By Ellen Barcel

Lemon thyme is a very effective mosquito repellent.

Before the invention of the bug zapper and the mosquito lures, people relied on plants, such as citronella, to keep mosquitoes away. Personally, I hate bug zappers and mosquito lures not only use electricity but have to be emptied of dead bugs.

So, why not return to more natural ways of keeping mosquitoes away? Why not surround your porch, patio or deck with pots of beautiful plants that are known to repel the little buggers? Why not spread them around to keep the yard mosquito free? Many are actually plants you are growing already but need strategic placement to be the most effective. One of the interesting aspects of mosquito control is that many of the plants mosquitoes hate due to their scent are ones people just love. As a bonus, many are hardy in our area; so plant once and they return year after year.

Citronella grass

Citronella grass

Let’s start with citronella. Citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus and C. winteriannus) is used as an herb in Asian cooking but is best known in our area as a mosquito repellent. Citronella grass forms clumps and can get quite tall, up to 6 feet tall. The plant is a perennial in U.S.D.A. zones 10 to 12 (Long Island is zone 7). So, yes, you would need to replant it each year. Make sure you give this plant sufficient water, possibly daily depending on how much rain we get. Do not confuse this with citronella-scented geraniums or other plants with a citronella scent as they have not been proven to repel mosquitoes. To be effective break off a blade of grass and rub it on your clothing.



Monarda (bee balm) is in the mint family and native to North America. It is sometimes grown for its flowers, which come in shades of pink, red and purple, but is also an insect repellent. The plant was used medicinally by Native Americans for a number of problems including as an antiseptic and as a seasoning for wild game. But, its scent is what repels mosquitoes. Crush the leaves to release the oil. Like so many flowering plants, it prefers a sunny location and well-drained soil. It does well in acidic soil, generally in the range of 6.0 to 7. If yours is substantially below that, you may need to add lime. It’s hardy in our area and reaches a height of 2 to 3 feet tall.



Marigold is another beautiful plant that repels mosquitoes. Marigolds traditionally come in shades of yellow and orange. When I was a kid, I remember the Burpee seed company having a contest for the first grower who could produce a true white marigold. And yes, the prize was awarded in 1975. ‘Snowdrift,’ ‘Snowman’ and ‘Snowball’ are three of the white cultivars. ‘French Vanilla Hybrid’ has flowers up to 3 inches across.

Marigolds (Tagetes) are in the sunflower family. While native to the Americas, they have become naturalized in many other areas of the world. African and French marigolds are cultivars of the American ones. They don’t have the best scent to humans, but, since mosquitoes hate them and they bloom late spring, summer and into fall, they are well worth planting. They come in a variety of blossom shapes and sizes. Since they bloom about six weeks after germinating, it’s best to start them indoors or buy plants from the nursery. Some gardeners who use companion planting will put marigolds among their veggies to keep insects away.



Another beautiful mosquito repellent is lavender. There are approximately four dozen species of flowering plants known as lavender, which are in the mint family — check out the square stems. While used extensively as an ornamental for its beautiful purple flowers, it is also grown for its oils, which are used in a wide variety of scented products, such as soaps, hand creams, perfumes and other cosmetics. One of the nice things about lavender is that it prefers dry, sandy soil. So, for many Long Island gardeners that’s a big plus. Like most herbs, it prefers a sunny location. Besides being a natural mosquito repellent, it can also be used in salad dressings and even baked goods. This one is a definite plus in the garden for many reasons.

Lemon-scented plants

Lemon balm

Lemon-scented plants such as lemon geraniums (Pelargonium crispum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), lemon thyme (Thymus vulgaris × citriodus) and lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) are very effective as mosquito repellents as well. Other plants that seem to repel mosquitoes include artemesia, ageratum, cedars, rosemary, catnip (but it does attract cats), garlic, most mints in general, woodruff and basil.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Snowball hydrangeas benefit from a pruning in early spring. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Well, spring is here and one of the chores necessary for the gardener is to do some spring pruning. Pruning is not one of my favorite gardening jobs but can be needed. In general, put the right type of plant in the right place to start with as you plan new plantings. That way you won’t spend an inordinate amount of time keeping plants small that really want to be large.

Minimizing pruning

• If you know that the shrub is going to reach 10 feet tall at maturity, don’t plant it in front of a window — unless, of course, you don’t want to see out of the window. Plant slow-growing, dwarf plants in that situation.

