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Landscaping

The efforts of Craig den Hartog beautify local hamlets year after year after year

Craig den Hartog in front of his truck often seen by the side of Old Town Road. photo from PJS/T Chamber of Commerce

Craig den Hartog, a Terryville resident, was only a neon ink blot on the side of Old Town Road. A hunched figure in the weeds, his body bent over, his head low to the dirt, he could have been praying. 

A sign for Old Town Blooms in front of his planted daffodils. photo from Old Town Blooms Facebook

On the edge of the road, near to passing cars streaming past upward of 50 miles per hour, den Hartog was in his own sanctuary. The side of the road was his chapel that he has cultivated for upward of 10 years. In that time, he has planted tulips and bushes alike, one to keep the poison ivy and other invasive plants down, the other to make the corners along the road striking to anybody who takes the time to look at them.

Den Hartog is the owner of Emerald Magic Lawn Care landscaping company and the founder of Old Town Blooms, a community group that looks to maintain beautification efforts along Old Town Road and into the rest of the local hamlets. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature,” said den Hartog as he attacked the weeds along Old Town Road the morning of May 18. One particular stretch was choked with poison ivy and litter. 

The founder of Old Town Blooms has made it a personal mission to clean up his local area, though he is an old hand at landscaping. It’s been nearly a decade since he started, but his mission of beautification continues undaunted.

In numerous places the Terryville resident’s flowers bloom — daffodils and tulips. In the Steven J. Crowley Memorial Park, all the flowers that shine bright with oranges and purples are thanks to his constant efforts.

The Old Town Blooms project started nearly a decade ago, with him and neighbors having an “attitude adjustment hour,” calling themselves lawn lizards where a bunch of them would go to neighbors’ houses to do a specific piece of lawn maintenance. That was when the neighbors started to see just how dirty and overgrown Old Town Road had become with weeds, garbage and construction debris, including a growing pile of bricks. After complaining to Brookhaven town and not getting a response, they realized they were on their own. 

Since then, Old Town Blooms has planted thousands of flowers along the course of the road from Coram into Terryville and East Setauket. Den Hartog has become notorious in the area for his cleanup efforts and his attempts to get his neighbors involved. Having extra flower bulbs on hand, he has stuck them in his neighbors’ mailboxes and has felt great pride in seeing those flowers bloom in the beds in front of their homes.

Now he is the owner of Holtsville-based Emerald Magic Lawn Care Inc., where he does soil testing and diagnosis. He said those skills work great toward keeping the area safe from dangerous plants, as such things like mulching and which plants prevent weeds is often
very misunderstood.

“A big part of my job is not just diagnosing the problems in the landscape but also educating the client,” he said. 

Though the flowers present a united and vibrant resolution to beautification, many of his efforts go unnoticed. Plants that may seem like natural growth are actually specifically planted by the veteran horticulturist. Plants like purple coneflower and sedum are his “volunteers,” or the plants others would just throw away if they become overgrown. They help stem the tide of weeds, and he has to make sure that Brookhaven’s subcontractors don’t come in and mow his preventative plants. Since the program started, he has spent thousands of dollars of his own money on plants to bring life to the two-lane road.

It’s not just Old Town Road that has received his touch but the surrounding community. Joe Coniglione, the principal of Comsewogue High School, said Hartog helped with beautification of the school, sprucing the area up with flowers of gold and blue, the school colors. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature.”

— Craig den Hartog

“Him having spread that around this community is really uplifting,” Coniglione said. “His kids went through Comsewogue, they are long gone, but he is still involved in the community and the school… he’s just a great person.”

Den Hartog’s daughter, Michelle, lives in Queens and works at the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Huntington as a teacher, but she tries to come out once or twice a year to help her father. Nearly 10 years ago, when the work started, she could only think how simple a fix it was, and she has started to do the same kind of cleanup and bloom plantings with the children at her school.

“Even starting at young ages, it’s so important to teach taking care of your community,” she said. “Every year, coming down this road in March and April and seeing all the daffodils it makes me so happy — just the seven miles — I’ll just do the drive just to see the blooms.”

