Megan McDugald | Gaylord Opryland | Unsung Nashville

It’s A Dirty Job

Opryland’s plant pro Megan McDugald talks of mulching tulips, toppling palms & Christmas in July

Fallen fronds and frazzled foliage? Burnt-out bulbs? These are definite no-no’s at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, and when they occur Megan McDugald and the squad of horticultural henchmen (and women) are on the case.

As Manager of Horticulture, McDugald oversees all the flora and fauna found inside and out of the enormous hotel and its grounds. That also includes supervising the millions of lights that are strung and lit for the holidays. In other words, from towering palm trees to thousands of poinsettias, hers is an all-natural type of gig. Hardly surprising, given her distinct lack of city roots.

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From homestead to horticulture

“I grew up on a family farm in Kansas and was active in 4-H and FFA growing up,” she says. “I was a member of the Horticulture judging team for both organizations, so when I started at Kansas State University, I knew I wanted to pursue something in the agriculture field.”

Since Megan already had some background in horticulture, she decided to give that a try. She landed a few internships during the summers, one at the Missouri Botanical Garden and the other at The Roaring Fork Golf Course in Basalt, Colo., both of which strengthened her interest in the field. Soon after, she moved to Nashville to work at a commercial landscaping company installing annual color, something of a specialty for her.

“I think it’s what makes the landscape pop,” she says.

But most of all, Megan loves seeing things grow, creating a full experience for the people who see her work.

“I love to see the fruits of my labor and have that sense of accomplishment when I’m done,” she explains. “Growing up, my family had a large garden and we all would pitch in to snap the beans, dig potatoes, or husk the corn. It would be a family event. I realize it’s hard work, but the outcome is worth it. The future of agriculture is all about sustainability, and I want to continue that.”

And then let’s string a handful of lights.

 

In her current gig, that includes keeping the exotic greenery under glass at the hotel hale and hearty. Even for a pro, that’s been a learning curve.

“I didn’t ever really touch tropical plants, so I had a lot to learn in that regard,” McDugald says.

She supervises a staff of 40 horticulturalists who are tasked with taking care of every single plant, both planted or scattered about in pots and urns, on the property. Some of them are floral designers, and spend their days whipping up the various arrangements found throughout the hotel.

“Floral does weddings and centerpieces for dinners, and each garden inside and out has its own designated gardeners who keep things watered, remove yellow and dead leaves and keep to a pretty specific schedule of what needs to be done in that space very week.”

An eye for color

McDugald herself tours the property’s nine acres of indoor gardens and its exterior grounds daily, spot-checking areas that may need a little more attention in terms of tidying up, or noting flower beds that have begun to go off their color.

“I design those, and sometimes it’s a big project, such as the fall change out when we are putting out the pansies, violas and tulip bulbs,” she says. “That involves me sketching out what I am envisioning by hand, and then using a program that calculates how many plants we’ll need per bed. Then we order those flats from our wholesalers.”

Is it a hotel or a greenhouse? A little bit of both, because the 24/7 climate control allows tropical foliage to be grown under glass year-round.
Is it a hotel or a greenhouse? A little bit of both, because the 24/7 climate control allows tropical foliage to be grown under glass year-round.

 

For the most part, she gets free reign in terms of color combinations, but admits that she’s not one to get too out there with her palette.

“We can use whatever we want with a lot of the beds, but we’re usually keeping with the theme of the hotel’s colors,” McDugald says. “And then for the resort’s annual ‘A Country Celebration,’ we stick with blues and whites to coordinate with the snowflake décor on the drive into the property. Outside I figure out a color for the year for the summer and the winter using the Pantone color wheel. That’s pretty fun.”

For the exteriors, she does a spring planting at the end of April, and the fall colors go in during late September or early October. There also are thousands of tulip bulbs that go in every fall, only to come up and be composted in the spring. (Only 60% would re-bloom the next year, and McDugald goes for a perfect score on this front.) Inside there are four change outs annually, mostly for the blooming beds, which means those that change color. And let’s not forget the Christmas season, when poinsettias blanket the hotel. That’s an order of 15,000 plants all by itself. It’s several lucky greenhouses that get the hotel’s orders, given the sheer magnitude of the property, and McDugald does her shopping both here and elsewhere.

