Growing An Island Oasis
Take a stroll through the eclectic and beach-friendly gardens of Sullivan’s Island, and learn about the beauty, majesty and challenges of gardening on a barrier island. By Wendy Sang Kelly Photos by Steve Rosamilia
In the context of people who regularly dig in the dirt, there’s a big difference between serious gardeners and those of us who merely enjoy gardening. Serious gardeners, for example, know the actual Latin names for plants and casually toss them around like Nerf balls. Those of us who merely enjoy gardening, on the other hand, are more apt to mumble the old standby, anaptotic I. forgotthenomium, (loose translation: it came in a pot; I forgot the name) and hope for the best.
But there’s another distinction, and it’s a critical one — sheer determination.
Precious few among us are as determined as a serious gardener. Because, even under the best of circumstances, gardening is chock full of challenges. First, there are so many unknowns … sun, wind, water, temperature, pests … you name it. And if your garden happens to be located on a barrier island? Well, then you may want to consider trading that statue of St. Francis for one of Chuck Norris, because your mettle is going to be tested.
Fittingly, overcoming the challenges of gardening on the coast was the theme of the 2017 Charleston Horticultural Society Gardens for Gardeners’ Tour, which took place on Sullivan’s Island last October. And almost as if on cue, the original tour had to be postponed due to Hurricane Matthew. Then, less than a month before the rescheduled date, Hurricane Irma decided to pop in for a wet and wooly visit. But no worries; the serious gardeners of Sullivan’s Islands would not be deterred. Did I mention sheer determination? Here, they tell us how they’ve grown as gardeners and share tips to overcome island-specific challenges.
After years of cultivating a downtown garden on Anson Street, in 2015 Peter and Patti McGee launched a brand-new endeavor on Sullivan’s Island with a new home, aptly dubbed, “Ebb Tide.”
What followed was Mother Nature’s trifecta: tropical storms, historic floods, and of course, a hurricane. Many plants were lost, but Patti prefers to focus on the successes. “We discovered the nicest little ground cover, Stomodea tormentors! It was completely underwater for days. But when the water receded, it looked just great,” Patti said.
Obviously, not everything can handle being submerged, or even having wet feet for very long. According to Patti, most of the Salvia didn’t survive the deluge and had to be replaced. But with its promise of a summer’s worth of brilliant cobalt flowers and the butterflies it attracts, replace it she did, with the help of Beth McGinty, Beverly Rivers, John Wise and Charlie Muier, who pitched in with design and labor.
On Scott and Ann Parker’s beachfront property, coexisting with nature is the name of the game. The Parkers opted for a largely naturalized yard, with simple dune fencing for delineation and screening. According to Scott, the biggest surprise came from the portions of the property that were essentially left untouched. “In the spring, there are native wildflowers everywhere. Had we cultivated those areas, we would have lost that,” he said.
During the design phase, one of the main priorities was ease of maintenance — perhaps music to the ears of budding gardeners. To that end, there is no turf grass and minimal irrigation at the Parker property — the entire landscape can be maintained without an engine. As far as drainage issues are concerned, the Parkers took a two-pronged approach; with virtually no poured concrete, most of the foundation material is permeable, which keeps excess water from pooling. They also designed a separate area with raised beds — perfect for growing herbs and a cutting garden, and it alleviates any worry about soil conditions or drainage, no matter what Mother Nature delivers.
The More the Merrier
Blaine and Cyndy Ewing’s half-acre garden is home to over one hundred different plant species, a feat not for the faint of heart. From the front of the property to the back are several garden “rooms” featuring perennials, tropical, a cottage garden, a shade garden, and a courtyard garden of container plants.
The Ewings’ collection of gingers alone is a testament to their determination and dedication. Thriving in their garden are Hesychius (Ginger Lily), curcumas (Hidden Ginger), and Dichorisandra Thyrsi flora (Blue Ginger which isn’t a true ginger, but the incredible color alone gives it a free pass). Working the same piece of property for over 15 years has its advantages, according to Blaine, “Everything in this garden was planted by me personally; fortunately, not all at once.”
When Elizabeth and Bill Craver bought their property over 20 years ago, it had very few trees; just one elm and a handful of palms, to be exact. In search of both shade and privacy, they began carefully and thoughtfully adding trees to their yard. The beautiful result is an insulating wall of shade that makes it hard to believe there’s a busy street on the other side of their treed sanctuary.
The Cravers biggest coastal challenge came a couple of years ago when Hurricane Matthew took down the grand oak that was the centerpiece of their shade garden. Ever determined, Elizabeth and Bill simply relocated the ferns and other shade-lovers to another part of the yard and re-imagined the newly sunny spot as the perfect place for a lush expanse of zoysia grass. Bordered by brightly colored beds overflowing with annual and perennial flowers, the Cravers new yard is a testament to the value of planting the right plant in the right spot.
Let it Rain
During the historic deluges of Hurricane Irma, Charlotte and Alan Artus crossed their fingers and held their breath. They knew their newly installed garden was about to be put through the wringer. Fortunately, the garden was designed by landscape architects Wertimer and Cline, who had the foresight to install French drains, strategically placed drenches (a method that can also be replicated without the help of professionals). Perhaps more importantly, the designers also incorporated rain gardens, which are essentially planted depressions that absorb excess water and runoff (another green and DIY-possible way to manage stormwater).
The rain gardens on the Artus’ property is planted primarily with water-lovers like papyrus. So even if the runoff remains in the rain garden for a few days, the plants are no worse for wear. In fact, they thrive. According to Alan, when the rains finally stopped, “Th ere was absolutely no standing water on the property. Th e system worked perfectly.”
Determined to Succeed
The gardeners of Sullivan’s Island featured on Charleston Horticultural Society Garden Tour serve as a living testament to the sheer determination of serious gardeners, and inspiration to those of us with grit and a glint in our eye. Neither sand, salt, drought, flood nor hurricane could break these gardens — bringing a beautiful, flourishing outdoor space to life is always achievable, no matter the landscape. In gardening, as in life, challenges are bound to arise.