cascades became the second garden and created a “wow” factor with big double waterfalls cascading down a 40-foot-tall mountain and a restaurant and rotating bar smack dab in the middle.

Ten years later, once again realizing that demand exceeded supply, the resort decided to add 1,000 more rooms and a four-and-a-half acre garden to go with it: the Delta, a Louisiana-themed wonder featuring sabal (or cabbage) palms, foliage plants and even banana trees. The Delta pushed the total acreage under glass to approximately nine, with 50,000 total plants and 63 different kinds of palms. Malone says the palms work particularly well in the gardens in terms of allowing light to reach other plants.

“Their canopies don’t take up a lot of room like a big ficus tree or huge tropical tree would,” he says.


Dine among the lush vegetaion in the Cascades Atrium at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. Photo courtesy of Gaylord Opryland Resort.


Overcoming challenges

One of the biggest challenges in maintaining the gardens is that the resort is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Plus, there is a high volume of people coming through the resort who are looking to conduct business (95 percent of the resort’s business is convention-related) and have a relaxing time. Therefore, the horticultural crew’s schedules, the type of soil used and the pest management program all have to be designed with the guest in mind.

For instance, the soil is a custom mix of composted pine bark, cypress bark, Canadian peat, German peat and solite, a rock mined in Mississippi that prevents compaction. There are hardly any organics in it except for earthworm castings because anything with too harsh of a smell would disturb guests.

“It’s a shame because some of my favorite organics are very odorous,” says Malone.

The flood that affected much of Nashville in 2010 was a testament to the resort’s ability to survive and bounce back strong. After seeing 119 rooms and the Delta and Cascades gardens severely impacted and their own work facilities destroyed, the crews rolled up their sleeves and set to work. One colossal task involved replacing 3,000 cubic yards of soil that had been contaminated by diesel fuel that had spilled out of generators. Also, 15 tractor trailer loads of tropical plants 3 feet tall or less had to be delivered to replace ones that died.

“We didn’t miss one day of work and washed plants four to five times, and they survived better than we expected,” he says.

A $10 million flood wall and other improvements now protect the property in case of a future cataclysmic event.

Part horticulturist, part guide

The staff of 19 employees typically starts their day at 6 a.m. so they can do their watering and cleaning without disturbing guests too much. But when guests start waking up and moving around, Malone encourages his staff to interact with them as much as possible. He admits that helping guests find their way after getting lost in the maze of gardens or stopping their work to explain what they’re doing or what kind of plantings they’re seeing isn’t the most efficient way to operate, but it’s part of their job. One of the reasons they don’t label plants is to encourage guests to ask questions and interact with them.

The 40-foot-tall "mountain" and double waterfalls are a crowd favorite in Cascades.

“When I hire people, they have to have the right attitude besides having a horticultural background,” Malone says. “If you don’t want to fool with people, this is not the job for you.”

Keeping guests safe with creative pest management techniques

The welfare of the guests plays a major role in Malone’s pest control strategy as well. All plants are treated in the greenhouse after they’re unloaded — before they ever make it into the gardens. And then the cultural approach of using predacious insects as insect growth regulators kicks in. Three different spider mites feed on the problematic two-spotted spider mites, and green lacewings work well, too. Most predacious insects have to be delivered exactly where the problem and food supply is due to their lack of mobility, Malone and his crews have come up with some ingenious ways to do this.

“For the palms, we use a fishing pole with a weight on it to throw a line up and over the tree. We then put a Styrofoam cup on the end of the line, pour the predacious insects into it and crank it back up to the foliage where the spider mites are,” says Malone.

Sourcing the best plants
You might guess that Malone is a good customer to quite a few nurseries, and you would be right. He gets his plants from 18 to 20 different businesses, including a few local growers for flowers and some Florida nurseries for tropical plantings. Most of his bromeliads come from Princeton, Fla., and his orchids arrive from Homestead, Fla., and North Carolina. He also has a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse where they keep plantings that they rotate in and out of the gardens.

“One house is devoted to coleus, which we use inside and outside,” says Malone. “We also have a small revenue-generating department that does the floral arrangements for weddings and special parties and also rents plants for exhibits.”

Peer appreciation

Guest enjoyment drives and inspires Malone and his crew every day, but it’s also knowing how his green industry colleagues feel as they stroll through the gardens and admire his handiwork.

“I hope they appreciate it,” he says. “If we maintain the gardens well, we’re a good proponent of the interiorscape business. I think they appreciate that we’re trying to promote something they’re in the business of selling.”


Jason Stahl is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a regular contributor to Garden Center magazine.

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