When pruning pyramidal-shaped evergreens always keep the final shape in mind. Photo by Ellen Barcel

• Don’t plant evergreen trees right up against the house, or any trees for that matter. They’ll grow up against the house, making for an unsightly shaped tree, and you’ll spend a lot of time pruning them to keep them from taking over. Also, they’ll allow critters of all sorts to climb up them and damage your roof (yes, I know from experience). They’ll shade the house so much that the roof won’t dry out properly after a rainstorm. Large trees should be planted at the back of your property and smaller specimen trees toward the front for the best appearance.

• If you hate pruning — what gardener doesn’t — select plants that need minimal pruning such as conifers. Usually the gardener just needs to remove any dead branches (rare), really weirdly growing branches or multiple leaders in pyramidal-shaped trees.

• Always research the specific plant you want to add to your garden so you know exactly what will happen with that plant in the future.

Rules of thumb

• Prune out any dead branches as soon as possible, especially ones that are creating a hazardous situation.

Hydrangea macrophylla bloom on last year’s wood, so should not be pruned in spring. Photo by Ellen Barcel

• To control the height of flowering plants, prune them back immediately after they have bloomed. In this way you won’t interrupt the flowering cycle for next year. That means don’t prune forsythia until right after its put out its yellow flowers in April. Prune rose of Sharon later in the summer after it has bloomed. Don’t prune Hydrangea macrophylla (blue and pink flowering shrubs) until after it has bloomed since it blooms on old (last year’s) wood. Hydrangea arborescens (snowballs), however, benefit from cutting back in early spring since they bloom on new wood.

• Never take off more than one-third of the growing area of a shrub (or blades of grass). Taking more can seriously compromise the health of the plant, even killing it. While some shrubs, like euonymous, or trees like catalpa, will grow from the roots, many others will not if cut back too far.

• Always keep an eye to the overall shape of a plant. For example, if a plant has a pyramidal shape you want to maintain that. If there are stray branches that stick out beyond the pyramidal shape or double leaders, trim them, remembering conifers generally do not resprout the way broadleaf plants do.

• Always research the specific plants you’re pruning to make sure you do it correctly. Sometimes a plant just doesn’t conform to the norm.

For safety

If you have some really large branches broken off a big tree due to winter wind and storms, have a professional, an arborist, come in and deal with them. You don’t need a trip to the ER. Professionals know how to do major pruning safely.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850. 

Irises come in a variety of colors including these bearded varieties. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

The catalogs have started to arrive — select the bulbs you want to grow next spring but need to plant this fall. So, place your advanced order now. One of the plants you may enjoy in future gardens are irises.

There are hundreds of species of irises. The name comes from Greek, meaning rainbow, although the most commonly seen irises are in shades of purple. Irises are perennial plants growing from rhizomes that do well, in general, in U.S.D.A. zones 5 through 9 (Long Island is zone 7). Check the directions that come with each package, however, as different varieties can have different requirements.

One of the interesting features of irises is how their bloom time varies, by species, from early spring through summer and even into early fall. So, select the varieties you want based not only on color but on when you want to see flowers. Irises that bloom early will generally go dormant in the heat of summer. Iris rhizomes are usually available in nurseries for fall planting.

Above, Dutch iris with some scattered orange poppies. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Once established, the plant’s rhizomes spread, resulting in a larger and larger patch of flowers each year. Seed pods form after the flowers have faded. Yes, in some cases you can grow new plants from the seeds, but sometimes the flowers are sterile. You can also remove the seed pods when they start to form in order to direct the plant’s energy into the plant itself. As with all bulbs, do not cut the greenery off after the flowers have faded. This greenery is feeding the rhizomes for next year’s flowers.

Since this plant spreads by itself, you may find that you need to divide the clump periodically. Rule of thumb is to divide spring flowering plants in the fall. As with most very showy flowering plants, Irises grow best in full sun but will tolerate light shade. A soil pH that is slightly acidic to neutral (6.8 to 7) is ideal. That means for most of us, we need to add lime to the soil. Test yours to be sure. Irises are deer resistant, but no plant is deer proof if the critters are really hungry.

If you cut some of the darker flowers, check the bouquet every day to see if the flowers are wilting. Once that happens you may see drops of a purple liquid dripping from the flowers. Yes, irises were used as a natural dye before the industrial revolution and the introduction of modern dyes.

Some of the most commonly seen irises include:

· Bearded iris (Iris × germanica) has the largest flowers with a “beard,” a hairlike structure on the petals. Most will bloom in late spring to early summer (but can vary depending on variety and weather). They usually reach a height of about 3 feet tall and are two toned. For example, ‘Pirate Ahoy’ is yellow with deep purple, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ has ruffled white and medium blue petals and ‘Ocelot’ is peach and maroon.

· Reblooming bearded iris (I. germanica) blooms in midspring and then again in late summer or early fall. They, too, come in a wide variety of color combinations.

