Pretty by the bay

Seashore gardening is challenging - sun, sand, salt - but Gretchen Coyle's beauteous bit of beach is a haven indeed.

Posted: June 01, 2007

Most gardens have a certain "something" that defines them.

Mine, with its walls and fence and lock-'em-out gates, is unmistakably urban. Others are autographed by the latest, most unusual plantings, a tumbleweed quirkiness, or a design that's pure artistry.

Gretchen Coyle's garden is defined by the sparkling waters of Little Egg Harbor Bay, which envelops her two-acre property in Beach Haven, at the Jersey Shore.

She might be forgiven for calling this haven "Beach Heaven." That slip of the tongue accurately describes her "Little Beach Farm," which sits with three other houses on Sunset Point, a tiny spit of land jutting out into the bay.

"It's a fun spot," she says with deadpan understatement. "I consider myself a very lucky person."

We're sitting on the deck, her private beach mere inches away, chatting like old friends. Atlantic City looms across the water, just 20 miles as the crow flies but a million mental miles today.

The sun is soft and warm, the air barely 70 degrees. The sky is movie blue, the wind light and cool, and tiny waves are hypnotically tapping the shore. Timbo, a jumbo kitty the color of butterscotch, lolls at our feet.

There goes a sailboat, followed by a fishing boat, so silent and lovely. Could this day be any more pleasant?

Coyle is a retired businesswoman and freelance writer and photographer. Her husband, John, who still runs two clothing stores, is every bit the gardener Gretchen is, with an added talent for building pathways, raised beds and decks.

Good thing, because when they bought their New England-style cedar-shake home in 1980, there were bay views from every window but no gardens, no paths, no deck - and no access to the beach.

No access to the beach! That'd be like living in a penthouse with no windows!

Parents of three and now grandparents of five, the Coyles fought their way through a tangle of vines and weeds, poison ivy and wild bayberry, to carve out a path to the beach and beautiful beachside gardens.

It was tough.

The soil's more like sand. The sun, and its reflection off the bay, can be brutal.

"And when the wind kicks in from the west, the water sloshes in," Coyle says, bringing a coating of salt that can dry out and burn plants and lawn. It even glazes the windows.

No wonder, then, that so many Shore "gardens" amount to little more than a load of pebbles and a pine tree.

Over the years, Coyle has adapted her gardening style to the whims of weather and the demands of the land. "Just living here is a great lesson," she says.

On the west side of the house, by the bay, Coyle has mounds of good-natured Rosa rugosa, wild sweet pea, native purple beach pea, and plum. Last year, she and her husband built a sand dune here and planted plugs of American dune grass.

Not so long ago, Coyle and a friend used to bicycle around mile-long Long Beach Island with bucket and trowel, looking for plants to "rescue" from the roadside or houses being torn down.

"I used to bring seed pods home and pop them in the sand," Coyle says, "but those days are gone forever."

That's how she filled her east-side gardens with iris and native trumpet vine and honeysuckle (which she controls), after making a decent planting medium of topsoil, lime, mushroom soil and grass clippings.

Coyle adds a rich mulch of cones and needles from her Japanese pines and seaweed and eelgrass from her 300 feet of beachfront. She also mixes in dry leaves and licorice root and a smattering of horseshoe crab carcasses, American Indian style.

Altogether, Coyle has six gardens on the east side ringed by brick pathways and enclosed by a fence. The look is informal - "kind of wild," she says - as befits the beds' eclectic mix: native raspberries and huckleberries; pear, peach, nectarine and apple trees; strawberries and grapes, tomatoes and herbs, lilies and carnations, hardy hibiscus and daisies, climbing roses and figs.

And every one has a story. The two fig trees, for example, came from shoots brought over in a suitcase from Greece by a friend's father in the 1920s. The Coyles eat the figs plain, make preserves, or cut them up and put them on ice cream. (Oh, baby!)

"And all our friends have fig privileges," Coyle says.

Friends are always part of gardening, and in this small community, congenial bartering of fruit or jellies for neighbors' bulbs, seafood or fish heads (for fertilizer) buzzes along the Coyles' private road all season long.

"We're not fancy. We're not Palm Beach-y," says Coyle, who doesn't bother cataloging her plants or crops. In fact, half the time - quelle horreur! - she doesn't know what's growing in her gardens.

"Hmmm. I really don't recall what that is," she'll say. This admission, cause for concern in some circles, is volunteered here with a hearty ha ha ha.

This can frustrate visitors, especially after they encounter her clematis, which are indescribably huge and gorgeous. Press Coyle for IDs and here's how she responds: "Sorry. Had 'em so long, I can't remember."

Turns out, gardening at "Little Beach Farm" is a lot like living there. It's a casual affair, a windswept place where kids and grandkids and Mima (Gretchen) and Grandpa John still bomb around on bikes, in flip-flops, T-shirts and shorts, playing in sun, sand and water from dawn to dark, having adventures in the gardens.

Like they say, pure beach heaven.


Go to The Inquirer's gardening page at for blogs, tips, a calendar of events, readers' photos, and more.


Contact gardening writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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