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No Photos 26th Nov 2016
Amy Dixon: Ocracoke offers new perspective on plants, gardening - Winston-Salem Journal

A well-earned vacation is a beautiful thing.Its an opportunity to break the monotony of everyday life, get a little rest and see new places. We spent a week at the North Carolina Outer Banks in October. We found a little cottage on Ocracoke. It was the perfect remedy for my mind and body.But it was hard to turn my mind away from gardening. I found the coastal plants and landscape to be intriguing, rugged and ultimately resilient.We arrived on Ocracoke two weeks after Hurricane Matthew had come through, causing the worst flooding since the 1940s. The hedges and shrubs surrounding our cottage told the story of the storm surge. There was a distinct line of defoliation at the high-tide mark.A huge lantana flanking the front porch was crisp and brown two feet up from the base, while a profusion of orange blooms still danced on top. A hedge of oleander along the fence line had dropped its leaves, reacting to the salty surge that had soaked its roots. Other plants surrounding the cottage appeared to be unfazed by the flooding, as the star jasmine and yucca were both pristine.Jennifer Rich, owner of Ocracoke Garden Center, has lived on the island for 10 years. I looked to her for answers to my plant questions. I wanted to know how the surge of salty flood waters would affect island plants in the long run.Theres gonna be a lot of things that dont survive because of so much water and not being rinsed out, Rich said.Landscape plants and potted plants stand a better chance of survival if their roots are thoroughly flushed after a storm surge. Its a tedious task especially with established shrubs. Repeated, heavy watering is recommended in order to flush the salt from the soil. Many plants will still go through a period of shock, quickly dropping their leaves, like the oleander. But flushing the soil helps to keep the salt from building up in the soil and ultimately killing the plant.Fig trees are common on the island. They are part of the local landscape that visitors and locals associate with Ocracoke. On my daily bike rides throughout the village and neighborhoods, I saw figs at every turn. A staple in home and business landscapes, figs naturalize well on Ocracoke and are one of the toughest plants for this coastal environment.Fig trees seem to love the salt water, said Rich, and I dont know why. I have a lot of the old-timers tell me that their fig tree after a storm the next year will do the best its done in a long time.Rich propagates several different plants at her garden center, but figs are her biggest crop. Celeste and brown turkey are the two most common varieties, along with a local hybrid that Ocracokers call the pounder.We start our own fig trees and propagate about 150 a year, Rich said. We sell them all year long. People want to buy fig trees from (the island). Its kind of the magic of Ocracoke.Even when eliminating flood waters from the scenario, planting in coastal soil is challenging. The soil is sandy, quite the opposite from our compacted clay in the Triad. Where our clay soil locks up nutrients, Ocracokes sandy soil leaches nutrients.We definitely have good drainage with all the sand, Rich said. The biggest thing with the sand is you lose all your nutrients. Thats why a lot of times around fig trees you see people put oyster or clam shells. You break them up and that just automatically leaches the calcium out of the shells.Its refreshing to get a glimpse into gardening in another zone or climate. It makes you appreciate what you have, while simultaneously longing for what you cant grow.I will never have a towering jelly palm in my front yard nor a mature lemon tree both of which were part of our Ocracoke cottage landscape. But I do have an abundance of flowering trees in Winston-Salem, which isnt common on the island, aside from crape myrtles.I suppose a happy medium can be found in the comfort of the fig tree that grows outside of my home. I see it in a different light now as a fruit-bearing garden warrior instead of just a plain old fig.I imagine when I harvest figs next summer, Ill be itching again to visit Ocracoke. Im sure the coastal landscape will have rejuvenated beautifully after Hurricane Matthew.

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