“The Old Testament talks about how there’s a time and a season for everything. We live that.” Dirk Van Wagoner and his team of groundskeepers begin each day at The Grand America clearing out the remnants of the previous one. “Before we can even hit the gardens, we walk the property and we clean up. We’re picking up garbage and we’re clearing leaves…before we can even start on the gardening.”
Gardening, as he calls it, is, in many ways, an understatement. Dirk’s team of five is tasked with meticulously maintaining all topiaries, lawns, flowerbeds, and trees that populate the nearly 10 acres of The Grand’s exterior. They are also tasked with the implementation of the annual tulip display that colors The Grand in vibrant shades of blooms every spring. This year, Dirk estimates will see roughly 42,000 blooms.
This kind of care requires a strict respect for time, and for its unforgivable steady march forward. As Dirk says, to pull off a tulip display of this size and significance, their team must live for time and season. But while “time” is constant, “season” is always full of variation.
For instance, if asked, “when is the best time to come see The Grand’s tulips in full bloom?” Dirk says: “Mother’s Day, when it’s early, we can count on really pretty bulbs. But as soon as the temperature hits in the high 70s and 80s—two days of 80s will burn a tulip off in a day and a half. The sun burns the delicate flowers. And then if we get a lot of rain, the water just breaks them and they disintegrate. And so peak bulb time is the second or third week of April. That’s usually when everything’s going to be in its majesty.”
But despite the wrenches each season may throw into any plan, plan they must. This process begins as early as May. While one year’s fully bloomed tulips are being pulled from their beds, Dirk begins sketching out the design for the next. And while the summer flowers are being planted, Dirk is placing the orders for next year’s tulips and daffodils, meeting a June 1st order deadline. Through the hot summer days, pallets of bulbs are being delivered and, sometimes, bad news is delivered along with them. “Once we design and then place our orders, sometimes we’ll hear back: oh, I’m sorry we had a bulk failure in this variety but we do have this one. So, then there’s a lot of last minute substitutions and changes and scrambling things,” Dirk said, “this year I had to go out and scrounge up an extra 5,000 bulbs.”
Improvisation is always crucial, but especially as summer changes to fall and the real prep work begins. Once the summer annuals have been stripped, the soil in the flower beds is “supercharged” with necessary plant nutrition. But before bulb planting can begin, the team often works around other projects. “Every year it seems we have different remodels going on so we have to work around the construction crews that are doing the remodels. And then we can come in and pick up the pieces and we try to structure it so that we can plant.”
While seasons come and go with unpredictability, the grounds team does everything they can to outsmart its fickle whims. “When we design, we plant usually an early, a mid-season, and a late season [variation], so we incorporate those so we can extend our tulip season to about two months. Because of the mids, earlys, and lates. Versus if we just used earlys, we’d be two to three weeks in the spring and then nothing. So, this way we extend our bloom season.”
When you learn to live by time and season, you tend to become very attune to the windows of opportunity. Dirk understood this art at a young age. “I started mowing lawns when I was six. By the time I was ten–our neighbors had some electric hedge trimmers–and I thought, if I go contract with that neighbor over there, and trim their bushes, that’ll pay for my own pair of hedge trimmers. That’s where I started.”
But reading patterns of opportunity is not what has kept him in the business for several decades. The joy of this work is crucial, and specific, for Dirk. “What I love about my job is…I’m like a bee buzzing off of one flower to another…I love the movement. I love the people that I work with and work for. I love the beauties. I love the four seasons. I love the variety of my work. I love getting my hands dirty. But I can’t plant flowers all day. I can’t put up Christmas lights all day. I love little bits of all of that. And when you put it all together, that’s my perfect career.”
Come see the tulips in their full majesty! Book your spring stay under The Grand Choice package and receive $100 credit on all on-property dining, retail, and services at our Forbes Five Star Grand Spa.