The Yellow Iris aka Iris pseudacorus is an invasive species growing in a local pond on Long Island. Photo by Ellen Barcel

· Dutch iris (I.× hollandica) does not have the “beard” of I. germanica and the petals tend to be narrower. The plants reach about 2 feet tall. They bloom in late spring to early summer and generally are two toned, various combinations of purple and yellow.

· Orchid iris (I. reticulate) is a dwarf plant reaching just 5 or 6 inches high. This Canadian cultivar blooms in early spring and has white and purple flowers with a touch of yellow. These are really cute little flowers.

· Yellow iris (I. pseudacorus) is native to Europe and Asia. It was used to control water pollution but has become invasive in some areas including ours, so this iris is on Suffolk County’s Do Not Sell List and is not available here and should not be propagated if you see it growing.

For more information, visit the American Iris Society website at

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Above, a harvested horseradish root

By Ellen Barcel

Horseradish should be planted at the end of April or beginning of May to be harvested the following late fall.

It’s time to plan and plant your herb garden, a garden filled with plants used to provide flavoring for a wide variety of dishes. I particularly like horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) so am planning to grow a bit this year.

How does one use horseradish? My father loved roast beef with horseradish spread on it, whether it be on hot roast beef just out of the oven or on a cold sandwich. I once had a great chicken dish served in a resort where the chicken was baked covered with a thin layer of horseradish.

Several companies also make a cheddar flavored with horseradish. I used to be able to find a hummus with horseradish. Now, if I want it, I need to mix my own horseradish with the hummus. I’ve seen a great recipe for a cream sauce flavored with horseradish. So, basically, horseradish can be used as a flavoring for almost any savory dish if you like its strong taste.

According to the Horseradish Information Council, it has been used as far back as 1500 B.C. by the Egyptians. Since horseradish is hot, one or maybe two plants at the most are usually enough for a family, unless you and your friends and relatives really love the taste. You can buy crowns from a nursery or even use a root from the supermarket.

The horseradish plant can be planted in a pot to keep it from spreading.

Horseradish can be grown in the ground or in pots. Personally, I prefer to raise my herbs in pots or in window boxes. Plants in pots are less likely to be strangled by nearby plants and less likely to spread into other plants, taking over my garden (as horseradish and plants like mints can do). Also, I control the soil — I usually use a good-quality potting soil.

Plant your horseradish at the end of April or beginning of May, depending on weather and then harvest the following late fall (after a hard frost for the hottest flavor), winter or early spring, making sure you keep a few pieces of root in the soil for the following year’s harvest since horseradish is a perennial plant. It does well in U.S.D.A. zones 4 to 7 (Long Island is zone 7) and requires little care. If you decide you don’t want to grow horseradish next year, make sure you remove all the sections of roots or it will regrow.

Horseradish grows in a wide variety of conditions but does require a rich soil, so add a generous amount of compost to the soil. Like most herbs, it grows best in sun but will tolerate light shade. Long Island’s soil is very acidic (test yours), but horseradish prefers a soil near neutral (a pH of 7). This means you need to use a good-quality potting soil if growing it in a container or add lime to your garden soil if growing in the ground. Water the plants once a week as long as there is some rain, more in drought conditions, but make sure that you don’t overwater them. They like moist but not soggy soil. If you decide to add fertilizer, do it only once in spring — personally I prefer to add more compost.

Store the harvested roots in the fridge. When ready to use, peel and then grate the harvested roots, add a dash of salt and cover with vinegar and store in your fridge for future use. I’ve read that a bit of sugar added to the mixture will cut the hot flavor. Remember that a little horseradish goes a long way. For more recipes and uses visit the Horseradish Information Council website at

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Don't cut your lawn shorter than 3 inches or you'll damage it. Stock Photo
A baker’s dozen lawn tips

By Ellen Barcel

Well, winter is over and it’s time to think about spring and gardening and that includes your lawn. If you followed recommendations, you fertilized your lawn last October and patched bare spots. You removed fallen leaves. Now, what should you be doing?

1. Remove any leaves from the lawn that may have accumulated over the winter. These can be composted, but leaves do take longer to break down than greenery so it’s best to shred them. The more surface exposed, the faster the composting process will happen.

2. Gather up any broken branches that came down during the winter’s storms. I use this wood for my fireplace, but each wood has a different scent. Apple wood is wonderful but weeping willow wood is definitely not. If you have a chipper you can turn downed wood into mulch.

3. If you had a lot of weeds in your lawn last year, consider applying pre-emergent weed killer. Personally, I just mow them over since they’re green, but if it’s a problem for you, spread the weed killer.

4. If you haven’t patched bare spots or new ones developed, spring is the ideal time to do that. Most of the lawn grasses we grow on Long Island are cool weather grasses and grow best in spring and fall.

