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Gardener creates island oasis

December 21, 2016
By MEGHAN McCOY ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

A part-time Sanibel resident accidentally found a passion for gardening at a very young age when his grandfather gave him a packet of peas.

"I was born at the beginning of WWII when there were food shortages in England," Derek Fell said. "My grandfather encouraged me to grow vegetables in our backyard. He gave me peas one day when I was about 5 years old."

The young boy experienced his first pea pod after planting, watering and weeding them.

Article Photos

Derek Fell stands among coconut palms at his Sanibel property.


"When I gave him the harvest, he gave me a special meal," Fell said.

At 17, he became a journalist for the Shrewsbury Chronicle Group in England where he reported on such topics as garden club meetings and flower shows, which developed a "keen interest in gardening."

From there, he began working in London at a public relations agency producing their catalogs affording him the opportunity to interview plant breeders and photograph new varieties of flowers.

An invitation by David Burpee in 1964 led him to the United States, obtaining his citizenship, and working as a mail order catalog manager for Burpee Seeds in Pennsylvania at 25 years old. From there, Fell was appointed executive director of the All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau.

Fell was also afforded the opportunity to work as a consultant on garden design during the Ford administration at the White House. He said the consultation came after Ford's speech concerning inflation and the recommendation to plant a vegetable garden.

"I met with the head gardener with the White House and decided what to plant," Fell said, adding that the garden was never planted due to the war. "They decided it was better to be seen to bring the war to a conclusion."

After his stint with the National Garden Bureau, Fell was invited by a publisher to author a series of garden books, something that was always near and dear to his heart.

"I have been doing that ever since. I've done over 100 garden books," he said, adding that his personal favorite is vegetable gardening because he enjoys producing things he can eat.

For 25 years, Fell worked with the Architectural Digest Magazine, allowing him to travel all over the world - New Zealand, Scotland, Hawaii, Bahamas, all over Europe and the United States photographing gardens.

With his new interest in photography, he ended up with 150,000 images that have been published all over the world, including the Encyclopedia Botanical.

With a vast knowledge of gardening, Fell has developed oasis's at both his Pennsylvania and Sanibel home.

"I like the idea of being able to garden in Pennsylvania where we have four seasons and when the spirit moves me to go down to Sanibel," he said.

Fell lives at historic Cedaridge Farm, which was established in 1791 as a dairy farm, on 20 acres of land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Since the farm no longer has livestock, Fell turned the property into an outdoor studio to photograph plants and learn the gardening techniques and varieties that can be planted.

"My vegetable garden is quite extensive. My problem is we border a state park and we have deer in the garden every night," Fell said, which resulted in the fence outlining the garden.

The property also includes a cutting garden, so his wife can make flower arrangements for the house. One of the gardens includes climbing roses because they have a vigorous root system that can withstand rodents.

The property also encourages birds to feast, due to the many berry bushes. Fell said since the blue birds do not migrate, the red berry bushes provides them with the nutrition they need.

"It's a shrub that produces a lot of red berries. We have about a dozen of those bushes on the property,' he said.

With the desire to cultivate a tropical garden and his daughter's destination wedding taking place on Sanibel, the Fell's began searching the island for a home to purchase after falling in love with the area.

"We are very happy we purchased there. We are the happiest couple alive when we are on Sanibel," he said. "It's just another world."

The couple found an acre on Cardium Street and purchased it eight years ago as their winter home. The contemporary house, Fell said, is raised up into the foliage canopy and resembles a tree house, so views from its windows and decks are into the tops of the trees.

"Hurricane Charley devastated the property. When we purchased it there were still trees that had not been cleared, but I realized within three, or four weeks, I could clean the place up," Fell said. "I have been developing it ever since."

The design of the property was inspired by the paintings of Tahiti by Paul Gauguin. Fell named his property "Karamea," a Polynesian name meaning "scent of the lemon grass."

"It's not just the passion of gardening that keeps me growing things. It's healthy," he said. "You develop a respect for nature. It's a challenge. All gardening, at some stage, or another, presents you with a problem."

The property includes three kinds of fruiting bananas, four kinds of mangos, three varieties of citrus and two kinds of macadamia trees. A garden with a vast variety of vegetables also graces the land. Fell said the winter months are the best to grow vegetables because the summer is too hot and humid. He said since the Lighthouse end of the island does not receive any frost they can grow anything from lettuce, to beets, tomatoes, peppers and carrots.

"I'm not completely self sufficient. I have to buy milk, eggs and seafood," Fell said laughing.

He believes a lot of people on Sanibel do not realize gardening can be so rewarding.

"The problem with most Sanibel properties is the island is a sandbar," Fell said. "All it requires is some soil conditioning, by adding some compost and fertilizing and enriching the soil and choosing varieties that are not damaged by nematodes, a little worm that lives in the soil. They are microscopic and eat the roots."

The part-time resident enjoys rising at dawn, going to the beach and then return to Karamea for a dip in his fern-fringed plunge pool before taking a mediative stroll along his meandering boardwalk that encircles his property to pick bananas and fallen coconuts for breakfast.

On Feb. 3, at 2 p.m., Fell will provide a presentation "Grow This. Not That" at the Sanibel Public Library. The presentation will include scenes from his garden, as well as advice on what he "has found" to be the best plants for Sanibel conditions.



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