Run for the Roses: Kentucky Derby Blooms!
Meet the horticulture team behind one of the most extravagant events around.
After more than 140 years of high-energy races, you're guaranteed to see at least three things at Churchill Down the first weekend in May – fanfare, fashion and lots of flowers.
The “Run for the Roses,” named after the 2 ½-foot garland of roses the winner receives, attracts thousands of guests each year. Derby Day attendees are greeted by a dazzling display of flowers and plants carefully selected by Churchill Downs’ very own horticulture department.
At the head of the pack is Matt Bizzell, director of horticulture. A lifetime gardener with 18 years at Churchill Downs, Matt and his team design everything from tulip beds to whimsical topiaries for the 147-acre racetrack.
Okay, first things first: How did you get into horticulture?
I was a kid that was always attracted to the country and being outdoors. My mother loved to garden and saved money each winter to buy annuals in the spring for our house. She always took me to the local nursery to buy them and let me help her plant them when we got home. Also, both of my grandmothers had vegetable and ornamental gardens.
Could you give us a quick rundown of your day-to-day?
I meet with my crew each morning and discuss the day’s plans and goals. Then I usually help them get started and make sure they have what they need to work safely and efficiently. I try to visit every site where we have plants at least once a week to ensure things look good and see what work is needed or if there are any problems developing. We have such a large property and so many cultivated areas that it is difficult to evaluate everything once a week. I continue to communicate with my staff throughout the day and plan our work for tomorrow.
Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs
'Black Pearl' peppers are loved by home gardeners, professionals and hot pepper enthusiasts alike, so it's no surprise the plant has found a home in the Churchill Downs greenhouse and landscape.
What are you most excited for this year?
Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs
Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web' makes itself at home in the Churchill Downs greenhouse. It features a unique, white variegation on the leaves that resembles — you guessed it — a spider web.
We change up our annuals every year and always use new varieties that are on the market. It is always fun to see how the new plants do here and what our guests have to say about them. I love the South, so I am always excited about our tropical plants. We buy new ones each year and save the best ones in our greenhouse over the winter so that we have some large specimens for Derby Day. We typically do informal plantings of a mix of annuals, perennials, tropicals, grasses, trees and shrubs to give year-round interest to a facility that is always on display.
Have you faced any problems this year while planning?
No problems this year…yet. Weather is always our biggest issue. We open the last Saturday of April and need to have most of our plantings finished at that time. In the Louisville area there is still a good chance of frost, so we have to wait until the forecast looks good and then start planting at the last minute. This year the spring has been kind to us and we started a week earlier than normal, and when you have 20,000 plants to put in the ground by the first Saturday in May a week makes a huge difference.
How do you spend the week surrounding the Kentucky Derby? How many people are on your team? I’m sure you have lots of volunteers.
We spend the week of Derby making last minute adjustments, repairing areas that get damaged by staff, vendors, patrons or horses, caring for our plants that are in reserve in the greenhouse, delivering plants to our temporary seating that is only used the weekend of Derby, and keeping the parking lots and perimeter of our property clean. There are eight full-time staff members including myself and one temporary worker that helps during the planting season. We have Seneca High School’s agriculture students help us plant a large rooftop garden and Eastern High School’s JROTC program helps us clean up the parking lots and surrounding areas after Oaks and Derby.
I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby. If you had one word to describe the scene, what would it be?
Is there anything your team is planning (or growing) for future years that you can share with us?
We are growing 12 enormous hanging baskets of staghorn ferns that won’t be ready until next year.
Red Dragon Wing Begonia
Large oval leaves earn ‘Dragon Wing’ its name. Tall arching stems give this plant a fountainous look that’s perfect in a container. In planting beds, ‘Dragon Wing’ begonia forms a dense mound 15 to 18 inches tall and wide. Look for flowers in pink or red. Give plants deep shade to light sun.
Do you have any words of encouragement for beginning gardeners?
Make friends with a gardener and learn from them. Gardeners are naturally nurturing people that will share their plants and knowledge with you.
A fun one: What’s your spirit flower? (Mine is blanket flower.)
I don’t have a spirit flower, but I think we’d all agree that Churchill Downs’ spirit flower is the red rose in honor of the “Run for the Roses.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
Our horticulture department is small in comparison to the amount of property that we maintain. I am constantly amazed at their talents and dedication to this place. I am proud to be on their team.