Labor of love

Working by horse and hand, Barnwell Landscape and Garden Services designs and builds stunning resort displays using innovative techniques.

April 21, 2011
Kristen Hampshire
Industry News

Unable to use automobiles or heavy machinery, Barnwell Landscape and Garden Services uses bikes and carts to haul material and equipment. Karen Barnwell loads a cart for a day's work.


Jack Barnwell often tells his crew to “think like an Egyptian” while unloading and planting by hand everything from flats of annuals to 20-foot maple trees with 4-foot-wide burlap balls. The old-fashioned way is protocol on Mackinac Island, Mich., a throwback resort community that banned the “horseless carriage” (we know them as automobiles) in the early 1900s when the popping, backfiring engine noise scared horses.

The ban stuck. And today, landscapers like Jack Barnwell, president, Barnwell Landscape and Garden Services, have a slim two-week window of time at the beginning or end of the vacation season to use machinery for digging foundations and such. The rest of the backbreaking labor must be done by horse and hand.

This requirement has actually inspired Barnwell to work smarter and invent ways of hauling materials (by bike cart), placing step-sized boulders (by pulley) and placing plant material by hand. “Look at some of the most monumental, beautiful structures in the world and all over Europe,” Barnwell says. “There are huge, stone sculptures and arches and incredible bridges that were built before there were excavators, front-end loaders and forklifts. There was knowledge of how to do things without killing yourself,” he jokes. “And unfortunately, that art has been forgotten because there is an easier way (with machinery). I feel really blessed that I have been forced to relearn some of these alternatives to doing the work we do.”

Specifically, the work Barnwell Gardens does is create and maintain the Signature Garden – a concept Barnwell developed in conjunction with grower Proven Winners – at the Hotel Iroquois, an intimate Victorian-style boutique hotel known for its quaint, cottage gardens.

“The exposure of having larger hotel/resort properties as clients has allowed us to really show off our unique gardening concepts,” says Barnwell, whose artistic imagination is sparked by everything from interesting fabrics to architecture and color combinations he spots anywhere and everywhere. Not surprisingly, he looks to historic building/engineering feats for inspiration. “And then I try to translate that to my small world of plants and place,” he says. “It makes for some pretty wild days.”
Low tech, high impact

A wild day as defined by Barnwell goes something like this: figuring out how to install 35 stone steps, using gigantic boulders and rock walls, on a sloped property. Each step is 6-8 inches thick and 3-4 feet deep. The landscape slopes down toward the water’s edge of Lake Michigan.

The first order of business: Set up a staging area for the horses to enter and turn around. The next challenge is how to get those boulders into place by hand. Barnwell decides to build a series of slides and a pulley system to ease the boulders down the slope and into position. “We didn’t have to disturb any of the site whatsoever with an excavator,” he says of the project. “When the staircase was done, it looked like it had been there for 100 years – the mossy boulders right next to the staircase were untouched because we didn’t have to get in there with machinery and hardly any guys.”

The entire staircase was built by four people.

That’s some serious manpower. But Barnwell maintains that this hard labor is actually cheaper than using equipment. Think about it. When you own expensive machinery, you need billable hours to keep that iron working hard for your bottom line. Then there are rising gas prices, which increase the cost of using that equipment. Plus, on Mackinac Island, the cost of ferrying equipment from the mainland is exorbitant – and there’s that limited time before and after the season when using machinery is allowed. “The permits are so expensive that, at the end of the day, it’s more cost effective to use our methods for doing heavy-duty work by hand,” Barnwell says.

For example, Barnwell designed and built lightweight aluminum garden carts that attach to bicycles. “Everything we do is by bicycle,” he says. Tools and materials are transported to job sites this way. A single cart can carry 20 flats of flowers, six hanging baskets and a day’s worth of tools. “You can imagine with six people towing carts like that, we can carry a huge amount of plant material and tools around the island really quickly,” he says.  

These bicycle carts allow Barnwell to cut down on labor and keep costs down. “We don’t have to charge for the extra load time, drive time, equipment and truck costs and everything else,” he says.

Barnwell’s low-tech approach produces high-impact results at sites like Hotel Iroquois, where container gardens sprinkle scent and texture throughout the property, and the creation of micro climates and tempting pocket gardens lure guests into the magic of Mackinac Island. “Gardens from one to the next within the landscape to make a small garden seem huge,” Barnwell says of the property, noting that the actual size is smaller than other resorts, but the attention to detail is what makes it special.

Barnwell has abandoned the typical geranium flower pot, which was standard issue on Mackinac Island for many years. He infuses designs with Proven Winners brand plants that require less deadheading and general care and offer a refreshing variety.

“When Proven Winners and other growers started putting a lot of advanced science into (their flowers), suddenly we had an incredible palette of colors, textures, shapes and sizes to play with,” Barnwell says. “And there really wasn’t anyone here on the island taking advantage of that.”

Barnwell encourages landscape designers to think beyond usual suspect plants and personalize spaces for clients. “Firms get into a rubber stamp rhythm where they have their formula and that’s what they do,” he says. “Customers are really looking for something unique, something different and on a smaller scale to pique their interest.”
A proven winner

Nurturing a positive relationship with growers over time has helped Barnwell’s success. When he started his firm four years ago, he had three clients and help from friends and family during planting season. Most days, he worked alone. By the second summer, business was ramping up and Barnwell’s lead crew boss Mary McWatters joined him.

“In the beginning, we wanted to focus on the resort-like summer show produced by annual flowers while adhering to a classic cottage garden style reminiscent of the Victorian perennial gardens of that age,” he says of Mackinac’s history.

His style caught on fast. By year three, Barnwell had more than 50 clients and, today, his firm is the largest landscape/design company on the island. “We still specialize in innovative annual flower installations, planting thousands of thousands of flats in the spring,” he says.

The company also manages and installs large-scale installations like Hotel Iroquois and maintains landscapes, residential and commercial. But what has really forwarded the firm’s success is its partnership with Proven Winners, Barnwell says. One of Proven Winners’ partners and owner had been visiting Mackinac for years. He noticed Barnwell’s work and invited the landscape designer to the Proven Winners’ growing operation.

“It was quite exciting,” Barnwell says of the opportunity to establish a direct grower relationship with Proven Winners.

Then the idea sharing began. Barnwell collaborated with Proven Winners to establish the concept of Signature Gardens, which are premiere locations such as Hotel Iroquois that showcase Proven Winners varieties. The Iroquois wins recognition for its showstopping design, and Proven Winners gains exposure by being spotlighted on renowned properties.

“One of the benefits to the Signature Garden Program is that Proven Winners prints stunning color brochures about the gardens and plants I have chosen,” Barnwell says. “This has made the gardens a more interactive part of the guest experience and helped improve overall guest satisfaction with their stay.”

Hotel guests like that they can take home Barnwell’s plant list and try their hand at mimicking the look. “I think it’s really important for gardeners and landscapers that we do everything we can to encourage other people to give it their best effort – to educate, empower and inspire,” he says.

This is one of three stories that appeared in Lawn & Landscape's Business Builder e-newsletter. To continue reading about Barnwell Landscape and Garden Services:

Guiding green-thumb guests: Tours of the grounds at Hotel Iroquois offer practical landscaping tips.

Planting Mackinac at home: Jack Barnwell explains his garden design techniques