Don’t plant grass right up against tree trunks as the bark can be damaged during mowing. Photo by Ellen Barcel

5. In general, grass won’t grow well in very shady areas. The plants need sun, but fescue tolerates some shade. So, when patching, look for mixes that note that they do well in some shade.

6. Turn on (and repair as needed) any irrigation system you have once the danger of frost has passed.

7. You can spread fertilizer after the beginning of April. (Suffolk County law prohibits spreading it before that time to prevent chemicals from polluting the groundwater. Lawns just don’t take up fertilizer from November through March.) Don’t apply fertilizer to zoyzia grass until it has greened up, however, since it is a warm weather grass.

8. When mowing, don’t cut the lawn shorter than 3 inches. Remember these are plants and if you “scalp” them, you can kill them. They need a certain amount of greenery to thrive. While it’s tempting to cut the lawn really short so you don’t have to do it that often, you’ll damage the lawn.

9. Leave the clippings on the lawn as they will break down and return nutrients to the soil. If you must gather them up, then compost them.

10. Don’t walk on the grass, for the same reason. You wouldn’t walk on your tomato plants or bean plants, so don’t walk on the grass. Install some sort of walkways for frequently trodden paths.

11. If your soil is substantially below a pH of 6.0 to 7, you need to periodically add lime to sweeten the soil. So, test your soil, then follow the manufacturer’s direction on quantity and frequency of application.

12. Generally, on Long Island, your lawn needs 1 inch of water per week. On average, Long Island gets 4 inches of rain per month. During spring and fall, and with cooler temperatures, rain frequently takes care of this need, but come the heat of summer you will probably have to supplement the rain. However, be on the lookout for periods of drought like we’ve had the last two years. Remember that two inches of rain all at once, quickly drains from the soil.

13. Don’t plant grass close up to the base of trees. If you do, the trees may be damaged as you mow each week. Instead, put mulch and/or annuals or perennials around the base of trees. That way, a “weed wacker” won’t damage the tree bark.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

By Ellen Barcel

You may have seen ornamental pepper plants in the stores this time of year. NuMex Easter Ornamental Pepper (Capsicum anuum) is a neat plant for Easter decorating. The plant look like a bouquet of peppers above the dense greenery. This is a small plant, generally about 8 inches high and 10 inches wide, making it ideal as a hostess gift or a table centerpiece. It produces beautifully colored ornamental peppers (purple, cream, yellow and orange).

Yes, it can be grown from seed, but you won’t have a plant ready for this Easter. The ornamental pepper blooms and produces peppers all summer long, maturing in 72 days. While there are many varieties of peppers that are available as heirloom plants, the NuMex Easter is a hybrid. Can you save the seeds to grow in future? You can try it, but as with all hybrids, it’s unlikely that the plants will breed true. Buy the hybrid seeds if you want to grow this one in your garden or the plants from a nursery.

The name Easter pepper came from the pastel color of the peppers when they first appear on the plant. The plant was bred by the New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute — it also developed a Valentine’s Day pepper (red and white), a St. Patrick’s Day pepper (green) and a Halloween pepper (orange and black) among many others.

This is a great plant for Long Island considering it tolerates heat, humidity and drought. Tiny white flowers form first on the plant to be followed by the brightly colored peppers. Tidy up the plant periodically by removing old, dried peppers and there’s more of a chance of new peppers forming.

Like tomatoes, a close relative, pepper plants like sun. A soil pH of 6.0 or above provides optimal growing conditions, so yes, you probably need to lime your soil if growing them in the ground. If you are growing your peppers in a container and you’ve bought it already growing, the soil is probably just fine.

Is the Easter pepper edible? Different authorities have different opinions. Some say it’s purely an ornamental plant with taste varying from plant to plant. Other authorities, including the NMU say yes, it is edible but extremely hot. In any event, do not consume peppers from the plants grown commercially as ornamentals because you won’t know what kind of chemicals have been used on them.

This is also true of plants like potato vines. Yes, you sometimes get sweet potatoes from the vines in fall, but again, you don’t know what chemicals have been used by the grower, since they are not intended for human consumption. If you want peppers, or sweet potatoes, to eat, select varieties and plants that are grown specifically for human consumption. Besides unwanted chemicals, these plants have been selected for various qualities like taste, time to maturity, keeping quality and highest yield.

The NuMex Easter pepper plants are not frost tolerant, so, if growing them outdoors over the summer, you need to either treat them as an annual or bring them indoors for the winter. According to NMU, chili plants grown indoors in a sunny location and given optimal care can last for 10 or more years.

