After a mild winter and just the right amount of rain, the rows of squat, dark green plants are finally ready to bear their gifts.
Lift back a scalloped leaf and there they are: Heart–shaped and red as your grandmother’s lipstick, the first fruits hang heavy, awaiting the pluck of a gentle hand. If you’ve ever felt that first dribble of juice down your chin, you know: There is no finer way to herald the coming of spring than a sun–warmed strawberry picked right from the patch.
If you haven’t, you’re in luck: It’s pickin’ season for the next three months (give or take coupla weeks) at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, just off Highway 17 near the interstate. The gates are open every day, and admission’s free—grab a bucket and pay for what you pick.
Easier to as refer simply “The Bamboo Farm,” this 55–acre slice of horticultural heaven offers up more than fixings for jam and pies. One of my personal favorite spots in all the land, it’s a respite from city life where, depending on the season, you can wander through a thousand–tree camellia orchard or stare right into the lacy faces of several hundred bearded irises. Butterflies alight on bunches of daylilies as ducks glide serenely along the surface of several ponds, full of catfish and large–mouth bass that rise to snap up pieces of bread thrown from the docks.
(Fishing, however, is not allowed, much to the chagrin of a certain husband who keeps a rod in the car at all times and has been known to throw a line into the Kayton Canal after losing interest in his child’s soccer game.)
All around are curious remnants of University of Georgia agricultural science experiments, like dragon fruit trees and a banana grove planted to determine which species grow best in the Lowcountry. And, of course, a person could get lost amongst the myriad varieties of bamboo jungle, planted by the original owners in 1890. It’s like some utopian planet from Star Trek, minus the Tribbles.
It’s also a place to acquire the skills to create your own piece of paradise: Overseen by the UGA Cooperative Extension, the former rice plantation and USDA research station is one of the richest resources for plant education in the state, hosting community classes and a Master Gardener program.
“We want to provide opportunities for lifelong learning here,” says Jackie Ogden, the county’s tireless Cooperative Extension coordinator who teaches canning techniques and organizes a host of events throughout the seasons. “There’s always something happening.”
She’s not kidding: In the next two months alone there’s a trail ride (March 10), the Spring Festival (March 24) proffering native plants for sale and free food preservation and gardening workshops, a cooking class (April 11) and the always–anticipated Sunday Supper in the Strawberry Patch (April 29.) I’ve already suggested to the family that we pitch a tent, seeing as blackberries the size of your thumb will start plumping out right as the strawberries die down.
The Bamboo Farm is partially supported by state funds, but it helps that it has good friends in high places. It could have ended up just another dusty aggie project on the outskirts of town where people abandon their cars, but its combination of majestic beauty and educational outreach has attracted a good number of outdoorsy philanthropists intent not just to see it survive but thrive.
The roster of the Friends of the Coastal Gardens reads like a short list of Savannah’s most prominent players, and the group aims to make it one of the most enviable public green spaces in the country with an ambitious master plan.
“This is going to be a significant botanical garden to match others along the East Coast and in the U.S.,” says Alan Beals, president of FCG. “There’s a lot of excitement.”
Indeed, loud cheers went up at the Farm’s annual Wild Game Supper last Friday when Beals revealed that five of the plan’s ten major projects have already been funded, including a new visitor and educational center by Jim and Barbara Andrews, a formal English garden by Tom and Dottie Davis and a shady oasis by Bob and Alice Jepson. Waterfalls, improved wheelchair access and a new entranceway are already under construction (sadly, my husband’s private fishing shack remains tabled.)
Beals, former CEO of the Savannah CVB (now Visit Savannah) and his wife, Sandi, have already seen the land cleared for their own pet project: The world’s largest bamboo maze. At three–and–a–half acres, the labyrinth will dwarf the only two of note on the map (one in Denmark, the other in the south of France) and will stay standing all year round (unlike corn mazes, which disappear at the end of fall.) The growing shoots are expected to be staked and ready by the end of the year.
“I’m very enchanted with the idea of the bamboo maze,” waxes Beals. “It’s going to be a major attraction.”
It goes without saying that we are quite enthralled with the idea as well; my daughter has already announced her plans to build a yurt inside it.
But I’m guessing what you really want to know is just what in tarnation was served at that Wild Game Supper under the pavilion.
Thanks to the hunting members of FCG who donated their bounty, we dined on wild boar sliders (like roadside barbecue, only more badass), spicy venison sausage and toothpick after toothpick of sweet venison meatballs. Volunteers served up the main buffet featuring fried quail (tastes like chicken) from nearby Dorchester Plantation and delicately battered fish, all accompanied by a delightful dill–and–pea salad and the best key lime pie I’ve ever put in my mouth.
Before we left with full bellies and a bucket of strawberries, I wandered back to the kitchen to compliment one of the chefs, farm supervisor Jim Fountain, a former Extension agent who keeps the growing cycles moving through the seasons. (Standing next to him at the deep fryer, his wife of 50 years, Linda, rolled her eyes. “This is his third job since he retired.”)
What I really had to know was: Where’d the fish come from?
All I got for an answer was a sly smile.
Whether it was pond bass or not, I’d better hide the rods and reels next time we go picking.
Bamboo Farm berry picking info:
912/921–5460 or bamboo.caes.uga.edu