EARTH, WIND, AND FIRE ISLAND
By Amber Freda
by Marlene Roth
"My yard is like a penal colony. My wife moves rocks
from one side of the yard to the other and back again." -Tony Manzo, Resident of Kismet
Gardening on Fire Island is not for the feint of
heart. If the deer, wind, sun, and sand don't manage to kill it in the
first year, your little plant might just be tenacious enough to make it to the
final episode of 'Survivor.' That is, if it makes it through the next
winter's round of nor'easters.
Can someone please tell me why we humans are stubborn
enough to insist upon having a garden that can survive gail-force
winds, torrential rains, voracious mongrel deer, scorching sun, and
throat-parching sprays of sand and salt? And, what are the odds that any
living thing could survive, much less thrive, in such conditions?
With our shoulders squared, chins lifted, we simply ignore
the odds and soldier on as we bring out the truckloads of top
soil to lay on top of the sand in the hopes that something other than
beach grass might someday grow around our homes. We experiment with
dozens of plants before finding one golden variety that grows in spite of
everything. Then, we immediately rush out to buy 10 more of that exact
same plant as we exalt in our tiny success.
Aliens observing us from above would surely find these
antics amusing, but how could any other living creature possibly know the
simple pleasure of a garden, a paradise on earth? Who could possibly
anticipate the purely human joy found in the act of nurturing and subsequent
growth of a tiny seed, or the sublime scent of a flower in bloom? These
fruits of our labor seem worthwhile at any cost, and the pleasure we derive
from them may be an experience that is entirely human.
This brings me back to a class in landscape design I once
took through the New York Botanical Garden on the History of Gardening.
We studied the concept of the paradise garden, which first arose in the
unlikely sands of the Middle East. People who are surrounded by adversity
in arid conditions have historically had the greatest desire for the soothing,
lush abundance of an impossible garden. It would seem that a garden on
Fire Island truly is a continuation of my study of this botany of desire.
I asked my father-in-law, Tony Freda, also a resident of
Kismet, for his thoughts on gardening on Fire Island.
"It is the perfect environment for container gardening,"
he said. "Either sand or bogs is what you get here."
It does make sense to create smaller, more carefully
controlled environments for plants by using containers. You can bring in
small amounts of potting soil yourself and grow any manner of tempting tropicals or edible plants without having to worry about
them becoming deer chow, and even set up an automated drip irrigation system to
take care of the watering for you. Imagine the possibilities! I
started to wonder just how many container plants you could possibly have on one
deck. What about staggering layer upon layer of hanging pots along the
entire sides of your deck -- why, you could have the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
recreated right on your back porch.
For those who enjoy a greater challenge, there is still the
question of what to plant in the garden itself. One thing that seems
impossible to kill is bamboo. Charlie Flicker, another Kismet resident,
spent years trying to eradicate the bamboo from his yard. It's a little
bit funny to me to think of him desperately trying to destroy a plant that many
of my Manhattan clients covet so much they will pay anywhere from $100-200 per
clump for the stuff. Maybe Charlie and I should go into business
Other plants that seem to do really well here are the
creeping junipers, which even grow in pure sand, barberries, bayberry, white
pines, catmint, ornamental grasses, montauk daisies,
Russian sage, vitex, tangerine cross vine, wisteria,
daylilies, and scotch brooms. If you are not directly on the ocean and
you have some decent soil, there are lots of flowering annuals to choose from
that will bloom heartily for you all through the warm months, including
alyssum, snapdragons, marigolds, geraniums, and lobelia.
Ornamental grasses tolerate even the harshest beach
conditions and are a natural fit in any seascape. Look for miscanthus sinensis cultivars,
especially 'Zebrinus.' a 5-6' upright grass with striped foliage; 'Cabaret,' a
5-6' cascading grass with white variegation and reddish plumes that turn creamy
with age; 'Cosmopolitan,' a 5-6' cascading grass with broad white stripes
running the length of each leaf; ''Gracillimus,' classic thin-leaved grass 5-6'
tall and cascading habit; 'Morning Light,' a 4-5' thin-leaved grass with narrow
stripes running through leaves for a silvery appearance; and 'Purpurascens,' a
3-4' tall upright grass with foliage that turns a reddish color on the leaf
tips in late summer.
After completing your sentence in the Fire Island penal
colony, you can take heart in knowing that an oasis can bloom in any
desert. Good luck and happy gardening!