Vail gardener in touch with his plants |

Vail gardener in touch with his plants

Tamara Miller
NWS Sonnenalp Gardener BH 5-26 Vail Daily/Bret Hartman Scott McClarrinon tends to the Sonnenalp gardens Wednesday in Vail. McClarrinon has helped the Sonnenalp win awards for their gradens over 11 years.

Neither magic spells nor optical illusions are responsible for the award-winning design of the Sonnenalp Resort’s gardens.The grass is plush and green, the shrubs full and the white tulips that border the front walkway stand tall, with nary a withered petal. It’s late May – early in Vail’s growing season.Those who know say the person responsible for the Vail Village hotel’s enviable landscaping is Scott McClarrinon, a friendly-faced tall, lanky blond who can be found crouching over a bed of purple flowers.But no, he said, he’s not the plant whisperer.”It’s more trial and error,” he said. “I plant something, it will die and I try to find out why it died.”Plants don’t die very often at the upscale hotel on Vail Road, which is why McClarrinon gets so much respect from fellow gardeners.”The gardens, they are all immaculately maintained,” said Nicola Ripley, horticulture director for the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. The Sonnenalp Resort has won awards for commercial landscaping during the Alpine Garden’s Vail Valley Festival of Flowers. “He is out there all the time with his wheel barrow,” Ripley added. “The other amazing thing about them that I’ve noticed is the gardens there are the first to bloom in the spring.” The Arkansas native has an eye for detail and, McClarrinon said, some believe that his sense of sight may be stronger because he is 90 percent deaf.”I’m not sure if that’s the case,” he said. “It’s just who I am. I pay attention to detail. I’m always learning, always applying what I learned.”

Passion becomes professionMcClarrinon lost most of his hearing when he contracted spinal meningitis at age 3. McClarrinon said he had already learned most of his vocabulary by then. He wears a hearing aid, but doesn’t use sign language often. He reads lips instead and responds to questions with clear, articulate answers, usually tinged with a bit of humor.”I look better, I notice things,” he said, pointing at a sedum plant. “I can’t hear the plants. I can’t hear them say, ‘I need water.’ I know you don’t need water because I just watered you.”He grew up in Fayetteville, Ark., a college town nestled in the lush Ozark Mountains. He studied environmental science in college, but gardening was always more of a hobby – or a chore handed out by his parents. Either way, he enjoyed it.Like many drawn to the Vail Valley, McClarrinon sought a job that would allow him to work outside. He thought working at a ski resort would be a good place to start and said one of the reasons he probably ended up in Vail was because the resort company had a job phone line set up for TDD machines – a telecommunication device for the hearing-impaired. He landed a job and while working at Mid-Vail he meet someone who did the gardening for the Sonnenalp Golf Course. And to make a long story short, McClarrinon has been on the landscape team of the Sonnenalp Resort for about 11 years. He works in the purchasing department at the Two Elk Lodge on Vail Mountain during the winter”It was just luck, just knowing the right people,” he said. The perpetual student

Only about 10 percent of McClarrinon’s gardening success is due to research. He tries things out and tries to figure out why when something doesn’t work. He picks up tips from other gardens and other gardeners – things like grouping plants or colors together. “If you do a plant here, and a plant there, it will be pretty,” he said. “But it won’t have impact.”The arid, variable mountain climate in Vail presents numerous gardening challenges, McClarrinon said. Plants must be watered everyday. Sprinkler systems don’t always hit every inch of garden, either. Then there are concerns about the occasional overnight frost. “The soil always has to be worked on,” he said. “The weather is always changing. You never know if it’s going to be a hot and dry year.”To combat the dry, crumbly soil that persists on some portions of the property, McClarrinon uses soil conditioners like peat moss and compost. But one of his biggest frustrations doesn’t have to do with soil or water at all.”See the wires around the trees,” McClarrinon points out. “It’s to keep beavers away.”Because the Sonnenalp borders Gore Creek, beavers would frequently crawl onto the property and gnaw on the trees. Not anymore.”I think I frustrated them to the point that they’ve gone somewhere else,” he said.Color craving

McClarrinon believes gardening at 8,000 feet above sea level in many ways is easier than gardening in the hot, humid climes of his boyhood home. Bugs – a constant concern for Arkansas gardens – aren’t as much of a problem in Vail. For one thing, the growing season is too short for bugs to settle in and ruin plants and flowers.Most of the plants and flowers in the gardens are perennials – which bloom every year, but McClarrinon said he hopes to plant more annuals this year. While these flowers must be re-planted every year, they provide the tremendous amount of color that he is looking for. McClarrinon owes a lot of the garden’s success to his crew – particularly, three-year crew veteran Ernesto Grane. McClarrinon met Grane while working at Two Elk. The two immediately discovered several things in common: a love for the outdoors and a love for gardening. Grane also is hearing-impaired. “Ernesto has an incredible eye for detail,” McClarrinon said. “He’s even better than me.”Both put in full, eight-hour days working on the gardens. They take pride in their work and want to do better. “We’re never satisfied,” Grane said. “(McClarrinon) is very good with people,” Grane added. “He’s resourceful, patient. He’s honest and he’s very delicate with his work. We’re delicate with our work.”McClarrinon simply enjoys what he does.”It’s fun to come out and take care of something,” he said, “to see it thrive and be rewarded for it.”Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.

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