The plants are available locally usually where ornamental or house plants are sold. Seeds are available from a number of growers, but the seeds of this ornamental as well as many others developed at NMU are available from the Chili Pepper Institute itself (

Looking for other Easter plants? Consider the Easter cactus — similar to the Christmas cactus but it blooms in spring — as well as a pot of spring flowering bulbs for this time of year. Remember, Easter lilies are highly toxic to cats. So, if you have cats either don’t bring Easter lilies into the house or make sure that the plants are in a room that the cats can’t get into. Not only is the plant toxic but the water that the cut flowers are in can be dangerous for them as well. Happy spring!

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

The now cleared areas surrounding the train tracks for the Port Jefferson LIRR station will be fitted with new trees soon. Photos by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Cleaning up is hard to do.

Port Jefferson Village is entrenched in a beautification project that spans large sections of the area, including several efforts in the vicinity of the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road station located in between Main Street and Highlands Boulevard. Two years ago, according to village resident Kathleen Riley and Village Mayor Margot Garant, the village requested that LIRR property be cleared of dead trees along the train tracks on the south side of Highlands Boulevard in the hopes of improving aesthetics in the area.

The now cleared areas surrounding the train tracks for the Port Jefferson LIRR station will be fitted with new trees soon. Photos by Alex Petroski

“When this beautification effort started there were a number of dead trees along the said property, and when the LIRR was requested to remove the dead trees, workmen cut down all the trees, dead and alive for a considerably large portion of the property,” Riley said in an email. “When investigated with survey records, it happens that the LIRR cut down trees on Port Jefferson Village property, truly a violation that calls for compensation. Mayor Garant has yet to receive any compensation from the LIRR for the past two years. To her credit she continues to pursue beautification.”

Riley shared a letter she received in early April from Susan McGowan, the MTA’s general manager of public affairs for the LIRR as a response to several letters she sent to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and to Ed Dumas, the vice president of market development and public affairs for the LIRR, since the trees were first removed. McGowan addressed the findings of the survey that the trees were on village property.

“In light of these findings, we will work with the village to address the concerns you raised, and the LIRR will continue to coordinate with the village as our station enhancement project for Port Jefferson Station moves forward,” McGowan said.

Aaron Donovan, MTA deputy director for external communications for the LIRR responded to requests for comment from Dumas on the matter in an emailed statement.

“I’m just going to get the job done; then I’m going to the railroad and ask for restitution — I can’t wait any longer.”

— Margot Garant

“We have received and reviewed all of the correspondence, and we are evaluating what we can do to improve the Highlands Boulevard area,” he said. The village and LIRR officials have met several times in recent months to discuss beautification of the station and the areas near the train tracks.

Since the removal of the trees, the village has obtained grant money to improve parking for the train station in lots on both sides of Main Street, in addition to funds garnered for business improvement projects just steps away from the train station.

“We’re seeking some sort of cooperation from the railroad,” Garant said in a phone interview. “We’ve been dealing with this and other issues for well over two years.”

Garant said the village now plans to plant six-foot tall Leyland cypress trees along the fence line on Highlands Boulevard overlooking the train tracks using unencumbered monies and will then ask the LIRR for restitution.

“I’m just going to get the job done; then I’m going to the railroad and ask for restitution — I can’t wait any longer,” she said.

Riley said she met with Caran Markson, village gardener, Garant and some other community members recently to secure plans for the project, which they hope will begin during April. Some of the other issues raised by the village regarding the look of the areas surrounding the tracks include crumbling walls bordering the tracks, rusted railings and insufficient fencing.

Beautyberry plants are lovely shrubs but also provide berries for birds. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

If, for one reason or another, you have limited gardening space, there are ways of maximizing the space that you have. However, you need to think outside the box.

Vertical gardening

Clematis, which grow up rather than out, are ideal for vertical gardening. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Consider using plants that grow up rather than out. Vining veggies (indeterminate tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, etc.) can be trained up a trellis or fence. The same is true with flowering plants, like clematis. This allows you to put in more plants in a given space.


Several large planters, strategically placed on a deck or patio, add to the growing space as well as the beauty of the area. Window boxes and planters, attached wherever there is a railing, will add to your growing space as will hanging baskets. Small tomato plants can even be grown in these hanging baskets.

Succession planting

You can also make efficient use of your gardening space by succession planting. When an early crop has come in, plant a second or even third crop of late summer or autumn veggies in the same space. Intercropping is something that Native Americans did by planting corn (which acted as a support) between vines like beans or squash. You can also scatter annual flower seeds in the same bed where you are growing spring flowering bulbs. By the time the bulbs have bloomed and the greenery faded, the annuals are sprouting and will soon bloom.

