Growing in the Wind
Thirty years of dedication and care give this Newport garden by the sea reason to blossom.
New England’s dramatic coast may have inspired 19th-century author Edith Wharton’s literary triumphs, but its rough weather took a toll on her gardens. After fighting “the ruthless gales of the Rhode Island sea coast” Wharton wrote about in Gardening in France, she retreated to the less tempestuous growing conditions of western Massachusetts—and left coastal gardening to someone else.
Today, on the grounds of the author’s former estate, an ocean breeze carries butterflies past hydrangeas in their first shades of neon blue. Lady’s mantle and lilies, poppies and peonies, meadow rue and delphinium have already burst into bloom despite cold winds laced with salty spray. The conditions would discourage average gardeners, but Oatsie Charles knows a thing or two about coaxing flowers to thrive beside the sea. “My love of gardening evolved from childhood,” she says. “I watched my mother devote herself to it when I was growing up in Montgomery, Alabama. I didn’t pay much attention then, but in 30 years here, I know that it takes hard work.”
Soon after moving here, Oatsie enlisted landscape architect Ray Thayer to design her garden around a stone wall original to the property. Hedges and borders form a central ornamental garden, and a grass path with tiers of seasonal flowers opens to the ocean view.
“Oatsie’s beautifully ordered beds and flourishing perennials are unusual for coastal New England, where winds full of salt spray are so strong and damaging,” says Bettie Bearden Pardee, Oatsie’s friend and author of Private Newport: At Home and In the Garden. “Her success comes from constant work and lots of love. There are few ‘oopses’ in her plant choices because she knows more than just what will survive; she knows what will thrive.”
Roses flourish in the English-style borders, as do hostas, ferns, meadow rue, and hydrangeas. “They give us enjoyment from June to September,” says Anne Wilson, who tends the garden daily. Lace Cap hydrangeas, prized for a white-centered flower tinged with blue, appear iridescent in dark corners. Pee Gees start out white and dry to a soft blush in fall. Anne feeds the Nikko blue hydrangeas aluminum sulfate to intensify their electric hues. “Hydrangeas have a sort of elegance and mystery that Mrs. Charles admires,” she says.
Closest to the sea, Oatsie dared to plant where the wind had previously tormented Edith Wharton’s tender roses. By adding hedges just tall enough to block the wind, Oatsie succeeded in protecting plants without compromising her home’s ocean view. Unlike Edith, who left this shore to hone her talents elsewhere, Oatsie’s coastal passion promises to keep growing. Every day she rides her golf cart around the grounds to inspect her Eden, and at night she sits on the terrace, imagining more beds and other unusual species to try. Though the property may still be recognized as the place where Mrs. Wharton lived, its legacy will surely belong to Mrs. Charles.
For no-fail coastal flowers, download our 10 favorites. (.pdf)