Managing a Floating Garden on The World’s Largest Cruise Ships

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My name is Thomas Brownlee and I’m the officer in charge of Horticulture and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas. I got started in the field of Horticulture when I was in 11th grade as a summer gardener while on break from high school in Southern California, where I was born and raised. My degree is in Ornamental Horticulture and I hold a “Certified Desert Landscape Professional” certificate from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix— one of the most prestigious certificates you can acquire in Arizona.

My whole career has been in the field of Public Park Maintenance Management, Commercial Landscape Maintenance Management and Resort Landscape Management. One day I got a call from Royal Caribbean asking if I was interested in a position managing Central Park. It took a few times for me to fully understand that this garden was on a ship. Long story short, I have one of those unique jobs that no one has ever heard of until they meet me. There are only three Landscape Specialists for our Oasis-class ships and I’m proud to be one of them.

RCI_AL-CentralPark01

I care for all live and artificial plants, and a big portion of this is, of course, Central Park. Royal Caribbean has a zero tolerance policy on pests. The only things permitted to move on the ship are guests and crew members. There are a few exceptions, such as service and emotional needs animals. There are also small birds, lizards and frogs that take up temporary housing in Central Park which are all considered bio-control as they naturally help me out with little plant insects. When we go to Europe next year, they will all be just fine. However, I will try to have the birds leave the ship as I do not want to introduce a Caribbean bird to Europe.

Right now, the park contains nearly 13,000 individual plants, vines, and groundcover seasonal flowers, including 56 trees representing a total of just over 100 species. All plants are contained within 46 planter beds plus two massive Living Walls containing 2,200 individually sized aluminum modules (containers). Plants are a mix of coastal and highland sub-tropical species, selected for their ability to survive and thrive both in Central Park’s three microclimates and in the geographical areas that Oasis sails. Other plants around the park are either native or grown through the Caribbean and South Florida. Many of them are common indoor plants.

I love to see our guests’ jaws drop when they first walk into Central Park. People just cannot fathom what they are seeing. They have heard about Central Park and they have a pre-conceived notion of what it may look like, but when they actually see it they are just speechless. I love giving the Garden Tours which are always interesting and there’s always lots of laughter. I get a lot of praise from the guests and it really gets me pumped up and excited.

A lot of guests get tricked by the ambient sounds in Central Park. From 6am to 6pm you will hear birds and from 6pm to 6am it switches to crickets. Interestingly enough, Royal Caribbean has a funny sense of humor. If you’re on Allure of the Seas throughout the day you will hear birds but you will also hear an occasional donkey, a dog barking, a flock of Canadian geese and a few other animal sounds that are impossible to have on a ship. Some guests will be sitting at the Trellis Bar having a few cocktails and when they hear a donkey the look on their faces is priceless. It’s at that point that someone will make a comment like, “Hey, did you just hear that donkey?” with the spouse replying “I think you have had quite enough to drink.”

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Managing a floating garden on the world’s largest cruise ships makes for a very fluid environment. I have three full time gardeners (horticulturists) who maintain Central Park, the Solarium on Decks 15, 16 and 17, Oasis Dunes (our miniature golf course), various artificial plants throughout the ships and the IPM program. We have a very solid schedule. Each week my gardeners will perform two different inspections which take them throughout the entire vessel. One inspection alone covers 132 different areas. One can easily walk up to 10 miles on these inspections in just one day. I wore a pedometer once and clocked 8.9 miles. Each horticulturist is responsible for one third of Central Park. One horticulturist also takes care of the Solarium first thing in the morning before the sunbathers come out.

“Turn-Around Days” (Saturday at Port Everglades), are extremely challenging. All 6,400 guests get off the ship and 45 minutes later a new group of 6,400 get onboard. We have a very tight window to prepare the park for new guests. I also have to go to the terminal before any new guests can enter to ensure that it has been properly sanitized and treated as part of the ship’s Outbreak Prevention Plan (OPP). Additionally, if I have ordered replacement plants, I have to inspect the shipment on the pier for pests before it can be loaded onto the vessel. Then the three gardeners and I have to get the plants in the elevator and up to Central Park, unwrapped and placed—but not planted (planting happens over the next two days). At the end of the day when we set sail at 5pm, we’re exhausted, but it’s a lot of fun in hindsight.


Being open minded, patient and creative are important personal strengths for this job. Remember that there are hundreds of books that teach you all about gardening on land but not one book that tells you how to do it on a ship at sea. What works on land may not work on the ship and visa-versa so there’s lots of trial and error. If something fails we try to figure out why and then try another plant that we think will work best for that given spot. Guests and co-workers often stop me and ask if I am okay because I am known for staring at a planter bed or looking up at the Living Walls in deep thought. I am forever brainstorming.

