Dating back to 1886, Airlie Gardens’ 16 acres of lush, natural scenery, including 10 acres of freshwater lakes, has given a mystical gander at the local environment. The garden’s azaleas and camellias showcase the fruitfulness of diligent cultivation, and the Airlie Oak has been providing shade since 1545.
Rich in history, Wilmington’s own slice of Eden jumps at the opportunity to educate on the environment. This Friday the gardens will come alive with their biggest fundraising event of the year, the Airlie Oyster Roast, which typically brings out anywhere from 650 to 750 guests. Helmed by the The Airlie Gardens Foundation Board, folks can chow down on low-country steamed oysters, Carolina BBQ or enjoy a fish fry. There also will be a cash bar and music from local bands Heart Beat of Soul and Sea Pans. Proceeds from the event, which typically pulls in a sum close to $40,000, feed their environmental education programs.
The Airlie Oyster Roast began over 100 years ago with the Jones family. “The Jones heard about the local tradition of oyster roasts and decided to start doing them at Airlie as part of their lavish entertaining budget,” Janine Powell, development manager at Airlie, details. “Photos dating to circa 1918 show guests enjoying oysters at the Airlie House. When New Hanover County purchased the gardens in 1999 and the Airlie Gardens Foundation started, they chose to carry on the tradition of hosting roasts at Airlie.”
However, it wasn’t until 2001 that the event began raising funds for the gardens’ plethora of educational opportunities. Throughout the year, the gardens become a classroom for kids and adults interested in getting an in-depth look at nature. The program facilitates learning with inquiry-base, hands-on activities. They teach horticulture, wildlife, soil stewardship, water quality, sustainable development, citizen science, history, and more. The garden routinely accommodates school field trips, which are in accordance with the North Carolina Essential Standards, and summer camps. These programs allow students to receive first-hand interaction with the environment, as they learn about the basic needs of organisms. As well, they hold bird hikes on the second Wednesday of each month.
Given the slew of lakes and the gardens’ vicinity to Bradley Creek, the curriculum primarily focuses on water quality. “We have a special water quality curriculum that all New Hanover County eighth-graders come to Airlie for,” Powell says.
The students test storm water that gathers at the base of garden and compare it to the water that drains into Bradley Creek. Since the ‘40s, shellfishing has been barred at Bradley Creek due to its high levels of pollution, which stem from increased development and runoff poisoned by agents, such as pesticides, fertilizers, asbestos, oil, and gasoline. For years local environmental agencies, such as the North Carolina Coastal Federation, have been utilizing grants to restore the body of water, including a restoration plan that began in 2012. “Our dream would be to one day serve oysters from Bradley Creek at our oyster roast,” Powell says.
In the past, funds from the oyster roast have allowed them to erect an educational dock. The program uses it as a tool to inform on how oyster beds help water quality. Everyday the program coordinators pull up two clusters of oysters they have in the creek to showcase how well they filter the water. The oysters can affect up to 50 gallons of water per day. Overall the programs upstart discussions of water conservation and instill a sense of environmental stewardship in its students.
“We have had several children tell us they are now more conscious of where water is going to drain,” Powell informs. “[They are] now doing such things as having their parents wash their car in the grass instead of the driveway and turning the faucet off while brushing their teeth.”
Monies raised also have allowed them to build a bug zoo, which opened in 2013. Procured funds allowed them to establish a 2,700 square-foot butterfly house in the Tranquility Garden. The structure houses species like the Giant Swallowtail, Monarch, Gulf Fritillary, and Red Admiral.
All of the Airlie’s works are funded in part by events like the upcoming oyster roast. Folks can expect a night of seafood fare and fun as the Airlie Gardens Foundation Board showcases the tasty benefits of our environment.
“The beauty of the oyster roast is that it doesn’t change much,” Powell says. “We honor the tradition of serving steamed oysters in a casual atmosphere while raising monies for an important cause!”
Airlie Oyster Roast
Airlie Gardens, 300 Airlie Road
Friday, October 1, 6 p.m.