Gardener sees casino as a canvasWritten by Colby Dunn
Twelve thousand. That’s how many annuals Zeke Cooper and his crew have installed in the last month in and around the hotel and casino, adding summery punches of color to the landscape and bringing some organic life to the gleaming interiors at Harrah’s.
Cooper, the grounds supervisor, is in charge of the living décor at the casino, the thousands upon thousands of plants that dot the grounds and fill beds in every building.
That 12,000-strong installation he just completed will happen three more times in the next year, as the seasons change and the flowers wither. When they come out of the ground, some will go to the compost pile and some will get new homes in other venues around the property. They’ll all be replaced by a new design, planned six or more months in advance.
“It’s a little overwhelming sometimes,” says Cooper, whose background is in landscape architecture. “There’s probably a mixture of tens of thousands of plants. Right now in the hotel alone there’s over a thousand annual begonias. That’s coming probably in a three to five week cycle, constantly changing out.”
Simply put, Cooper is in charge of all the plants and everything that’s outside. He and his crew of seven keep the parking garages clean, the plants watered and growing, the live installations constantly pruned and changed with the weather.
They start at 6:30 every morning, scouring the grounds, looking for things like plant problems and trash and weed encroachment. Everybody has a section and they spend the morning looking for problems and the rest of the day fixing them.
Because of its picturesque mountain setting, it’s almost a challenge in itself to make Harrah’s match the natural beauty that surrounds it.
And with the new expansion, the landscape — in the shape of a rushing creek running through the heart of the hotel and casino complex — is now a part of Harrah’s itself.
It’s Cooper’s job to take advantage of that, working behind the scenes to make the outdoor areas change seamlessly from winter to spring, summer back into fall.
In the sometimes-harsh winters of the Western North Carolina mountains, keeping a lively, colorful horticultural atmosphere is not always easy.
“There’s a lot of science behind it and a lot of study and education behind everything we do,” says Cooper, and then there’s old-fashioned trial-and-error, too.
“It’s a fickle thing,” he says. “Sometimes you think you’re putting them in the right area and then they’re not going to do anything.”
It’s a process of learning things like microclimates — plants plopped down next to a parking garage might as well be in a desert, thanks to the heat radiating from the car-filled building — and color wheels.
Got a red building? It’s best to pair it with whites and yellows. For rust, go with brighter reds.
And then you get creative. What will look lively in the bitter cold of winter? Maybe red twig dogwood; the blooms will be gone, but the deep red branches are their own kind of winter art.
Like any artist, each landscape architect has their own creative flair. Cooper likes going for the big effect.
“I like to do large, vast blocks of color,” he says. “It just kind-of makes a larger impact.”
The impact, at Harrah’s, is key, especially when they’re trying to wow patrons who have frequented the place for years. Keeping it fresh is a challenge on multiple levels, and as the place blossoms into an ever-more-massive resort, it’s the details that will give the biggest impact.
“Because the property is so vast, there’s a lot of areas that haven’t been really detailed in the past just because it is so big,” says Cooper.
You may never see a Harrah’s groundskeeper, but look anywhere and you’ll probably see their work.
A masterful game of musical chairs