Anchored by a historic lighthouse, an exuberant New Jersey garden thrives just 100 feet from the Atlantic.

By Carole McCray
May 19, 2005
Sara Gray

The zipping whir of hummingbirds plays in time with the muffledpercussion of the Atlantic. The scent of roses infuses the saltyair. Then the wind shifts, and the heady smell of rosemary carrieson the same breeze that brings a black swallowtail butterflydancing by. This scene, just one piece of a Victorian cottagegarden's enchantment, delights visitors daily at New Jersey'sHereford Inlet Lighthouse.

At the southeast corner of the Jersey shore, in the picturesquecommunity of North Wildwood, the lighthouse grounds display thegardening genius of designer and caretaker Steve Murray. Just stepsfrom the ocean, pansies, impatiens, and dianthus thrive. Tulips,anemones, crocus, scillia, hyacinths, and daffodils dot thegrounds. 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 roomsseparated by plants, shrubs, and trees, where people can strollaround and turn a corner to discover what comes next," Steve says.But the grounds haven't always been so well-appointed. Built in1874, the lighthouse has undergone a series of improvementsbeginning more than two decades ago. Steve wanted to design a smallgarden 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 someroses. Gradually, I realized the unique potential around thisstructure," he says. But the seaside locale presented a challenge."The location of the lighthouse is one of the harshest environmentsthat I have seen," says Steve.

Sandy soil, strong winds, and a lack of fresh water rank amongthe garden's most difficult obstacles. To remedy the sand problem,Steve brought in topsoil. "I've lost track of how many tons wehauled in, probably 3 inches for lawn areas and about 10 inches inplanting gardens," he says. Wind and salt spray prompted Steve toerect a protective wall of plantings between the ocean and thegardens.

Japanese black pines stand guard with indigenous shrubs such asbayberry, beach plum, and viburnum. "Without these naturalbarriers, little would survive―and that includes the lawn,"he says. Automatic sprinklers compensate for periods ofdrought.

Steve draws a paycheck as parks superintendent, but spends morethan 25 volunteer hours a week tending the garden and its 200-plusplant varieties and thousands of individual flowers. "The gardenshave become my personal mission," he says. At the Hereford InletLighthouse, Steve's efforts result in delightful moments for localsand tourists. When a visitor sits to study a group of shade plants,sketches a single hydrangea blossom, or breathes in the perfume ofthe roses, Steve's commitment is renewed. "It gives me greatpleasure to see a person that curious about what I planted," hesays.

For more information, or to order A Guide to Hereford Inlet Lighthouse Gardens by SteveMurray, call 609/522-4520 or visit