The Little Garden-in-the-Sand

by Carolyn Gregsak, Mangrove Chapter

Just before Thanksgiving 2018, Bonnie Moore and I headed down to the tip of Gasparilla Island. We were on our way to meet Christine and John Holyland at the native plant garden in the State Park. I had heard about the garden from a few members of the Mangrove Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS) - the “Little Garden-in-the-Sand” or as Christine Holyland sometimes calls it, “The Little Triangle Garden”.
The garden was initiated by Sharon McKenzie, Director of Barrier Island Park Society (BIPS). She is a strong advocate for native plants and energetic in her support of the environment. Through BIPS, she appeals for grant money and donations. Her efforts have helped with hurricane clean up, repairs, boardwalk and dock replacement, as well as renovation of the lighthouse. Her duties cover Gasparilla Island, Cayo Costa, Don Pedro, and Stump Pass.
The native plant garden was approved a year after Sharon’s plan was submitted, with the stipulation that plants were to be purchased from only two native plant nurseries: Laurel Schiller’s All Native Plants Nursery in Sarasota and John Sibley’s All Native Garden Nursery in Ft Myers. New plants still can not be introduced without state approval.
Sharon had her support people ready. Denny Girard, Al Squires, Jane Wallace, and Linda Schilke from the Mangrove Chapter assisted in choosing plants and contributing advice on planting. The Boca Grande Women’s Club provided funds to buy the plants from Laurel Schiller’s Sarasota nursery. The work was started and finished on Tuesday, March 4th, 2008 by an enthusiastic group of Mangrove Chapter gardeners. The garden was mulched, but no amendments were added to the soil. The Park Rangers discovered vintage plant identification signs buried in a musty corner of a basement space and they were placed in their appropriate locations. Both summer and winter helpers were needed to get the garden established. Mangrove Chapter members cared for the garden during those first summer months and the Boca Grande Garden Club tended the garden during the November, 2008- May, 2009 season.
Photo by Sharon McKenzie. L-R: John & Christine Holyland, Phil Parham, Ellen Richter, Merrill & Barb Horswill, Rich and Sue Freeman plant the Little Garden-in-the-Sand at Gasparilla Island State Park March 4, 2008.

The garden is in the form of an almost perfect isosceles triangle, situated behind the building that houses the restrooms. A walkway runs between the building and the garden. Everyone visiting the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum uses the walkway. The northern and southern edges of the triangle measure approximately 35 feet long; the eastern side abuts the parking lot for about 18 feet. The tip of the triangle points westward toward the Gulf of Mexico.
It is a harsh ecology of sand dunes, storm surges, and near constant winds off the Gulf. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma swept away the 8 foot high dunes along the western shore of the park, leaving the western corner of the garden bathed in sea water for nearly a week. Plants and the wooden stakes supporting the identification signs were rotting under water. The Gaillardia, Scorpionstail and Beach Sunflower were destroyed, and the dark, rambling lower branches of the Varnishleaf were left bare.
Photo by Carolyn Gregsak. L-R: John and Christine Holyland and Bonnie Moore visit the Garden-in-the-Sand November 21, 2018.

This day in November, however, the sun shone warm and a gentle breeze shifted through the air, while Bonnie and I toured the little garden-in-the-sand, listening to Christine and John tell the history and joys of this singular space. They were waiting for us under the shade of the gnarly old Ficus tree (Ficus aurea). Whether or not, the tree is actually aged or not, is truly up for debate. Its nature is to wind and curl around itself or a nearby tree. This Ficus has been twisted and turned around itself by the winds off the Gulf and oversees the northeast corner of the garden, while giving refuge to a Whisk Fern that has tucked itself in the lower spaces of the knotted trunk. Two Corkystem Passion vines have planted themselves in the sand at the base of the tree. Several more Corkystems are beginning to twine up the fence that separates the garden from the parking area. Growing along the northern edge are White Indigoberry, Seaside Goldenrod, Seaoats, and newly-planted Gaillardia.
Beach Sunflowers are once again filling in the western tip of the triangle with their brilliant yellow blooms. Native Lantana, Beauty Berry, and Beach Creeper grow along the walkway at the southern edge. Coontie plants are growing on the opposite side of the walkway, which is shaded by the restroom building. They are older native residents of the space, planted prior to the garden. Varnishleaf, Buttonwood, and a small, but determined Joeweed fill in the center area of the garden.
It’s been over 12 months since Irma passed through, and new leaves are sprouting on the lower branches of the Varnishleaf. Christine is excited to see its recovery. “It’s coming back in a big way!” she exclaims. And the curious Ficus, expressing all the character of a seemingly ancient being, bears a few late autumn berries. The original mulch turned to powdery duff long ago and, now, the garden is mulched by the natural debris dropped from the plants themselves or brought in by the wind.
Since the garden was first planted ten years ago, Christine and John have continued to tend it, watering, weeding and trimming. When we last spoke with her, Sharon told us of her plans for a native butterfly garden that will most likely be completed by the time you read this article. It will be located on the north side of the Gasparilla Island Rear Range Light, the first lighthouse on the right before you reach the State Park.
The little triangle garden seems to have acquired several different names, and now I’ve tagged it with yet one more - ”The Little-Garden-in-the-Sand”. The ground at the tip of the Island has no humus, nothing decaying to hold it in place. Buffeted by wind and waves off the Gulf of Mexico, parched by a tropical sun, plant debris turns to a powdery duff that blends with crushed shells and grit. The existence of plants growing in it relies on sustenance from minerals in the sand, moisture in the air, and the potential to maintain stability. Their delicate root systems seem to have evolved to hold true with ease. Perhaps, it’s a kind of resilience, too, that holds them in place. There are those, who, like Christine and John Holyland, Sharon McKenzie, and many others, who support and respect the area’s fragile ecology and what is able to grow and survive in it. They keep true to their mark as well, sustaining an ecological partnership that holds within itself a kind of constancy and resilience.


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