Inch by Inch: Outer Banks Arboretum Takes Root

 In Coastal Life, Garden & Landscaping, OBX Community

In the heart of Kill Devil Hills lies a place that feels far removed from the sound of crashing waves, whoops of joy emanating from corn hole games on the beach, and the busyness of the Bypass. Here, dappled sunlight filters through the leafy canopy of live oaks as their branches spread wide like great welcoming arms. A walking path meanders by sun-loving plots of succulents and past thick stands of yaupon hollies, familiar crepe myrtles, and variegated aucubas. A wisp of a breeze carries the pungent scent of spearmint and the citrusy aroma of lemon thyme. 

This is the Outer Banks Arboretum and Teaching Garden. Nestled on five acres in between the Baum Center and Aviation Park on Mustain Street, this horticultural haven is rooted in the efforts of an engaged and supportive community and has blossomed into a garden of wonder and delight. 

Even on this laid-back barrier island, daily life can quickly get a little hectic – but here under the garden’s canopy, you can get away from it all for a few hours, or even an afternoon. Whimsically decorated benches are tucked into thickets of wax myrtles or under pergolas draped in coral honeysuckle, beckoning you to sit for a spell and enjoy the solitude and the trill of birdsong. 

Dare County Extension Director Shannon Brookes estimates the Arboretum receives an average of 100 visitors per week. Social media proclaims it “a hidden gem” and gives it a thumbs-up as a great place to walk – whether alone, in a group, or with Fido.

“Every week there’s something new blooming in the garden,” says Ruth Engdahl of the Dunes of Dare Garden Club. “Even in January, the camellias and paperwhites are in full bloom.” 

The idea for the Arboretum first began to germinate in 2002, when a core group of master gardeners desired to establish a demonstration area for showcasing plants best suited for our sometimes wild and wooly coastal climate. Through the collaborative efforts of Dare County’s N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, Extension Master Gardeners, and the Dare Master Gardener Volunteer Association, the plan came to fruition. 

Strolling through the garden, it doesn’t take long to learn that there is plenty to experience around every corner. Visitors meander along trails lined salt- and pest-resistant native plants that are able to thrive in our coastal microclimate of beach dunes, wetlands and maritime forests. “There are about 300 mostly native plant varieties,” explains Brooks.

Becky Cade is a member of the Extension Master Gardeners and volunteer at the Arboretum. She’s also one of its biggest fans. “The Arboretum design allows for an easy, level walking path that is shaded on a hot summer day,” Cade said of the garden, maintained by an all-volunteer force. “It has several areas with seating to allow for rest as well as time to take in the fragrance and beauty of nature.”

There’s no head scratching when it comes to identifying this assortment of plants and trees, either. Plaques bearing the common name as well as the botanical name are placed throughout the garden, letting wanderers know what to call the sweet aroma of candytuft and cherry truffle and the earthy scents of chives and dill. Groundcovers with names such as creeping jenny, dianthus, and black mondo may even remind one of characters from the latest Netflix drama. 

As you venture into the garden, you’ll discover various areas that have a story to tell. Pack a picnic and head to Blueberry Cove education area where black high bush blueberry plans are interspersed with signage that explains the construction of a rain garden and how it works, as well as what a wetlands area is and what plants and animals can be found there. 

This cove makes the perfect spot for a lunch-and-learn session with the kids, who are sure to also delight in taking a stroll around the turtle pond as well. 

Garden visitors also love to flit into the Butterfly Garden, where a bit of magic happens. 

Devoted to the care and nurture of one of nature’s loveliest creatures, this is where Engdahl and other members of the Dunes of Dare Garden Club cater to the palate and life cycle of the butterfly by tending to milkweed, lantana, downy skullcap, pentas, vinca, and the sweet-smelling butterfly bush. If you are looking to catch sight of some winged beauties such as the Painted Lady, Palamedes Swallowtail or familiar Monarch, Engdahl recommends a sunny summer day.

Over in the Dune Garden, visitors will come upon the quirky statute entitled, “A Nod to Our Wildlife Friends.” The limestone totem celebrates the diversity of animal life found on the Outer Banks with featured carvings of a laughing gull, Carolina Wren, loggerhead turtle, ghost crab, brown pelican, and great egret. 

During a visit to the Arboretum, visitors not only learn the names of native plants while strolling the garden, they can also learn about the plants best suited for their own plot of land here on the Outer Banks – everything from a feathery clump of ornamental pink muhly grass to daylilies, the graceful beauties defy the elements, require little care, and are faithful bloomers. 

Visitors also get a quick lesson in lawncare on the Outer Banks. As anyone who has attempted to establish a lawn in our stubborn sandy soil knows, it can be quite a challenge. The turf exhibit in the Demo Garden let’s visitors know the best choices from the line-up of St. Augustine, Bermuda, Zoysia, Fescue, or Centipede. 

When Sara Haigh, co-manager and administrative coordinator of the Arboretum, selects plants for the garden, foremost on her mind is its location with the ocean on one side and the sound on the other. “We choose plants that are easy to grow and are resistant to salt, wind, drought, and disease. Some are for wet and woody and some are for salt and sand.”  

Though the focus is on native plants, some non-native plants are included for their aesthetically pleasing characteristics. Containers along the garden path brim with their vibrant colors. 

“In every place we have lived,” says Haigh, “my husband and I have established a garden.” Whether minding plants in her personal garden or in the Arboretum, she derives much pleasure in seeing them evolve as the seasons change. 

Haigh is among a group of about 70 certified master gardener volunteers that dedicate their time and efforts to the Arboretum. Wednesday mornings (weather permitting), the group can be found tending to the Hens and Chicks in the Demo Garden, surveying the fern collection in the Rain Garden, or toiling away in the composting and propagation area. Dare County groundskeepers are available to handle large limb removal and to assist with mulch. An irrigation system helps with watering needs. 

One of Haigh’s chores on Wednesdays is raking the meandering garden path. Bricks make up a portion of the path, but mostly it consists of what Haigh describes as “rocks screenings.” This is the byproduct of gravel having been sifted through several different screens so that the smaller material or “screenings” falls through the screen. Regular raking keeps the surface of the path in tip-top shape. 

Master Gardener volunteer Mary Keith Lillie coordinates the Greenline OBX Program, a gardening question and answer forum. On Workday Wednesday, Lillie sets up shop on the back porch of the Baum Center, eager to field questions. In addition, the group hosts monthly workshops at the Arboretum covering such topics as pruning and weed control. 

Regardless of their tasks in the garden, inch-by-inch, the volunteers have made the Arboretum blossom for hundreds of visitors who come walk its trails every day to learn more about gardening or simply to enjoy the beauty and solitude that nature offers right here in the heart of Kill Devil Hills. ♦

Kimberly Armstrong doesn’t sport a green thumb; however, her husband does and she greatly admires his horticultural handiwork.

For More Information:

Gardening questions for the Greenline OBX program can also be addressed by email to or by phone at 252.473.4290. The Dunes of Dare Garden Club, the Outer Banks Community Foundation, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, and the Town of Kill Devil Hills are also partners in the Arboretum.

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