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By Amber Freda 

Iris Bed.JPG

Photo 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 together.

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!

 Amber Freda

Landscape Designer