With 36 years of working in the field of Horticulture, I’m often asked for gardening tips. Overwatering is the number one cause of problems in the garden. If in doubt, you’re probably overwatering. Plants are smart—they will tell you when something is wrong. You just have to be very patient and keep your eyes wide open to look for tell-tale signs. Another great tip is for fertilizing. I always tell people to fertilize twice a month at half the recommended rate on pay days. Why pay days? Because you never forget pay day and therefore you’ll never forget to fertilize. Your plants will thank you for that. Another great tip is when planting herbs or vegetables. If you get a great yield from your crop that’s great, but if it fails just make a note so that when the following planting season comes around, you can try something different. A successful garden is all about patience. I am also a huge promoter of going organic in the garden.

 

  • Caroline Reeve

    I experienced an amazing family (5) holiday in April on Oasis, on the Eastern Caribbean cruise……walking through Central Park to get to the dining room, was the perfect way to be sheltered from the wind, and arrive at the restaurant without feeling wind battered……..we would really love to holiday with Royal Caribbean again! Hubbie and I are wondering if we could spend a couple of days on Oasis next summer to celebrate our 20th Wedding anniversary – Will you be releasing sampler cruises on Oasis from the UK when she comes to Europe in 2014? It would be the perfect way for us to celebrate! Please let me know…….it would be wonderful if we could have this to look forward too.

  • https://www.facebook.com/tammyann1963 Tammy Anderson

    I loved the artical and think it is a very hard job. I’m a Polk County Master Gradener with a Landcscape certification.
    Thanks again Tammy

    • http://www.royalcaribbean.com Adam

      Thanks for reading, Tammy!

  • Roberta Ware

    Do you grow the mint used to garnish drinks and foods? If not, how is it stored so that it looks fresh even on the last day of the cruise?

    • Tom Brownlee

      Hi Roberta,

      No, we do not grow mint on the Ship. It is against USDA regulations. I cannot grow any Agricultural products and similarly, Guests cannot bring on or take off Agricultural products at a Cruise/Airport Terminal. The typical species is Mentha spicata and it is cut and bagged fresh for us and we keep in our coolers. Also try the following Mint in your drinks just to be different BUT grow it in pots and not the ground as it can be invasive:

      Chocolate Mint
      Lemon Mint
      Moroccan Mint
      Banana Mint
      Egyptian Mint
      Apple Mint
      Habek Mint
      Pineapple Mint

      Enjoy,

      Tom – Landscape Specialist
      Oasis & Allure of the Seas

  • Cee

    Dear Mr Brownlee,

    Your article about managing the floating gardens/Central Park on the Alure of the Seas is very well written and inspiring. On the point that throughout your training and other experiences there were numerous books about gardening on land – but nothing on gardening at sea; I posit that you ought to write the [missing] book or series of books.

    My three daughters are currently cruising that ship, which made me curious about it. In researching the features etc, I came upon the article and thouroughly enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing.

    • Tom Brownlee

      Hi Cee,

      Thanks for your comments. I hope Central Park inspires you to have fun in your Garden. Yes, I am thinking about “The Book”

      Enjoy

      Tom – Landscape Specialist
      Oasis & Allure of the Seas

  • Rebecca Wells

    Sooooo interesting. I have a green thumb and am an avid gardener. I loved this article, Thanks so much, I take our first cruise on Allure in May and cannot wait to get to Central Park!

    I always wondered about the plants. Thanks again Mr. Brownlee.

    BecciBoo

    • Tom-Landscape Specialist

      Hi Rebecca,

      Hope to see you in May. I should be there.

      Tom.

  • http://RoyalCaribbean Steve

    I had done the inaugural “Oasis of the Seas” back in December of 2009 and I was amazed at Central Park. Everytime we went somewhere on the ship, I had to walk thru the park. I always sat there in the morning with my coffee people watching and gazing at the plantings. It is absolutely spectacular and would love to see how it’s grown these past 4 years.

    • Tom-Landscape Specialist

      Hi Steve,

      Well, the park has really filled in and lots of color. Soon we will be crossing the Pond as we head in to Rotterdam for Dry-Dock refurbishment where Central Park will receive a face-lift. Hope to see you back on Oasis.

      Tom

  • Linda Mayer

    We’ve been on the Oasis twice and the Allure once and have marveled at everything but, since we live in NYC, we were particularly amazed at Central Park! We were on the August 23rd sailing this year of the Oasis with our children and grandchildren and couldn’t wait to see their expressions when we walked into the “park”. They were speechless! We had some good-natured “discussions” over the course of the week as to whether or not those sounds we were hearing were from live birds or recordings. It added another layer of fun to what was already a once-in-a-lifetime family vacation! Thank you to you and your staff for all the hard work, detail and expertise you have put into one of the most beautiful – and realistic – neighborhoods of the Oasis! We have visited and enjoyed the real Central Park in NY many times and are now proud to say we’ve done the same in the only Central Park at sea! Thank you from my entire family!

    Linda

    • Royal Caribbean International

      Hi Linda, We’re so glad you enjoyed your vacation with us. As we tried our best to make Central Park as authentic as possible, it’s the best compliment when NYC locals give us their stamp of approval! If you loved the Oasis and Allure, you might want to check out the new Quantum of the Seas. Did you know it’ll be sailing out of Bayonne? Not too far from you!