Joan Nickeson, the community liaison for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce had met den Hartog years ago in the early spring, surprised by the sight of bright yellow daffodils popping up along Old Town Road. The Terryville resident would become involved with the chamber and was instrumental in area beautification, helping to remove invasive vines on trees and to maintain the chamber-owned train car at the corner of Route 112.

“At home we call him for our green issues,” she said. “He and my husband Rich could ‘talk trees’ for hours … We are indebted to him.”

Den Hartog has a passion for getting others involved, calling all who help him in his efforts “bloomers.” This passion for beautification has extended well past the confines of Old Town Road. Debbie Engelhardt, the director of the Comsewogue Public Library, said the library organized a community cleanup in conjunction with the overall Great Brookhaven Cleanup. Den Hartog was there offering his expertise, and she said they will be working with him in the future.

“We are indebted to him.”

— Joan Nickeson

“Craig’s contribution was cutting the ‘mother vines’ of the poison ivy plants endangering many of the trees along Terryville Road,” Engelhardt said. “I was amazed at how many trees had been enveloped; most of us drive by and don’t think about these things. I’m glad the community has Craig out there, so we can keep as many trees healthy as possible.”

Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) has seen the work of the Terryville horticulturist on multiple occasions. 

“He has always played an active role in our community,” Cartright said in an email. “Mr. den Hartog works hard as both a local business owner and on his volunteer endeavor, Old Town Blooms. Craig’s dedication to rallying our community and organizing local beautification efforts is truly commendable and a gift to the Port Jefferson Station-Terryville community.”

However, cleaning up such a vast area with himself and a few of the occasional volunteers does begin to become a mental rock climb. He admitted he does occasionally procrastinate on parts of the project, especially considering its vast size, not to mention his own business and the work he does at his house. But that’s when the script flips, once work begins, the momentum carries him through.

“As soon as I start, I start enjoying myself,” he said. “If you want something done, you just have to start.”

Steven J. Crowley Memorial Park in Port Jefferson Station on Old Town Road is one of the parks affected by the new limitations. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Town of Brookhaven is looking to make cleaning up their parks a little quieter and a little more environmentally friendly.

At its May 2 meeting, the town board voted unanimously to establish “green parks” at various locations within the Town of Brookhaven. This mandates the town to only use electric-powered, handheld landscaping equipment when cleaning up the parks.

Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) was one of the main drivers for the bill, which would establish the ordinance in only small parks, including the Steven J. Crowley Memorial Park and Block Boulevard Park in Port Jefferson Station, and Sycamore Circle Park and Parson Drive Park in Stony Brook. The Democratic councilwoman said it is a case of both noise and pollution.

“Thirty minutes running a gas-powered leaf blower pollutes the same as a Ford Raptor truck running 3,900 miles. One leaf blower creates two to four pounds of particulate matter per hour,” Cartright said.

The changes have been limited to small-sized parks in the town, according to Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), because the batteries wear out if used constantly for the larger town-owned parks, though he said the town was looking to go beyond this pilot program in the direction of all electric handheld landscape equipment for more than town employees.

Cartright said she has been looking into more general legislation that would affect gas-powered leaf blowers within the entire town. She pointed to the town of North Hempstead, which passed a law in January this year banning the use of gas-powered leaf blowers from June 15 to Sept. 15. 

The councilwoman said she wants to bring landscaping associations and other advocacy groups to the table.

“I don’t want to do something that impacts the landscapers that’s negative,” Cartright said. “I do want to bring them to the table to talk about how we can be a little more environmentally friendly.”

The new ordinance requires a budget transfer of $10,000 for the new equipment, which mostly comes in the form of electric leaf blowers.

Other parks included are Miller Avenue Park in Shoreham, the Gary Adler Park in Centereach and the Pamela and Iroquois parks in Selden. All councilors on the board cosponsored the bill with parks from their individual areas.

Cartright said she receives constant notice from residents complaining about landscapers using loud equipment not just in town-owned parks, but at all times in the day on people’s property. 

“We have constituents calling every other day telling us they’re in violation of our noise code, and that we need to do something about it,” Cartright said. 

When it comes to choosing a landscaper, the Democratic councilwoman said there is no one person helping to show which landscapers try to use electric equipment.

“If I wanted to pick a landscaper that used only electric, we don’t know who that is,” she said.

