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From a once ‘overgrown’ property, Fell creates his own garden oasis

By Staff | Jan 12, 2011

Last week, Derek Fell spoke about transforming his island property into a tropical oasis during the latest Master Gardeners Lecture Series presentation.

Before a standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Sanibel Public Library last Thursday morning, acclaimed gardening expert Derek Fell delivered a 70-minute presentation as part of the Master Gardeners Lecture Series, detailing how he was able to transform his overgrown island property into a beautifully landscaped haven.

Entitled “My Sanibel Tropical Garden: Inspiration & Aspirations,” Fell’s presentation chronicled the process of turning a one-acre lot — located on Cardium Street — which was thick with vegetative growth and trees damaged by Hurricane Charley, into his own subtropical oasis.

To begin the program, Fell told the overflow audience that he first visited Sanibel during an assignment for Architectural Digest in 1970, when he was scheduled to take photographs of the Thomas A. Edison Estate in Fort Myers. Many years later, when his daughter was to be married on Captiva, he and his wife stayed at The Blue Dolphin.

“I remember admiring the layout of the grounds there, and how wonderful the landscaping was,” said Fell, noting that a chance encounter with “a free pair of running shoes” led to their decision to begin looking at real estate.

“I think we looked at 12 properties in one day,” he recalled. “And the agent says to us that he has one more property he’d like to show us… although he warned us that it was a little bit wooly.”

A stone path leads to a small footbridge on the Fell's one-acre property.

According to Fell, he and his wife immediately fell in love with the lot, becoming Sanibel homeowners in 2006. Almost immediately, Derek began the arduous task of removing the thickly overgrown flora… but only to a point.

“To me, it looked like a rainforest,” said Fell, explaining his affinity for 40-foot seagrapes and a collection of strangler figs. The property also contains more than 30 mature coconut palms, 15 banana trees along with caladium, dragon palms, Chinese fan palms, buttonwood, palmetto and ferns.

Over the years, he has added a thick layer of topsoil in order to suit the fruit-bearing plants — including mango, papaya, lemon, fig, blood orange and pineapple — he cultivates. In the near future, Fell would like to try his hand at growing macadamia trees on site.

“This is a garden in the making,” he said. “I’m always looking for interesting contrasts.”

For example, Fell showed a series of slides depicting the variety of caladium he has planted throughout the parcel. The species offers a “kaleidoscope of colors,” allowing the landscape to be both naturally compelling and visually stunning.

A boardwalk ends at the wildlife pond, where friends are encouraged to relax in a hammock.

The property is also encircled by a rustic wooden boardwalk, a stepping stone path that leads to a peaceful zen garden, as well as a wildlife pond, which Fell noted is perfect for sitting and sipping a cocktail.

“I don’t think a garden is a garden unless it has a water feature,” he added.

Fell is an acclaimed writer and photographer with art, travel and garden books totaling more than 2.5 million in print, plus a photographic library numbering more than 150,000 images portraying plants, gardens and travel destinations. He and his wife, Carolyn, split their time between Sanibel and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where they own the historic Cedaridge Farm.

Both Derek and Carolyn would like to make Sanibel their full-time residence in the near future. He explained that they enjoy living in a climate that allows year-round growth of their surrounding trees, shrubs and plants.

“I love the feeling of the wilderness, especially when it doesn’t look like it’s been cultivated,” Fell answered an inquiry from the audience. “But it has been cultivated, I assure you.”

The pale green surface of this species of caladium contrasts well with its surroundings.

A former cartoonist for the Sanibel-Captiva Islander, Fell’s work in Architectural Digest and Veranda has won several writing and photography awards. He also contributes to the Royal Horticultural Society magazine The Garden, Gardens Illustrated, Garden Design, Hemispheres, Bird’s & Blooms, American Nurseryman and other publications. He writes a monthly garden/travel article for Nouveau, the magazine of Delaware Valley living.

In addition, Fell has appeared in the television series entitled “Nature’s Best Photography,” sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation for the Outdoor Life Network; and World of Photography (sponsored by Kodak and Olympus). For six years, he hosted a gardening show, “Step-By-Step Gardening,” for the QVC shopping channel.