Dwarf plants

Azaleas tend to be smaller shrubs and can easily be pruned to keep them the size you need. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Using dwarf plants allows the gardener to grow a larger variety of plants since each dwarf plant takes up less space. Small rhododendrons include ‘PJM,’ ‘September Snow’ and ‘Cappuccino.’ Most azaleas stay relatively small and are easy to prune to keep to the size you need. Small rose bushes are nice in a sunny area. When you have a small amount of land, go for dwarf varieties of trees or trees, which generally don’t grow very large, like dogwood, Japanese red maple or crepe myrtle.

Less lawn

Unless you have a really pressing reason not to, cut back on the amount of land devoted to growing a lawn. It will be less work for you (mowing, spreading fertilizer and weed killer) and less chemicals will go into the environment. This frees up land for fruits and veggies, specimen trees, shrubs, etc.

Double duty

Make your plants do double duty. If you need a hedge, consider planting blueberry bushes. You’ll have your hedge and a bountiful crop of berries. Plant dwarf tomatoes in hanging baskets. They’ll dress up the outside and at the same time give you tomatoes for your salads. If you want to attract birds to the garden, consider any plant that produces berries that birds enjoy such as beautyberry. The berries can also be used to make jelly as can rose petals and rose hips.

For a kid’s play tepee, wire together a few poles to make the supports, set up as an inverted cone and plant pole beans or scarlet runner beans around the outside of the tepee, making sure you leave an opening for kids to come and go. If you don’t want veggies, plant climbing flowers instead.

There are several things to keep in mind when maximizing gardening space:

• Make sure you water you plants sufficiently. Those growing in pots can dry out more quickly than those raised in the ground. Those grown as part of a vertical gardening system may require more water in general than smaller plants raised in the same space.

• You may need to use more fertilizer than you would normally for the same reasons as needing to use more water. Be careful here, however, not to burn your plants. It’s safest to use compost.

• Keep out weeds as they will compete for resources in the garden.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Montauk daisies should be divided, if needed, in spring. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Coneflowers can be divided in spring or fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

One of the nice benefits of growing perennials is that they come back year after year without replanting — it saves time, energy and money. However, as the years go by, perennial beds can become overgrown and need to have their plants divided.

When is the ideal time to divide your perennials? Perennials can be divided almost any time, but, ideally, don’t divide perennials in the summer since it will be harder to keep the new plants growing with the heat and lessened rain. In an emergency, for example, when having to clear part of your property for new construction, divide as needed even if it is 90 degrees outside. But this is an emergency situation rather than good planning and means you need to take extra care to keep the plants thriving.

Black-eyed Susans can be divided in spring or fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel


The rule of thumb is to divide spring and summer bloomers in the fall. That means that you should have already divided plants like hostas. Fall-blooming plants (like mums, asters, Montauk daisies, etc.) should be divided in spring. By dividing them at the appropriate time, more of the plant’s energy will go into growing new roots and leaves. However, always do some research on the specific plants you need to divide before digging up the perennial clump as some plant species can be very persnickety when it comes to dividing time. And, some plants, like black-eyed Susans and coneflowers can be divided in either spring or fall.

Some perennials need to be divided every three or four years, depending on how thickly they have grown. Others don’t need to be divided for many years, like peonies. If there were fewer flowers last year than in the past, it’s a sign the clump needs to be divided. If there is a bare spot in the center of the clump, that, too is a sign the perennials need to be divided.

Steps to follow:

• Look at the size of the clump and decide into how many pieces you want to divide the clump.

• If possible, dig the appropriate number of receiving holes before you actually cut the clump. This will lessen transplant shock. You can, naturally put one of the divisions back into the original hole.

• If you can’t plant the divisions immediately, wrap them in newspaper or burlap, dampen with water and store in a bucket in a cool, shady place. Plant them ASAP.

• It’s easiest to dig up and divide a clump of perennials after there has been a rainfall.

• Start digging at the drip line and work your way around the outside of the clump of perennials.

• Once you’ve lifted the clump, if possible, divide the rooted sections by hand. This will lessen root damage.

• If necessary, take a sharp spade or gardening knife (make sure you have thoroughly cleaned it first) and cut the clump into several sections, making sure that you have roots attached to each section.

• If there was a bare spot in the center of the original bed, do not replant that section, but rather discard it to your compost pile. • Make sure you add organic matter to the newly planted divisions of the perennials.

• Keep the new plants moist, but not soggy, until they have had time to establish themselves. Mulch would be useful here. In a few months, your new plants should be growing well.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Ryan Madden from the Long Island Progressive Coalition leads a march calling for renewable energy in the form of wind. Photo from Ryan Madden

Scientists and politicians are relied upon to do the bulk of the work to reduce the effects and pace of climate change, but local activist organizations on Long Island are taking on the burden as well.