“We do have local growers who supply a lot of our plants, but we’ve also got a grower in Michigan and another in Florida for the large-scale tropicals,” she explains.

The hotel also has its own set of six greenhouses, which are mostly used for nursing sick plants back to health. One is entirely dedicated to propagating coleus and other cold-weather projects, another to store plants used in rental arrangements for conventions, and still another for events only.

Got a favorite color? Megan McDugald gets to change up the shades of the hotel's flower beds, inside and out, a few times a year.
Got a favorite color? Megan McDugald gets to change up the shades of the hotel’s flower beds, inside and out, a few times a year.

Putting the jolly in holly

And then we come to Christmas, or the special pleasures of wiring what seems like every branch and leaf of the hotel’s grounds with white lights in preparation for the Christmas season. Think you decorate for Christmas early? Unless you start in July, Opryland has you beat. Magnolia trees, holly bushes … nothing escapes the crew of longtime horticulturalists who start prepping for the holiday season while guests are sunning themselves poolside on 90+ degree days.

“I had very limited experience in Christmas lights, and certainly nothing on this large a scale,” McDugald says. “What surprised me is the time it takes to install it all and have it ready by mid-November, and the detail involved. Our team of four horticulturists who hang the lights have done it for years, and they are the best. I have learned a great deal from them.”

Snips one day, chainsaws the next

Something else McDugald had to get used to was how multistory palm trees do not always stay put. One evening she got a call just after 9 p.m. because a tree had begun to fall near an atrium walkway, so she and another horticulturist hopped to and, with the help of chainsaws, safely got it out of the way. Another time one of the palm trees that was original to the property toppled over, leading to another unexpected removal effort.

“It’s very sad when one that’s been there for more than 30 years falls over, but it happens,” she says. “After the flood in May 2010, we were surprised at how little was lost; at the most maybe 10% of the larger trees. But we continue to see the aftermath, where plants like the palms that have really shallow roots have shifted under the surface. It takes time for that to bring them down, so we do our best to discover the problem beforehand and try to fix it.”

Zombie Palm
What makes it a zombie palm? We don’t have the brains to figure it out.

No matter what is going on, everything McDugald and her crew do is under the watchful eye of thousands of hotel guests, who are eager to find out what’s going on.

“I love that part of it,” she says. “Gardens are a great place to get away and relax from the hustle of the work day.  At the same time, with 80 percent of our business being conventions, a lot of one-on-one business is taken place among the gardens.I love seeing the reaction on their faces as they walk into the gardens for the first time. A lot of the people have no idea what the Opryland Hotel is all about. It gives all the horticulturalists here a great sense of pride in our work.  I love hearing the stories about families that come every year to take their picture in front of the poinsettia Christmas tree or to see the poinsettia displays. I hear people tell me every day how lucky I am to have a job like this, and I really am. There’s just no other place like this for a landscaper.”

 

 

Gaylord Opryland’s Plants by the Numbers

  • 50,000 tropical plants1474152_delta_atrium_christmas_tree
  • 215 species in the Garden Conservatory
  • 449 species in the Cascades Atrium
  • Tallest palms are 60 feet high
  • Two 40-foot magnolias
  • 37 different species of tree

 

Gaylord Christmas by the Numbers

  • 2 million outdoor LED holiday lights; 20,000 strings of lights with 100 bulbs each
  • 189 miles: Distance lights would reach if laid end to end
  • 200,000 indoor holiday lights
  • 1 million visitors to the resort during the holidays each year
  • 15,000 poinsettias
  • 15 miles of green garland
  • 10 miles of hand-tied, red ribbon
  • 48-foot-tall Christmas tree
  • 1.5 million pounds of real snow at Arctic Plunge Snow Tubing
  • 2+ million pounds of ice for signature ICE! attraction
  • Nearly 7,000 giant blocks of colored ice
  • 40 ice artisans from Harbin, China

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