Members of the private Garden of the Gods Club located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, experience one of the most beautiful natural settings in the country. The exclusive resort overlooks the Rocky Mountains, Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods Park. When not taking in the view, they enjoy deluxe accommodations, a 27-hole championship golf course, a fullservice spa and fine dining, among other amenities.
Founded more than 50 years ago, the Club offers those who visit the opportunity to experience the surrounding beauty and exceptional services. Yet, ambiance and splendor tell only part of the story. Behind the scenes, a professional hospitality staff works year round to maintain this beautiful property.
“We are in the hospitality business and that, in large part, determines how we maintain the grounds,” explains grounds department manager David Van Vliet. “All the departments work closely together to convey the proper image and provide exemplary service. Everyone here wears a uniform, and grounds crews are especially attentive to schedules and knowing when and where they can perform their maintenance services without disturbing members and their guests.”
That’s no small task considering the grounds department’s areas of responsibility and range of services it provides.
It Takes a Company
The resources needed to maintain the grounds at Garden of the Gods Club and nearby Kissing Camels Golf Course rival that of many fullservice landscape management companies. During the busy growing season, the grounds department and the golf course employ upwards of 60 people. The grounds department alone sports five divisions and, in addition to maintaining the Club and parts of the golf course, crews tend to several cottages, six private homes, and common areas adjacent to the golf course and Club.
A list of services is dizzying. Last year, for example, grounds crews planted nearly 24,000 annuals and made more than 5,000 maintenance stops to service 180 orchids and 1,000 roses in and around the Club facility. They applied more than 35,000 gallons of fertilizer and kept 11 tennis courts in top playing condition. When it snowed, crews cleared a mile of sidewalks, and during the holiday season they strung four miles of lights, equivalent to 64,000 bulbs. Maintaining an extensive irrigation system that supports the large expanse of turf and gardens, maintaining all perimeter fencing and ground lighting, policing the grounds and, of course, mowing are among other tasks.
“I can’t even guess how many acres of turf we mow,” says Van Vliet, who owned his own landscape contracting business for nine years prior to joining Garden of the Gods Club. Most of the mowing, he explains, is done by seven Walker Mowers, four equipped with 48-inch GHS decks and three with 48-inch sidedischarge decks. The Club has been using Walker Mowers since the early 1990s. Each one logs at least 25 hours a week mowing, in addition to having dethatching duties in the spring and pine needle pick-up for the GHS-equipped mowers in the fall.
Van Vliet goes on to tell that Ponderosa Pines are the primary pine-needle culprits, dropping approximately 300 cubic yards of them each year. “The mowers earn their keep just by cleaning them up,” he notes, adding that the mowers are also ideally suited for mowing around flower beds and getting under the low-hanging pines that line the long stretches of medians.
The Walker Mowers are part of a large fleet comprised of greens mowers, wide-area fairway mowers, aerators, sprayers, spreaders, tractors, and just about any other piece of equipment that maintains turf. “All told, we have approximately 230 pieces of equipment,” explains shop manager Ron O’Neil. “Keeping it all running is a full-time job for me and another technician.”
O’Neil, who has been with the Club for 20 years, says the Walkers are durable, noting that one of the older machines has somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 hours on it.
The grounds department strives to replace one of them every two years. He conveys this information while piloting a golf cart around the Kissing Camels Golf Course, a name, he explains, derived from an unusual rock formation in the Garden of the Gods Park. The park was dedicated in 1909 and is free to visitors who want a close-up look at beautiful red sandstone rock formations.
As O’Neil points out, many of the more dramatic formations, along with a spectacular view of Pikes Peak and the Rockies, are visible from many of the 27 holes. The view itself is worth a game of golf, even for less experienced duffers.
Details, Details, Details
Details help define excellence, whether the customer happens to be the owner of a high-end residential property or members of a luxury resort. “We like a clean, manicured look for the turf,” says Van Vliet. “Proper irrigating techniques, in combination with timely fertilizing and mowing, result in a nicelooking, lush green lawn.” Crews, he notes, deploy the GHS mowers in highvisibility areas where clipping removal is needed. Their side-discharge counterparts log most of their time maintaining common areas around the Club and at the golf course.
While giving the Walker Talk editor a tour of the grounds, he unconsciously replaces a stone that has strayed from a garden bed or pulls an errant weed. “I think the difference between a good-looking property and a great one is in the details,” Van Vliet continues. “The same theory applies to the accommodations and dining areas here. We import orchids every year from Hawaii for our guest rooms and lobby areas, and grow many of our own herbs on site to ensure that the kitchen has fresh herbs daily.”
Growing the herbs and supplying the Club with annuals and other flowering plants are the responsibilities of greenhouse manager Gary Schwieterman. “We grow more than a half dozen herbs, including oregano, dill, basil, thyme, rosemary, chives and mint,” says Schwieterman. “It’s something that members don’t really see, but it makes a difference. The effort is also cost-effective since we heat the greenhouse all winter anyway.” As he points out, the greenhouse also grows 60 percent of the 24,000 annuals planted each year and rotates orchids through several reblooming periods.
Window of Opportunity
Even though the Kissing Camel Golf Course is open year round, Colorado Springs has a relatively short growing season. When asked if and when annuals are changed out, both Van Vliet and field operations supervisor John Swanstrom just laugh. “This is not Florida,” says Swanstrom, who oversees the Club’s extensive irrigation system. “Our growing season is only four months long, which means we have a rather small window of opportunity to get the grounds looking in top shape. Our crews start mowing at 6:30 a.m. and work until 2:30 p.m. five days a week. They have to keep moving and be aware of areas such as the reflecting pool and terrace adjacent to the dining rooms where they can work for only an hour before lunch time.”
He continues, “We also have to accommodate our irrigating schedule, which right now is five days a week, as well. Training our seasonal employees, many of whom are interns from different countries, can also be a challenge. Most have a great work ethic, but they still have to become acquainted with the grounds and the equipment.”
Van Vliet agrees. “We have maps and legends for just about every inch of the grounds here, including the golf course, cottages and private residences. They come in handy for training and assigning crews.” He points to a wall map that outlines the Club. The green areas, he mentions, are all turf. “Again, I won’t hazard a guess as to how much grass we maintain, but there’s enough to keep our turf techs hopping throughout the summer. We also have a couple thousand trees that need pruning and other arbor care.”
How does maintaining the grounds at Garden of the Gods Club compare with operating his own business? “Actually, it’s not much different, other than reporting to a supervisor,” he muses. “I think most contractors who have been in business awhile understand that they, too, are in the hospitality business. Yes, having quality equipment, keeping it maintained and training employees are fundamental to success, but so, too, is having a good relationship with customers. Our customers here are the members, and keeping them satisfied is our top priority.”