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By Susan Risoli

Plants, trees and earth. They might look solid and unmoving. But today’s landscape professionals say that when it comes to the ways homeowners experience their outdoor spaces, trends are fluid and evolving.

As landscape design expands to include more options, Long Islanders are pushing the boundaries of the outdoor season as much as possible, said Jason Merz, owner of Metamorphosis Landscape Design in Smithtown. “People want to get as much use of their backyard as they can,” he said. “They expect to enjoy it from March or April through October.” And in general, “people are spending a lot more money on their homes and their landscaping than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” Merz said.

outdoor_lightingwSlaving over a hot stove in a sweltering kitchen? Please. These days, cooks are bringing their culinary talents into the backyard, preparing festive meals in full view of their guests. Merz said his company gets requests for “almost a full-on kitchen outside, as part of the patio.” Sinks, refrigerators, large barbecue grills, bar caddies — “they become great focal points for the backyard,” he said. And outdoor heaters keep the setting cozy in the chilly temperatures of early spring and late fall.

Customers’ imaginations are quite literally catching fire. Merz said recently he has seen more and more people using elements such as fire pits and outdoor fireplaces. He’s also noticed that “a lot more people are looking to use outdoor structures, like a cabana or pool house.”

Outdoor televisions are big this year, Merz noted. “This is one of the hottest things lately,” he said. “People use it to watch the football game while they’re sitting outside.” The TVs are mounted on the house or the roof line, in spots where they can be protected from rain, wind and sun.

Swimming pools are no longer limited to basic rectangular shapes. “We’ve been doing more custom gunite pools,” Merz said, with disappearing infinity edges becoming a popular favorite. When it comes to paving stones used for exterior flooring, homeowners “want to get away from a cookie-cutter look,” he said. “Lots of people like natural stone pavers, like bluestone and granite, around their swimming pools.”

outdoor_kitchenwIncreasingly, consumers want more than just one new backyard feature, asking instead for an integrated design of the entire space. “The trend is, people are calling in and saying, ‘We know we need this project done, but we need a design,’” Merz said. “We provide the landscape design for them, and then we build it.”

Irena Romovacek, landscape designer for Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, has seen changes in the types and colors of plants her clients prefer. In recent years, people are being kinder to our beleaguered planet by using more sustainable plants, “in keeping with nature,” she said. This greener strategy calls for succulents instead of grass, “because grass needs a lot of water and fertilizer to make it look good.”

Hamptons outdoor living might include tropical plants such as palm trees, Romovacek said, because the large palm leaves visually offset and balance outdoor displays of modern sculpture that are often a part of East End outdoor spaces. “And tropicals are fun, they’re exotic, they’re unusual,” she said. “Your friends are going to see it and say, ‘Where’d you get that?’”

marble_poolwColor palettes of plantings have changed. “My clients used to like more reds and orange. Now it’s a cooler palette — more blues and greens,” Romovacek said. But even with these softer schemes, she still creates dramatic interest with the strategic placement of shade, or by using plants with colored stems. She and her colleagues have embraced the shift to cooler colors and changed with the times, she said, designing spaces they and their clients can be proud of. “Some of the best landscapes I have designed are green on green,” she pointed out.

Some people want the colors used for decorating inside the house to be brought outdoors. In this way, Romovacek said, color makes a connection between inside and outside environments. “I ask my clients, what are your favorite colors? What colors do you not want to see?”

A growing interest in outdoor music coming through backyard speakers is another recent trend, Romovacek said, and so is landscape lighting. “For the past three years or so, people are asking for more outdoor lighting, and they’re controlling their outdoor lights with their phones,” she said. Some of it is for safety  — illuminating paths or stairs — and some is used to show off or play down parts of the yard. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of lighting to be successful,” she said. “You just want to accentuate some of the elements in your landscape.” Some clients ask her to use outdoor lights to simulate the soft, bewitching allure of moonlight, Romovacek said, and others have requested lighting displays that change color with the seasons.

Double ‘O’ Landscaping Inc. owner Richard Orvieto. Photo from the attorney general's office

The owner of a Stony Brook landscaping company was convicted and sentenced for failing to pay full wages to workers and gaming the state unemployment insurance system, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said.

