The same qualities that turned Cumberland Island into an ideal secret wedding site for John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1996 make it a difficult place to garden. The remote barrier island off the coast of Georgia has poor, sandy soil and heat-baked summers.
This has not stopped the gardeners at the venerable Greyfield Inn (the site of the Kennedys’ reception) from cultivating two sprawling organic plots—complete with beehives—to supply vegetables, berries, herbs, and honey year-round for the inn’s daily menus. Gardeners Ryan Graycheck and Maya Velasco work closely with chef Whitney Otawka, who says, “They come into the kitchen once a day and we talk about what’s available. They have really created a garden that’s a chef’s dream.”
Photography by Emily Hall courtesy of Greyfield Inn, except where noted.
Above: In the 1.5-acre garden, “the biggest challenge is the soil because it’s so sandy,” says Velasco. “Potassium and other nutrients drain really quickly so we have to find specific amendments for those that will break down at the right rate.”
With the mainland a 45-minute ferry ride away, Graycheck and Velasco try to source as many materials from the island as possible. From a pine forest on the northern end of the island, they rake pine straw. In the autumn, they mulch paths with fallen oak leaves.
Above: “The garden is divided into two spaces that we manage,” says Graycheck, who met Velasco while working at Serenbe Farms near Atlanta. “It’s a challenge trying to keep up with the production for the kitchen and trying to manage soil in a way where you’re not just going to deplete everything.”
Las year Graycheck and Velasco built a bay system for compost and purchased worms. “We are able to produce a fair amount of our own compost and also barge in compost from the mainland as well,” he says.
Above: A crop of orange cayenne peppers.
Above: A tunnel hoop house provides shade to protect seedling transplants and microgreens from blistering mid-day sun.
Above: Graycheck and Velasco grow several varieties of radishes, including Pink Beauty.
Favorite radish varieties? “The D’Avignons are a favorite for their spicy flavor, and the Easter Eggs are gorgeous because of the color and how it pops on a plate,” says Otawka.
A packet of 150 Organic D’Avignon Radish seeds is $3.79 from Fruition Seeds.
Above: A packet of Pink Beauty Radish seeds is $2.50 from Baker Creek.
Above: “Those little black cherry tomatoes have the most vibrant taste,” says chef Otawka. “And Cherokee Purple is my favorite heirloom tomato because it has the best texture and the meatiest flavor.”
A packet of Cherokee Purple tomato seeds is $4.20 from Johnny’s Seeds.
Above: Photograph by Lyric Lewin.
“The beehives are a new project,” says Graycheck. “With the help of a master beekeeping mentor, we expanded the operation this year, from three hives to six in the main garden. This year we’ll harvest over 500 pounds of honey.”
Above: “Sometimes I’ll walk out in the garden and say, ‘this is the perfect size now for a chef’ and they’ll harvest it rather than letting something get bigger as you would for a farmers’ market,” says Otawka.
N.B.: For more information or to book lodging, see Greyfield Inn.