Gem of the Emerald Coast

An innovative Florida nursery proves that gardening can be both aesthetically satisfying and ecologically aware

byDEB SIMPSON AND CYNTHIA JO EVERETTphotography byRICHARD SEXTON

IT SEEMED LIKE A SIGN: IN OCTOBER OF 1995, Hurricane Opal pounded Florida’s fragile Emerald Coast and the town of Seagrove, where Randy Harelson had opened his nursery, the Gourd Garden, just the year before. “It was as if someone came through the nursery with a flame thrower,” says Harelson. Every plant was destroyed. Every plant, that is, except his gourds—a symbol of good luck in many cultures—which were still hanging from their blackened vines. Also encouraging was the fact that the pre-World War II beach cottage on the property, which serves as the nursery’s office and sales building, came through the storm unscathed. “After that,” says Harelson, “I knew I had a strong, safe building.” He began restocking and replanting immediately.

Today, the Gourd Garden specializes in plants that “do more than look pretty.” In addition to dozens of varieties of gourds, the nursery offers culinary herbs, dye plants, fruit trees, and native plants. Harelson has a particular affinity for native plants because they provide food and shelter for insects, birds, and mammals. “It’s the habitat quality of native plants that pulls everything together,” says Harelson. “They help re-create and hold onto the structure of the ecosystem.rsquo;

THE NURSERY TAKES ROOT

A gardener since the second grade, Harelson didn’t make horticulture his vocation till after stints as an art teacher, a writer and illustrator of children’s books, and as director of exhibits for the Children’s Museum of Rhode Island. While working at the museum, he realized most of his off hours were spent in the garden that he and his partner, Richard Gibbs, had shared for over a dozen years. Gardening, he realized, was what he should be doing. While studying at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, he became a horticulturist and designer for Blithewold Mansion and Gardens on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, one of New England’s finest public gardens. The yearly plant sales that Harelson oversaw at Blithewold, as well as his and Gibbs’s annual perennial sale from their home in Barrington, quickly grew in popularity. Harelson delighted in helping customers select just the right plant, and the pleasure he got from interacting with the public gave him the idea of starting his own nursery. “I pictured a white cottage where we sold seeds, basketry, gourds from all over the world, and high arched arbors that you walked under while looking up at the gourds growing,” he says.

Randy Harelson’s Tips for Florida Gardeners

  • Irrigation and amending the soil are musts if planting during the summer, particularly for shrubs or trees. Use organic matter: mushroom compost, composted cow manure, or homemade compost. “With the right moisture retention in the soil,” says Harelson, “you can water that tree or shrub through the summer—once or twice a week if the heat is intense, but if you don’t amend the soil, the plant will die of thirst.rsquo;

  • Use mulches that will become organic matter as they rot into the soil, such as pine straw or screened pine mulch. “We don’t use pine bark, because it pulls nitrogen from the soil,” says Harelson. “We do use eucalyptus mulch. Florida’s ecology is helped by taking weed eucalyptus out of the swamps and places where it’s taken hold. But we don’t use bald cypress mulch. Healthy, native cypress trees are often cut down simply for the mulch, which is a terrible waste.rsquo;

  • To keep diseases and pests at a minimum, avoid monocultures. A diversity of plants—particularly locally adapted natives—also makes it easier to avoid chemicals. Organic practices, in turn, keep local populations of lizards, anoles, snakes, frogs, spiders, and parasitic wasps healthy.

  • Almost all flowers that take full sun up North will do better with morning and early afternoon sun on the Gulf Coast. Harelson recommends that flower gardens be in shade after 3 p.m. in summer. “You can accomplish this by planting a deciduous tree to the west or by planting an annual hedge of sunflowers or gourd vines on a west-facing arbor,” he says.