Richard Orvieto, owner of Double “O” Landscaping Inc., previously pleaded guilty to failing to pay his employees overtime, refusing to pay them owed wages after firing them and defrauding the state unemployment insurance system by paying workers in cash and not reporting their wages on quarterly tax filings, Schneiderman said. He was sentenced last week to pay restitution of $13,032 to three former employees and an additional $19,856.64 to the state Department of Labor. He must also pay a mandatory fine under state labor law, will be on probation for three years and must complete 50 hours of community service, Schneiderman said.

“It doesn’t matter if you own a restaurant or a landscaping company — you must pay your workers the money they are owed and pay them on the books,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “My office will continue to crack down on wage theft and return earnings that rightfully belong to workers.”

Orvieto’s defense attorney, Paul Kalker of Hauppauge, was unavailable for comment.

Based in Stony Brook, Double “O” Landscaping has provided landscaping and light construction services across Long Island. Between Aug. 24, 2011, and Jan. 31, 2014, Orvieto hired workers to perform those services, but did not pay them overtime for hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week, the attorney general said. He also paid his workers in cash off the books, and did not report or pay unemployment insurance contributions for these wages to the state, Schneiderman added.

The attorney general said that in 2013 Orvieto fired three workers and never paid them for their last week of work.

The business owner pleaded guilty to failure to pay wages under the state labor law, a misdemeanor; and Double “O” Landscaping pleaded guilty to falsifying business records in the first degree, a class E felony.

State law requires that employers pay wages no later than seven days after the end of the week when the wages were earned. Employers must also pay one and a half times the workers’ regular rate of pay for any hours worked beyond 40 per workweek. A first offense failure to pay wages is a misdemeanor, while a second offense within five years is a felony.

Double ‘O’ Landscaping Inc. owner Richard Orvieto. Photo from the attorney general's office

Suffolk County officials arrested Richard Orvieto, 55, of Stony Brook on Tuesday and charged him with failing to pay overtime to workers.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Orvieto, the owner and operator of Double “O” Landscaping Inc., committed wage theft while operating his Stony Brook-based business.

From Aug. 24, 2011, to Jan. 31, 2014, Orvieto hired workers and allegedly neglected to pay them overtime, according to a criminal complaint. Toward the end of 2013 Orvieto fired three of these employees and neglected to pay them for their final week at the company, the attorney general said.

The Attorney General’s office said Orvieto was supposed to pay his employees one and one half times their regular pay if they worked more than 40 hours a week. The three unidentified employees who were fired allegedly worked around 20 hours of overtime per week and were not compensated, Schneiderman said.

Orvieto now owes these employees more than $13,000, according to the attorney general.

Orvieto is also charged with defrauding the state unemployment insurance system for paying wages in cash off the books. Schneiderman said he did not report the wages of two of the three former employees and several other workers to the state unemployment insurance fund for this quarterly period.

Double “O” Landscaping’s quarterly return files did not include the names of the fired employees consistently, the complaint said. For the quarterly return files, filed from July 31, 2012, to Jan. 31, 2014, did not include the names of the three fired workers, Schneiderman said.However, Orvieto’s name consistently appeared on these documents.

The landscape business owner “is also liable for unpaid unemployment insurance contributions, fraud penalties and interest to the state unemployment insurance system totaling more than $19,000,” the attorney general said in a press release.

Orvieto was arraigned on June 22 in the 1st District Court in Central Islip. His next court date was set for Aug. 25.

He faces felony charges for falsifying business records and offering a false instrument for filing both in the first degree. Orvieto also faces two unclassified misdemeanors for failure to pay wages under Labor Law Section 198-a(1) and Willful Failure to Pay Unemployment Insurance Contributions. If convicted, he faces maximum jail sentence of four years.

Orvieto and his company will also “face maximum fines, in addition to restitution, of $20,000 for each count.”

Orvieto’s defense attorney, Paul Kalker of Hauppauge, was unavailable for comment.

Under New York law, employers are required “to pay wages no later than seven days after the end of the week when the wages were earned and to report all wages paid to employees on quarterly tax filings with the state,” according to the attorney general’s office.

Schneiderman was unavailable for further comment but said in the press release that protecting hardworking New York employees is a priority.

“My office will take aggressive action, including criminal charges, where appropriate, against business workers who fail to properly compensate their workers, and who try to avoid other laws by paying workers off the books,” Schneiderman said.

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