Guests enjoying cocktail hour at the sixteen-room Greyfield Inn on Georgia’s Cumberland Island often like to walk with their beverages to the vegetable gardens about a hundred yards away. There they can get a preview of what will be on Whitney Otawka’s nightly three-course menu, which is based entirely around the day’s haul.
“I’m completely spoiled by all this and don’t know how I’ll ever go back to the real world,” says the chef. She talks excitedly of the eight varieties of tomato that ripen in late spring, the sweet baby Zephyr squashes no bigger than her pinkie, and all the exotica that the gardeners Ryan Graycheck and Maya Velasco grow for her. Two examples from this year’s crop: Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers the size of marbles, and ice lettuce—a lemony-tasting succulent that appears to be studded with tiny crystals.
The garden only seems effortless. The truth is anything but. If visitors want to see how Graycheck and Velasco manage to wrest such gorgeous produce from the island’s poor, sandy soil, they should stop by early the next day to witness the effort that goes into tending this acre of land. The young couple, who met while working at Serenbe Farms outside of Atlanta, uses what Graycheck calls “very intensive” efforts to improve the soil. They gather live-oak leaves and pine straw for mulch and enlist an army of worms to vermicompost all the food waste and trimmings from the inn. Every summer during slow season they plant sorghum, buckwheat, and cowpeas for cover crop.
True to the hotel’s welcoming spirit, Graycheck is happy to share the landscaping lessons he’s learned on this secluded barrier island. “We get a lot of guests who live in the area and who have problems trying to garden,” he says. “There’s a lot of info out there but very little that’s tailored to coastal gardening.”
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