PIECE-SA CAKE, MON
North Sider Finds an Untapped Local Market!Inside-Out Magazine, Spring, 2004
By Lois Blumenthal
Under the shade of ancient Mango trees, in a secluded hideaway called “Piece-Sa’ Cake, Mon”, Mr. Gary Chisholm is quietly tending hundreds of Cayman Islands native plants – all grown from seeds and cuttings taken from local forests and seashores.
It may not be a “piece sa’ cake” for everyone – but this mild-mannered, unassuming North Sider seems to have a magic touch with what was once known as simply “bush” and is now regarded as a treasure trove of irreplaceable Cayman Islands wild plants, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.
Gary grew up in the forests – yes forests! – (Our island is more than just sun and sand!) The dry forest areas in the Cayman Islands are some of the last remaining fragments in the Caribbean. Our ancient stands of Ficus have been a vital food source for migrating birds for thousands of years and also support rare local bird species and other animals. Gary showed us deep shady forests containing ancient Mahogany, rare Galipee and Oil Nut trees, Wild Orchids and more, all set in dramatic cliff rock and surrounded by ferns and moss.
As a boy, Gary spent entire days alone in the forest, just exploring – and he learned to know the trees and plants like his own backyard. In fact they were his backyard and still are. He would go with his uncles to “the ground” and help to clear. He was always full of questions, but liked best to go alone, because “other people always wanted to come back too soon”. Gary would bring back cuttings and branches and ask the older people what they were. “In those days, they always knew – everyone back then had to know what was in the bush just to stay alive,” he remembers. He learned from Nolan Smith and George Ebanks and even Jerry Smith, who isn’t so old, but knows the plants. “We still go in to the bush together sometimes.” Gary noted. “I love the quietness of the forest, and if I go early or at dusk, I like to listen to the birds. The bush is the most beautiful and peaceful place to go on the island. Only a handful of Caymanians even know what it is like in there, and I can tell you that people are missing a lot when they don’t go to see their own native forest.”
“If people today had to go back to the way things were in the 1960s, they couldn't’t survive! Nobody even knows how to ‘pop almonds’ anymore!” he exclaimed. But Gary acknowledges a few young people have begun to step up and learn about the native Caymanian plants. Teddy Ebanks, and Kevin Eden are two very knowledgeable young men, and Gary’s twelve-year-old son, Mac loves to go into the bush and learn at his father’s side.
As a young man, Gary went to sea, but when he was in his mid 20s he met Sandra and Don Messick and realized that they knew something about his favorite subject – plants! He began working with them full time, landscaping “The Retreat”, “Island Houses” and other properties around Rum Point. Gary carries fond memories of those days and he still recollects a compliment Mr. Keay Slack paid perhaps 25 years ago. Mr. Slack, a well-known surveyor, said he could always recognize a development that was landscaped by Gary. Mr. Slack continues to hold Gary’s work in high regard and told us recently that Gary’s landscaping ‘holds and lasts’. “Lots of people plant things that just die,” he said, “but his work survives, because he plants thing the right way, and because he uses natural native plants that can survive here. And Gary knows how to take care of the plants after they are in the ground too. If you want your plants to thrive, ask Gary for recommendations, or hire him to do it for you.”
“We did a lot of work back then,” Gary remembers, “With Burnsie Scott on the backhoe, we used to dig up big trees and we never lost one. Sometimes we would move as many as seventeen Birch, Thatch and Coconut trees in one day and replant them around the buildings. This would still be possible today, if people would take the care and the time to move the trees to where they can be used and appreciated, instead of just knocking them down with a bulldozer! Those trees are worth money and people don’t realize that they are destroying valuable plants that can be used somewhere else. It is possible to plan for the size of the building and leave the trees in place if they are not in the way. Especially on beaches, there is no need to knock down all the Sea Grapes.”
“When I was seven years old, Bertram Ebanks put me up in an orange tree and told me how to prune the branches at an angle. When I started working with the Messicks, in 1979, that memory flashed back, and I realized that I knew how to prune! Since then, I’ve pruned at least ten thousand trees, always with good results. I enjoy gardening; I know if a plant is sick, I know when to water and what it needs. Too many landscapers today just “cut, blow and go” and don’t really have any knowledge of the plants. You have to prune carefully, at special angles and you can make a plant do what you want it to do!”
Inspired by the West Indian Nursery’s quest for genuine Cayman Islands native plants to landscape their new development, Gary realized that he knew our island trees better than almost anyone, and had the green thumb to grow them on his property in Hutland. He began almost eight years ago and today has acres of rare, hard-to-find local trees like Pepper-Cinnamon, Ironwood, Red Bean, Headache Bush and much more.
Though his nursery is inland, he raises seaside, salt-tolerant plants too, like six-foot Sea Grape trees, Jennifer/Juniper, Sea Lavender, and the genuine endemic Caymanian Broadleaf – not the Florida variety, but our own first runner-up for National Flower of the Cayman Islands. “Let’s give Cayman plants a chance,” Gary exclaims. “Importing Sea Grape trees seems crazy. Last year Cayman had the biggest crop of sea grapes I’ve ever seen, - enough to reforest the Sahara Desert! - and they are easy to grow.”
Buying native Cayman Islands plants has been problematic in the past. Most nurseries import their plants, and all too often our unique island vegetation is replaced with Florida and Polynesian flora – beautiful to be sure, but sometimes not well suited to our cycles of drought and rain, or our salt-laden breezes. Gary takes a “mix and match” approach, growing local plants along with nursery standards, but he specializes in home-grown native and traditional Caymanian trees, shrubs and ground cover; - plants that have adapted to our climate; that are salt-tolerant; that need little in the way of fertilizer or pesticide; that are fast-disappearing in the wild; and that support our native birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
If you are planning a larger landscaping project, ask about Gary’s natural rock gardens – a new specialty that is fast becoming very popular with North Side residents. To see a sample rock garden, visit Driftwood Village in North Side or the Quincentennial Park by Hero’s Square in George Town. “It’s like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle.” He says. “It looks simple but it takes a lot of concentration. I use only rocks that were already loose, broken rocks don’t look good, and they are very brittle, so they have to be carefully handled and placed.” Also in the Quincentennial Park, Gary has planted Ironwood, Little-leaf Ironwood, Pepper-Cinnamon, Silver Thatch, Gourd Tree (also called Calabash) and Sisal. “This area is to honor our history,” he states. “so I’ve put in plants of historical significance.”
Gary’s garden grows everything from a newly rooted sprig of Casearia species nova – (a plant only discovered here in June, 2002 that is new to science) to one of the most spectacular croton collections on Grand Cayman. He also has a wide selection of palms as well as traditional and medicinal plants – all at reasonable prices if he’s in a good mood! Gary prefers to sell wholesale to nurseries and landscapers, but will deal with individuals if they are serious. He sets great store in maintaining his independence and the freedom to live a life of his own choosing, so expect the unexpected, relax and enjoy exploring this off-the-beaten path and one-of-a-kind enterprise.
Gary is a busy man, so visits to “Piece-Sa’ Cake, Mon” must be prearranged by phoning him. Call, make an appointment, take the truck and enjoy a unique plant shopping experience like no other in the world! “All the imported plants can be grown right here, and the native plants are even easier to grow. I find its better to provide the water and care to raise my own plants, than to deal with shipping them in from Florida. Growing native plants is Piece-Sa Cake, Mon!”