Roger and Dee Zimmerman, longtime gardeners who have a deep appreciation of nature, suffered a profound loss during Hurricane Ike — the death of their beloved trees.
After the storm, which struck in September 2008, the Zimmermans were left to clean up the mess — nearly 8 inches of water seeped into their home — and mourn the loss of the sycamore, pecan and oak trees and possibly one of the largest magnolia trees on the island, Dee Zimmerman said.
After the storm, the Zimmermans took adversity and turned it into art. They commissioned four tree sculptures that speak to their love of marine life, including a dolphin, a mahi-mahi and a moray eel. But they also witnessed something magical.
Along fence lines and in backyards across the East End, volunteer plants emerged from soil stirred up by the floodwaters. The Zimmermans were gifted a tomato plant, which produces small, sugar-sweet fruits.
“We just started seeing things popping up,” she said. “The grass started coming back, through this ooze.”
The devastating loss of their trees allowed sunlight to reach the sparse St. Augustine grass, which was thin from years spent in the shade.
“We thought we were going to have to put down sod, but it just came back by itself,” Zimmerman said. “That mud was very nutrient-rich, so our grass is thick and lush.”
When the clean up was complete, the garden got an overhaul.
“The first major project was putting the trees back in,” she said.
In front, they replaced the towering oaks with smaller ones, planted a new magnolia in the side yard, pecan trees, a sycamore, a post oak, and a new species for them, a sweet gum tree.
The banana trees — previously declared a loss — began producing new plants.
“Now we have a thick stand of trees that produced about five stalks of bananas this year,” she said.
To add to their crop, they have two fruit-bearing papaya trees, which were started from seedlings after the storm.
The garden features three raised beds and a fenced area with plenty of room for basil, fennel, oregano, rosemary, radishes, chives and leeks.
Zimmerman cooks with ingredients from the garden. Among her favorites is a “heavenly” dish with caramelized leeks, garlic and blue cheese.
“We also grow beets, which have this wonderfully earthy, sweet flavor,” she said.
The herb garden is of great import to Zimmerman, who traces her lineage to Italy and who married a man raised on a dairy farm.
“They always had a big vegetable garden and they would grow hay and grain for the dairy cattle,” she said. “Actually, most of our garden is my husband’s. It’s his outlet when he comes home from work.”
Cleaning up after the storm was a daunting task.
“You would have thought after Hurricane Ike that a lot of people would have picked up and gone, but they didn’t,” Zimmerman said. “We came back, and we took that nasty, gooey soil and we built beautiful things from it. Like the statue on the seawall, we rose from the waves again.”