The zipping whir of hummingbirds plays in time with the muffled percussion of the Atlantic. The scent of roses infuses the salty air. Then the wind shifts, and the heady smell of rosemary carries on the same breeze that brings a black swallowtail butterfly dancing by. This scene, just one piece of a Victorian cottage garden's enchantment, delights visitors daily at New Jersey's Hereford Inlet Lighthouse.
At the southeast corner of the Jersey shore, in the picturesque community of North Wildwood, the lighthouse grounds display the gardening genius of designer and caretaker Steve Murray. Just steps from the ocean, pansies, impatiens, and dianthus thrive. Tulips, anemones, crocus, scillia, hyacinths, and daffodils dot the grounds. Hollyhocks, their paperlike blooms in shades of pale pink, lemon yellow, and deep magenta, tower nearly 10 feet.
Today, the not-quite-1-acre lot features "little garden rooms separated by plants, shrubs, and trees, where people can stroll around and turn a corner to discover what comes next," Steve says. But the grounds haven't always been so well-appointed. Built in 1874, the lighthouse has undergone a series of improvements beginning more than two decades ago. Steve wanted to design a small garden prior to the property's public opening in 1986.
"I had no great plans to do much, just install a front lawn, plant a cottage garden of annuals at the entryway along with some roses. Gradually, I realized the unique potential around this structure," he says. But the seaside locale presented a challenge. "The location of the lighthouse is one of the harshest environments that I have seen," says Steve.
Sandy soil, strong winds, and a lack of fresh water rank among the garden's most difficult obstacles. To remedy the sand problem, Steve brought in topsoil. "I've lost track of how many tons we hauled in, probably 3 inches for lawn areas and about 10 inches in planting gardens," he says. Wind and salt spray prompted Steve to erect a protective wall of plantings between the ocean and the gardens.
Japanese black pines stand guard with indigenous shrubs such as bayberry, beach plum, and viburnum. "Without these natural barriers, little would survive―and that includes the lawn," he says. Automatic sprinklers compensate for periods of drought.
Steve draws a paycheck as parks superintendent, but spends more than 25 volunteer hours a week tending the garden and its 200-plus plant varieties and thousands of individual flowers. "The gardens have become my personal mission," he says. At the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, Steve's efforts result in delightful moments for locals and tourists. When a visitor sits to study a group of shade plants, sketches a single hydrangea blossom, or breathes in the perfume of the roses, Steve's commitment is renewed. "It gives me great pleasure to see a person that curious about what I planted," he says.
For more information, or to order A Guide to Hereford Inlet Lighthouse Gardens by Steve Murray, call 609/522-4520 or visit herefordlighthouse.org.