“I think it’s really important for grassroots and local solutions to tackle this crisis — to be at the forefront of the solutions,” Ryan Madden, with the Long Island Progressive Coalition said. “A lot of the problems we see in this country, in New York State and on Long Island, whether it’s rampant income inequality, access to education, just issues of local pollution and ailments related to the combustion of fossil fuels, all of this connects into a larger system that informs why climate change is a problem in the first place.”

The LIPC, a community-based grassroots organization that works on a range of issues related to sustainable development as well as achieving social, racial and economic justice, has a program for improving energy efficiency. The group helps low- to moderate-income homeowners take advantage of free energy assessments and obtain financial resources to be able to go through energy-efficient retrofits and ultimately help reduce carbon footprints. The organization also recently entered the solar arena.

Members of Sustainable Long Island’s youth-staffed farmers market in New Cassel. Photo from Gabrielle Lindau

“It’s part of a larger push to democratize our energy system so that communities have a say in the build out of renewable energy and have ownership or control over the systems themselves,” Madden said. “We’re pushing for constructive and far-reaching changes, which is what we think is needed in this time.”

Madden added he has fears about the future because of comments President Donald Trump (R) has made in the past regarding climate change and his previously stated belief it is a hoax. Trump signed an executive order March 28 that served as a rollback of the Clean Power Plan, an initiative meant to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. The order infringes on commitments to the Paris Agreement, a universal, legally binding global climate deal.

“We’re trying to meet that with really bold, visionary climate policy that has a wide range of economic transformative impacts, while also remaining on the ground helping homeowners and institutions make that switch through energy efficiency and renewable energy,” Madden said.

Other organizations like the Sierra Club, a nonprofit, are also focused on renewable energy, but in the form of offshore wind.

“Offshore wind is the best way to meet our need for large-scale renewable energy that can help us fight climate change and provide good jobs for New Yorkers, but we aren’t used to getting our energy this way in the United States,” Sierra Club organizer Shay O’Reilly said. “Instead, we’re used to relying on dirty fossil fuels, and our energy markets and production systems are centered on these ways of producing electricity.”

Gordian Raacke, with Renewable Energy Long Island also works on this front. He and his group advocated for and eventually convinced the Long Island Power Authority to do a study on offshore wind power.

“January of this year, LIPA agreed to sign a contract for New York’s first, and the country’s largest, offshore wind project,” he said.

New York Renews hosted a town hall to get community members together to talk about climate change issues. Photo from Ryan Madden

Deepwater Wind will build and operate the 90-megawatt project 30 miles east of Montauk Point in the Atlantic Ocean. The project will generate enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

In 2012, the group also commissioned a study to evaluate whether Long Island could generate 100 percent of its annual electricity consumption from renewable energy sources. The study, The Long Island Clean Electricity Vision, showed that it would not only be possible, but also economically feasible.

Currently, the LIPC has a campaign to pass the Climate and Community Protection Act in New York State, which would decarbonize all sectors of New York’s economy by 2050, redirect 40 percent of all state funding to disadvantaged communities — which would decrease pollution over decades — and ensure a transition away from fossil fuels.

These topics and others are taught in classes at Stony Brook University under its Sustainability Studies Program. Areas of study include environmental humanities, anthropology, geology, chemistry, economy, environmental policies and planning. Students do hands-on and collaborative work and take on internships in the field. They also clear trails and develop businesses to help increase sustainability among other hands-on initiatives.

“Our mission is to develop students who become leaders in sustainability and help to protect the Earth,” Heidi Hutner, director of the program said. “Climate change and pollution is the most important issue facing us today. We have to find a way to live on this planet and not totally destroy it and all of its creatures. Our students are skilled in many different ways, going into nongovernmental or not-for-profit organizations, becoming law professors, lawyers, journalists, scientists, educators, but all focused on the environment. A former student of ours is the sustainability director at Harvard Medical School.”

Students from the program organized to march in the People’s Climate March in 2014, and will be doing so again April 29. The purpose of the march is to stand up to the Trump administration’s proposed environmental policies.

Students and staff at East Islip High School work with Sustainable Long Island to build a rain garden. Photo from Gabrielle Lindau

Undergraduates in the program also work closely with environmentally active local legislators like state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), and county Legislators Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport). There is also a Sierra Club on campus.

The LIPC regularly hosts round tables to show other environmental groups what it’s up to and town halls to let community members share their stories and even visit assembly members to lobby for support. Sustainable Long Island, a nonprofit founded in 1998 that specialized in advancing economic development, environmental health and social equality for Long Island, also focuses on low-income communities through its programs.

