On Napeague: An English Cottage Garden

Corn with a view of the ocean.(It comes with salt!)
Sara Kiembock, the designer and preserver, started the garden 17 years ago. Irene Silverman

Way out on Napeague, tucked in on the lee of a dune where the winds off the ocean have to make a U-turn to get at it, there’s a flowering oasis that has no business being there.

Like a mirage in the middle of a desert, it comes and goes depending on the season — a riot of color exploding with daylilies, gallardia, sedum, hosta, red and purple annuals, phlox, hibiscus, and all kinds of flowering shrubs, plus a few surprising outliers that crept in, liked what they saw, and stayed.

When Sara Kiembock, the designer, builder, preserver, and overseer of this little Eden, first visited the site, there wasn’t much there — “Nada!” said Ms. Kiembock, who was born in Colombia, during a tour of the place last fall — but beach grass, sumac, a stunted oak or two, and a few steps leading up through blowing sand to the tiny office of White Sands on the Ocean, which may be the oldest, smallest, and least-known motel in East Hampton Town.

It took her nearly two decades and countless bags of “Plantone and caca,” she said with a smile, to create what one guest, posting on Yelp, called “a pearl in the oyster of Napeague . . . a lovely, beautiful, expansive garden.”

It didn’t hurt that Ms. Kiembock’s husband is Bernie Kiembock, the owner of Village Hardware in East Hampton, where the couple first met. “I had a wildflower garden on Springy Banks Road in the early ’80s,” she said. “The birds ate the seeds and spread them around, and the next year I’d see flowers everywhere. And I wanted to buy birdseed for the cardinals, and I go to the hardware store, and I looked at him, and I said, ‘What  beautiful eyes you have!’ And he said, ‘If you take me to your house, I’m sure the cardinals will come look at my blue eyes!’ ”

He bought the motel in 1989; she began the garden in 1999. In the beginning, she recalled, “I saw a canvas. Coming into the driveway, you’d park and see the canvas full of colors — not like a mansion, not perfect, just whatever — all colors.”

Most great gardens rest upon one invisible essential, great soil. This one, after all those tons of caca, has pretty good soil, and the sand underneath it has turned out to be useful as well. “Because of the sand, the plants drain, and the sun is perfect,” Ms. Kiembock said. “And we constantly use the hardware store to maintain our little place.”

At 64 (you’d never know), she has help from two gardeners, one of whom has been there almost from the start. “And he is still in charge of weeding, even on his days off. I never saw a person . . . the soil so responds. Even in the sand, he grows cucumber and basil.” She plucked an aromatic clump of basil and rubbed it between her fingers to prove it, then waved it toward some pale-green stalks poking up among the flowering plants.

“Corn!” she exclaimed happily. “Corn with a view of the ocean — it comes with salt!”

The garden, which includes a 900-pound stone Buddha gazing benignly down upon it, welcomes all comers. “Hibiscus love it here, too,” Ms. Kiembock said. “They told me, ‘No, not here’— but look!” (Sure enough.) “I even planted grapes, and they grow, too.”

At the entrance to the garden by a small parking lot, she grows beach plums, pruning the lower limbs of the bushes into small trees, and she makes her own jelly.

“The ocean brings me seaweed. I pick up bags of seaweed and save it until the time comes.” Good for fertilizer, good for mulch.

Rebecca Kiembock came dashing by on the way to her car. “My mother is a spicy lady, full of passion,” she shot back over her shoulder.

Ms. Kiembock smiled. “I have a passion for flowers and photographs,” she allowed. “I could be hours in the field in my camouflage, waiting to see a nest and see the birds, their way of treating each other. I have taken photographs of birds with their eyes loving each other.” In January, the Kiembocks went birdwatching in Ecuador. “I said to him, ‘You come. You can carry my 30-pound camera!’ ”

Her studies of shorebirds and surfers hang in every room of the motel, adding color to the walls and oomph to the laid-back ambience. White Sands has no pool, no air-conditioning, and off-and-on internet service, mostly off. “Guests open the windows for fresh air from the ocean,” one wrote approvingly. But “you cannot get closer to the beach,” the writer added.

 Mary Jo and Richard Bursig of New Hyde Park, who were on their way back from lunch at Lunch (a.k.a. the Lobster Roll), which is a short walk away, said they discovered White Sands 33 years ago and have been back every year since, two weeks in the summer, weekends here and there.

“Originally there was beach plum and shrub oak, and slowly they built the terraces and walkways. Now it’s like an English cottage garden, with butterflies and yellow finches. We love it,” Mrs. Bursig said. During one week last summer, the couple and their extended family accounted for over half the motel’s guests, renting 8 of its 15 units.

The Kiembocks live there while the motel is open, from mid-April to October, in a blue-and-white oceanfront apartment decorated with her photographs. In September, she said, “the older generation comes. They don’t enjoy crowds.” (The motel is regularly full all month.)

Ms. Kiembock spotted a stray weed and pulled it out. “I love to garden, I love to entertain, and I love margaritas,” she said. “I can never be bored. I am always saying hello to guests, making drinks. I am not allowed to complain, how could I? Maybe one day I should call this the White Sands Motel Botanical Garden and Cantina?”

Up at the top of the path in the motel’s postage stamp of a reception room, Diana Vivas, an assistant manager, was behind the desk.

“I have one of the best views in East Hampton,” she said with a grin, waving at the dazzlement below. “I have a garden in the front and the ocean in the back!”

White Sands on the Ocean, which may be the oldest motel in town, is almost hidden by an unexpected garden.
The Buddha and a simple stone sculpture, above, add touches of serenity to the garden, which explodes with riots of color, below, in August and September.