When Gibbs was asked to become town architect for Seaside, Florida, the partners left their prize-winning garden in Rhode Island and made the Emerald Coast of Florida their home. Since that decision over 12 years ago, the Gourd Garden has grown to the point where its clientele is now international. Customers come from as far away as Ontario to buy gourd seeds and unusual plants. “As a specialty nursery we have a few plants of many varieties, instead of many plants of a few varieties,” says Harelson. “Most people come for the unusual plants because they can’t be found at many nurseries.rsquo;

To some, gourds might seem like an unusual specialty. But not to Harelson. When planning the nursery, he kept coming back to the “perfect image of the gourd.” Believed to be among the first plants that humans propagated by seed, gourds may have been as valuable as food to our remote ancestors; with a gourd, you could carry water. “My theoryrsquo;, he says, “is that the first ceramic bowl was mud packed around a gourd. Many ancient ceramics are gourd-shaped. Someone put it in a fire and when the gourd burned away, what was left was a beautiful vessel.rsquo;

A PLACE FOR NATIVE PLANTS

The display beds around the cottage are a testimony both to Harelson’s love of diversity and to his keen interest in native plants. Silvery blue saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), with its fanned whorl of sawtoothed leaves, grows in clusters in the wild throughout Florida. Among coastal gardeners, it’s a favorite. Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), which can grow to small tree status if not pruned, has an inviting, cleansing fragrance, and bears small, silver berries. With millions of years to adapt to the local climate, it isn’t fazed by drought. Sea oats (Uniola paniculata) thrive in the sandy soils of coastal gardens, and can help protect sand dunes against the fury of storms and hurricanes.

Tips on Growing and Curing Gourds

WHETHER IT’S AN EGG, Indonesian bottle, basketball, canteen, yam, sugar bowl, kettle, dipper, or pear (used to create birdhouses), anyone who has a four-month growing season can grow a gourd, says Harelson. Gourds need a fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Don’t even attempt to plant them until the soil warms—they are definitely heat lovers.

If you’re growing gourds for dippers and you want the handle to be straight, allow it to dangle down from a vine on a fence or arbor. For a curled handle, let it grow on the ground—its weight will push it into a curled handle.

When you can hear seeds rattling inside the gourd, it’s ready to be removed from the vine. If a hard freeze is forecast, cut it from the vine, even if it isn’t quite ready, and put it where the temperature will remain even (indoors, preferably); otherwise, the gourd will split or crack.

Drying can take from two months to a year, depending on the gourd’s size. Don’t worry if mold appears on the surface—once the gourd is fully dried, the mold will die, but leave beautiful permanent surface patterns. Clean the gourd with a kitchen scrubby in a sink of warm, soapy water. If the gourd’s surface is not as dark as you would like, put it in a cold oven. Slowly bring the temperature up to low. Keep it in the oven until it reaches the desired color.

Hard-shelled gourds are all the same species (Lagenaria siceraria), so different shapes and sizes freely cross-pollinate. “You’ll see weird and wonderful offspring,” Harelson says. For the best reading on gourds, he suggests The Garden of Gourds, by Liberty Hyde Bailey, available from the American Gourd Society (www.americangourdsociety.org).

D.S. and C.J.E.

Become a collector of plants, Harelson advises. Not only will you enjoy the botanical variety, you may also attract unexpected—but nonetheless welcome—visitors. For example, angels trumpet attracts hummingbird, sphinx, and hawk moths. “To be out at dusk with 40 giant sphinx moths flying about your head looking for dinner is the best of what living on the earth offers, to be a part of the natural world that goes on around us at all times,” says Harelson. “Most people never notice these things because they’re not in the right place at the right time or they use chemical sprays that keep insects and birds at bay.” For him, much of the garden’s magic comes from watching a turtle inch its way through the foliage, or from standing entranced before a darting hummingbird.

BEYOND THE GARDEN

Plants aren’t the only story at the Gourd Garden; the nursery also offers a choice selection of objects created by international artisans. As a contributor to Aid to Artisans, Harelson helps to ensure that the artisans receive fair payment for their work.

Involvement with local environmental issues is also a must for Harelson. Two of the Gourd Garden’s staff are environmental scientists. As members of the nonprofit organization Turtle Watch, they work to protect sea turtle nests on the beaches of Florida’s Panhandle. Some members of Harelson’s staff also volunteer for Lake Watch, a water-quality-monitoring program that seeks to preserve the pristine coastal dune lakes around Seagrove.

When asked about his goals as a nurseryman, Harelson has a ready answer: both the plants and the products sold at the Gourd Garden must be beneficial to the earth and the local community. Harelson takes pride in being a source for environmentalists, “for those who care for their yards and their larger neighborhoods. I want things to have a timeless quality, as if they have always been there—that’s why I like working with native plants. They give a perspective beyond you and your garden.” H

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