Island Gardening: A Myriad of Approaches
Story and Photo
By Ashraya Gupta

Seemingly like everything else on Fire Island, gardening takes a little bit of effort and a lot of creativity. Faced with high salinity levels, annual tidal surges and adorable but pesky deer populations, Fire Islanders have adopted many unique ways of planting and tending gardens in this often hostile environment.

There are those who simply refuse to accept it. Hiring a landscape company to clear out the indigenous growth and plant a readymade garden, these people can sometimes have unrealistic expectations. Most professional landscapers encourage their clients to maintain some existing foliage—replanting, especially in this coastal environment, is not easy. It requires uprooting plants and starting from scratch in the sandy soil of Fire Island. But these “instant gardens,” planted and often maintained by landscapers, persist.

The majority of people, however, are willing to work with what they can get. Embracing the unusual coastal conditions, they use plants suited to the seashore. Choosing native plants is both environmentally friendly and cost effective. The National Park Service recommends such shrubs as highbush blueberry, shadblow and pitch pine. These indigenous plants require less maintenance and are more likely to thrive. Many of them also discourage deer from entering the garden. Other deer-resistant plants favored by Fire Islanders include snapdragons, vincas and dusty miller. Some gardeners suggest mixing these deer-resistant plants with others in the garden. Many, however, choose to fence in their gardens to completely close access. These gardens still have to deal with other coastal conditions. Plants often have to be rinsed free of salt and they face the risk of flooding due to tidal surges.

This past winter, storms on the island hurt some gardens, while hardly impacting others. Harvey Levine, owner of Seasons Bed & Breakfast and the Community Garden of Ocean Beach, said he encountered no problem—after all, many of the flowers were annuals and his perennials were hardy enough to handle it. Presently, Levine’s roses are in full-bloom.

In Saltaire, however, two Nor’easters last October had particular impact on the low-lying regions along the bay. The storms resulted in saltwater inundation in areas the water normally can’t reach. Brendan Reynolds at R.K. Landscapes, Inc., based in Fair Harbor, explained that Saltaire has lots of marshland, including freshwater marshland, which is particularly sensitive to the increased salinity. Many trees became defoliated and Reynolds received many frantic phone calls asking what had happened. Reynolds explained that the loss of leaves was due to saltwater penetration into the root system. Asked how to deal with the damaged trees, Reynolds said, “It’s sort of a waiting game.” He suggests pruning them back to deal with the dead sections and giving them lots of fresh water in the dry season.

Preventive measures to deal with such storms include raised or walled gardens. In Seaview, Peter Cercy at Gardening By the Bay is busy walling in a client’s bayfront garden. Directly facing the water, bayfront and oceanfront properties are at greater risk during storms. The landscaping company has done extensive construction on a three-foot wall along the bay and has added a secondary wall with gravel to further break the momentum of any potentially destructive waves. Cercy also encourages property grading, or the building up of sand on one side to allow for sufficient drainage and runoff. On a flat surface, the saltwater will collect; an incline prevents this.

Some hardy shrubs Cercy suggests to use near the shore include hollywood junipers, which he says are resistant to winds, and tamarix, a pink-flowered shrub especially suited to saline, sandy soils. For other plants, it’s easier to simply move them during the winter season. As planters, Cercy uses whisky barrels filled with soil, half-buried in the sand.

But one of the most interesting approaches to gardening on Fire Island doesn’t involve plants at all. Many people choose to incorporate shells, sculpture, lights and all manner of other objects into their gardens. These add color and character without the complications of delicate flowering plants. They can be easily mixed with native shrubbery, creating a garden as quirky and interesting as the island itself.