Food equality and environmental health are the group’s biggest areas of concentration because according to Gabrielle Lindau, the group’s director of communications, the issues are tied to each other.

“There is a polarization here on Long Island,” she said. “We have extremely rich communities, and then we have extremely poor communities.”

According to Lindau, 283,700 people receive emergency food each year, so Sustainable LI builds community gardens and hosts youth-staffed farmers markets to combat the problem.

“It’s a game-changer for low income communities,” she said. “These communities gardens are great because they give people access to fresh, healthy food, and it also puts the power in their hands to find food and also, the learning skills to be able to grow that food. It’s also a paid program, so it’s giving them an opportunity to earn what they’re working toward.”

The youth-staffed farmers markets, which began in 2010, have been a real catalyst for change in communities like Farmingdale, Roosevelt, Freeport, Flanders, New Castle and Wyandanch where access to fresh food is not a given.

Children help Sustainable Long Island build a community garden. Photo from Gabrielle Lindau

“We have so much farming going on out east here on Long Island and I don’t think people who live here ever step back to look at all the food we have here in our own backyard,” Lindau said. “These markets are an incredible program because they’re not only teaching kids in communities about agriculture where they wouldn’t have necessarily had the opportunity to do that, but they’re also teaching them financial literacy skills, and, at the same time, they’re bringing in healthy food items to their neighbors.”

Shameika Hanson a New York community organizer on Long Island for Mothers Out Front, an organization that works to give women a voice for change — empowering and providing them with skills and resources to get decision makers and elected officials to act on their behalf — does specific work with climate change, also calling for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As a national organization, the topics range depending on the needs of an area from getting methane gas leaks plugged, to stopping oil trains for moving through the area, to getting involved in carbon offsets. Specifically on Long Island, women are creating a task force to ensure the drinking water quality across the island is standardized.

“Democracy doesn’t work without civic engagement,” Hanson said. “There’s a need for a conversation to happen that is united. Even though the water authorities are separate, the water isn’t.”

Sustainable Long Island also works on building rain gardens to reduce stormwater runoff into local waters.

“We’re in a dire situation here on Long Island when it comes to our aquifers,” Lindau said. “We have an intense amount of nitrogen that’s already going into the ground.”

The nonprofit works with the Environmental Resource Management Foundation and PSEG Foundation and builds rain gardens like the one at the Cove Animal Rescue in Glen Cove and others in East Islip and Long Beach.

“It’s about educating communities on the importance of the rain garden and why green infrastructure practices are pivotal for environmental health on Long Island moving forward,” Lindau said. “If we don’t have clean drinking water, we’re going to be in trouble, if we don’t have usable soil to plant in, we’re not going to have farms growing the produce we need to survive and if we don’t have that produce, then we’re not going to be able to bring food into these low-income communities for people who can’t get it otherwise. They’re all connected in a number of different ways and a lot of them root back to health.”

Students in Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Program participate in the 2014 People’s Climate March in NYC. Photo from Heidi Hutner

Sustainable Long Island has done work with local municipalities following superstorms like Hurricane Sandy. They helped communities rebuild, hosted peer-to-peer education meetings to better prepare locals and business owners for another devastating storm and provided job training to bring businesses back.

“A big part of this is going into communities and educating them and helping to advocate in order to facilitate change,” Lindau said. “Working with other groups is extremely important as well. We’re not a lone wolf in the nonprofit world — we not only find it important to work with governments and other municipalities — but to connect with other nonprofits who have something unique to offer as well.”

Melanie Cirillo, with the Peconic Land Trust, reiterated the need for local organizations to team up. The Peconic Land Trust conserves open space like wetlands, woodlands and farmland. It keeps an eye on water quality and infrastructure like Forge River in Mastic, which is a natural sea sponge that absorbs storm surge.

“Wetlands are key in so many of our waterfront properties,” she said. “We have a finite amount of drinking water that we need to protect for our own health. The protection of land is integral to the protection of the water.”

She said although every organization may have a bit of a different focus, they’re all working under the same umbrella and premise, with the same goal in mind: maintaining the health of Long Island.

“I think it’s important for groups to have the ability to bring people together, especially because the impact of climate change affects people in a lot of different ways, whether it’s high energy costs, the impact of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, sea level rise or coastal erosion, or ocean acidification that impacts people’s fishery and economic way of life,” Madden said. “We have to meet the immediate visceral needs of people — of communities and workers — but we also need to be thinking decades ahead on what it will take to decarbonize our entire economic system. It’s really important for groups to be oriented toward that long term focus, because this is an all hands on deck situation.”

This version corrects the spelling of Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Program Director Heidi Hutner’s last name.