Maritime Wonderland

BY Pamela Kersting

The ridges are a special part of the Figure Eight topography where a maritime forest exists on a climax dune above a tidal creek 26 feet above sea level making it one of the highest points on the barrier island.

Immediately the temperature drops by 10 degrees as one is enveloped by the rustic forest of live oaks and bay trees. The tree canopy like a tent covers all that is beneath it providing shelter from the sun and protection from the wind and salt spray and drenching everything beneath it in shade so dense no weeds will grow.

Once one is inside the sky and surrounding seaside environment are obscured. A person is oblivious to everything outside. It is as if time stands still in this natural cathedral where sparkling light and shadow interplay.

The forest is a true aviary. It is loud with the squawking and song of many species of birds. Dappled light filters from the canopy above dotting the forest floor and reflecting off of the glossy leaves of the evergreens that inhabit this garden.

A driveway and pathway assembled from concrete pavers assist the visitor up the steep grade of the tall dune through the gnarled and twisted environment of the forest garden eventually reaching the two houses.

This is the Schindlers world belonging to Andy and Ellen and their family. They bought the property in 2002 two lots totaling just under three-quarters of an acre on the north end of Figure Eight Island. When they purchased the property the Schindlers hired architect Michael Kersting to renovate and upgrade the existing home for a guest house and design a new primary residence and garage. The main house finished in 2006 sits on one lot while the guest house and garage occupy the more heavily wooded second lot. Fran Colangelo of Kingpost Construction completed all of the construction.

Kersting began the landscape design process for the guest house and garage area then Ellen Schindler hired Tony Parker of Classic Landscapes to complete her master plan for the garden.

The concept for the garden Schindler says was to work with nature as opposed to controlling it. And Parker agreed saying “We didnt fight the site. Rather we let the site tell the story.”

Instead of clearing the land Schindler and Parker worked within the tangled knotty framework of the existing trees and shrubbery saving everything they could including the thicket of oaks and bays. Taking their cues from the site they identified what was growing naturally and added more. Schindler added areas of dwarf yaupon holly boxwood and a small grass lawn. This helped to “civilize the wildness ” she says.

All of the trees in this garden are natives with the exception of a Russian olive that Schindler had planted in the sunny lawn area. The understory plantings consist of shade-loving evergreens such as cleyera viburnum ligustrum pittosporum podocarpus and fatsia. They grow tall here stretching up in search of the sun.

On the forest floor holly ferns liriope spreading yew cast iron plant and ivy thrive in the dry shade. While all of the plants are well-suited to the sloped topography and tough environment of the maritime forest theyre also drought and salt-tolerant and acclimated to the wind. Schindler is forever searching for plants that will do well here.

The Schindler homes dont intrude on this landscape. Rather they are a part of it. Their wood shingle siding and dark green trim merge with the natural palette of the environment. Both houses sit high on the wooded dune overlooking the tidal creek on the west side of the island. From a distance their rooftops can be seen through the thick forest canopy. In front of the main residence a lower lawn area with emerald green zoysia grass is separated from the street by a tall hedge of pittosporum live oak and cherry laurel. The hedge provides a backdrop to the garden and privacy for the Schindlers.

Trees that had to be removed in order to accommodate a septic field for the home opened up a sunny area. The grassy lawn contrasts sharply with the rest of the wooded maritime forest garden and offers the opportunity for the creation of more formal garden spaces closer to the entrance of the home. Abutting the driveway on one side of the property this opening unifies the two lots. It is unique in that it is the only opening in the forest canopy that allows sunshine into the site.

Surprisingly there is very little color in the Schindler garden. Most of that is found in pots scattered throughout the property. Interest and harmony is achieved through the varying shades of emerald provided by the evergreen massings as well as the contrasting texture and form of the plants. Overall the evergreen understory and forest floor plantings serve to soften and relax the eye balancing the high-energy effect created by the twisted vertical tree trunks that is the forest.

“This is a garden about discovery ” Schindler says. “It reveals itself to you as you experience it.”

Parker adds “There is always an element of surprise in the Schindler garden because it is impossible to take the whole garden in at once.” Adding to the sense of discovery is the art that is displayed in surprising places throughout the garden. There is art in pots along the paved walking paths in dark concave spaces even in hollowed-out tree trunks. Parker said “She made this garden unique by taking her great eye for art and incorporating that art throughout the site.”

The Schindlers live on the island roughly six months out of the year and make use of their yard in every possible way. While the grandchildren enjoy the lower lawn for play Ellen Schindler who loves gardening is in her yard on a daily basis often working in it from morning to night. She describes it as a garden setting for daily living. Her family she says can often be found enjoying either the front or back porch depending on where the sun and breeze happen to find them.

All who enter this garden enter another world where there is always something interesting to see or find.