September 28, 2022

The luxury hotel brand has been planting gardens on its properties since 2019. The most recent one—a 7-foot-tall terrarium filled with herbs—sits in the lobby of its Manhattan location.

Marriott Essex House, New York [Photo: courtesy Marriott]

The terrarium was designed by Lily Kwong, whose eponymous landscape design studio has previously worked with H&M, St-Germain, and the French fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra (who is also her cousin). The terrarium is part of a broader initiative called the JW Garden, for which the hotel chain plants fruits, vegetables, and herbs to use in its kitchen and spas.

Marriott Essex House, New York [Photo: courtesy Marriott]

To date, one-quarter of JW locations, or about 25 hotels, have gardens ranging in size from a small terrarium to a rooftop garden to a full greenhouse. Over the next few years, the company plans to plant a garden in every single one of its 103 properties. For the initiative to make a true impact, these gardens would need to be closer to a greenhouse than a terrarium, but at scale, the concept could help provide a model for self-sustaining hotels and restaurants around the world.

Lily Kwong [Photo: Liza Voloshin/courtesy Marriott]

In New York City, the terrarium is more of an art piece than a viable garden, and though the herbs will be harvested regularly, they’ll be coupled with a separate plant shelf in the hotel’s restaurant, where the chef can use varieties like mint, oregano, and rosemary for cocktails and spice rubs. Like the terrarium, this three-shelf system is located where guests can see it.

But the lobby is where the magic lies. Bursting with five variations of mint, plus thyme, rosemary, and flowering parsley, the miniature landscape sits in a custom-designed cherrywood cabinet about the size of a wardrobe. Herbs grow on a bed of stucco, locally foraged moss, and imposing rocks found in Brooklyn. Created by Brooklyn-based design studio Līmen, it features scalloped edges inspired by the columns in the hotel lobby. A hidden string of UV lights helps stimulate the herbs’ growth.

JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, California [Photo: courtesy Marriott]

The terrarium is Kwong’s third—and smallest—garden for JW Marriott. At the hotel in Palm Desert, California, her spa-adjacent garden, completed in January, features native plants and edible herbs chosen for their therapeutic benefits: Think sage for its antimicrobial properties, and cacti for skin irritations. “Before we had CVS and Whole Foods, the forest and the jungle were our medicine cabinets,” Kwong says.

JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, California [Photo: courtesy Marriott]

At the Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, completed in March, she designed an outdoor garden with benches, and four quadrants surrounding a giant planter overflowing with rosemary. “The JW brand is really committed to holistic well-being and creating these mindful moments, so I wanted to create this meditative circular inner sanctum where people could retreat,” Kwong says.

JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, Florida [Photo: courtesy Marriott]

The scale of Kwong’s projects may seem relatively small, but “a little bit goes a really long way, and that’s the beauty of the herbs,” she says. More important, her designs have helped put Marriott’s initiatives on the map. The impetus for the JW Garden program came from the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, in Florida, which built a chef’s garden right outside its restaurant in 2012; it also had a farm boasting chickens, ducks, and honeybees.

JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, Florida [Photo: courtesy Marriott]

Since then, the brand has grown a network of gardens across its entire portfolio. In downtown Shanghai, the JW Marriott Marquis has a rooftop garden, and in Italy, the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa includes a chef’s garden and an olive grove.

“The amount of space a hotel has will dictate how much they can grow and incorporate into the guest experience,” says Bruce Rohr, JW Marriott’s global brand leader. That part is key. Back in Manhattan, the JW hotel is located inside a 1930s art deco building with no outdoor space. This, combined with how important visibility was to the brand, explains why Kwong’s terrarium was placed in the lobby.

JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, Florida [Photo: courtesy Marriott]

Just how much of the produce at any JW hotel is sourced from the gardens remains unclear. And for the initiative to really make an impact, hotels would need a lot more space. But in the meantime, projects like Kwong’s help amplify the program and raise awareness about the importance of growing your own food.

“To me, these herb gardens are really like a portal into a reconnection with the rhythms of the land,” says Kwong, who started her own home garden last year (first with greens, then tomatoes and strawberries). “I find people can be quite landscape-blind, and it’s good to reconnect them to the incredible power and beauty of the natural world, and really put it on display.”