Gardening

By Melissa Arnold

With cooler weather on the horizon and a bit of normalcy returning to Long Island, there’s no better time to get out and enjoy some fresh air. If you’re looking for a fun and safe outdoor activity that’s out of the ordinary, a trip to Rottkamp’s Fox Hollow Farm in Baiting Hollow is just the ticket.

This year, the farm has planted a sunflower maze for the first time. Following the success of sunflower mazes grown earlier this summer, co-owner Jeff Rottkamp has planted a new series of mazes that will bloom in the fall.

The family-owned farm has been in business for more than 50 years now, with centuries of agriculture in their blood. Fox Hollow is currently run by Jeff, his parents and brother, with help from other relatives.

In recent years, people have flocked to the farm to enjoy the season’s bounty along with hayrides and corn mazes, but this year, the Rottkamps were excited to try something new.

“I’ve been seeing sunflower mazes popping up online from places all over the country, and I liked the way they looked,” Rottkamp said. “I knew it was something we could do and I thought people would find it fun. We did a brief trial run last summer and the feedback was extremely positive, so we were happy to do it again officially.”

Photo courtesy of
Rottkamp’s Fox Hollow Farm

Setting up any kind of crop maze is a process that requires an imagination and a lot of planning in advance, Rottkamp said. First, you have to select the right field — not too large, not too small, and in just the right spot on the sprawling grounds. Planting begins two months ahead of when they want the maze to be ready.

“Sunflowers need a lot of maintenance and careful watering,” he added. “I come up with the pathways at random each time we plant a field, so it’s a new experience every time.”

There are several varieties of sunflowers in different colors and sizes. In addition to the familiar golden petals, you’ll see sunflowers in shades of pink, maroon and white. Most of the sunflowers will grow to be 4 to 6 feet tall, but there will also be scattered sunflowers around 10 feet tall.

Of course, a maze made of living things can only last so long — sunflowers are only in bloom for about two weeks. To counter this, the farm is planting three different fields of sunflowers at staggered times. When one dies out, the next will be ready to go, and each one is different from the last.

The three fields are also different sizes. In order of growth, they are 1 acre, 4 acres, and 3 acres. But don’t worry about getting lost. “It’s not that kind of maze, it’s not a puzzle. It’s more of a wandering path that you can take your time going through, to take pictures and have a little bit of fun,” Rottkamp explained. “No one will get lost, and this is appropriate for all ages to enjoy.”

Before or after your trip through the maze, be sure to stop by the farmstand and pick up fresh, seasonal produce. Autumn will bring in the last of the sweet corn and tomatoes, as well as pumpkins, winter squash and zucchini, among others.

There are treats for sale as well, including local honey, Tate’s Bake Shop cookies, and fresh pies and donuts from the Jericho Cider Mill.

The mazes will be open for wandering throughout September and into October if the crop and weather permit.

Admission to the Rottkamp’s Fox Hollow Farm sunflower maze is $5 per person. Children ages 5 and under are free. The farm is located at 2287 Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow. For further information, please call 631-727-1786.

This article first appeared in Harvest Times 2020, a supplement from TBR News Media.

All photos by Heidi Sutton

Francis Halstead adds flowers to a railing in the Vanderbilt Mansion courtyard.

Francis Halstead is one of 11 garden designers and local nurseries taking part in the third annual Gardeners Showcase at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport through September, along with the Vanderbilt’s corps of volunteer gardeners. He is the first participant, however, to plant flowers of his own creation in some of the Vanderbilt Mansion gardens and terraces.

Hybrid Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpet, in the Vanderbilt Mansion Sundial Garden

Halstead, who started Flowers by Friends in 2012 in Levittown, is a self-trained horticulturalist. “I went to Farmingdale State College for a single semester,” he said, “but most of what I’ve learned has been self-taught. I first became interested in gardening when I worked for a grower in Colorado. I’ve put myself into situations where I could also learn from experts in the field.”

Some of those experts were his colleagues at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, where he became lead tropical flower grower.

While working in Colorado, Halstead also became interested in exotic plants, including ethnobotanicals, specifically Brugmansia. (Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants.) Many of the hybrids he planted in the Sundial Garden are Brugmansia, flowering ornamental plants. They are also called Angel’s Trumpets for their large, fragrant flowers.

“When I saw what the leading Brugmansia growers were producing, I became fascinated,” he said. “I was inspired when I imagined what the hybrids would look like in a flower show. That’s what really drives me. At Flowers by Friends, we design flower shows using new hybrids of rare exotic plants. We want to educate people about their importance.”

In learning about horticulture and building his business, Halstead said he was guided by a philosophical quote from the singer and rapper Kevin Gates: “Anything lost can be found again, except for time wasted. A vision without action is merely a dream.”

Jim Munson, the Vanderbilt’s operations supervisor, who created and oversees the Gardeners Showcase, said, “Francis’s hybrids in the Sundial Garden are in full bloom now. People will not see these flowers anywhere else because, through botany, he has cross-pollinated different flowers to create completely new floral hybrids. His creations are utterly spectacular.”

Halstead also has planted all the flowerpots around the restored saltwater pool and created a display for the fountain in the alcove beneath the staircase to the pool. In addition, he brought in Nelson Demarest, the head garden designer at Hicks Nursery for the last 40 years. Together they created planters for all the balconies in the Mansion courtyard, Munson said.

To produce hybrid flowers, Halstead chooses the flowers he wants to cross-pollinate. “Then, you have to cross them depending on which traits you would want to see in your new seedlings,” he said. “After that, you let the seeds develop, harvest them, name them by the crosses, and plant them.”

Once the plants start to develop, he picks out the ones he no longer wants and grows the others. It takes three years before a Brugmansia cultivar is stable enough to be named. Halstead said few people outside of the plant-growing community know about Brugmansia:

“I sell them through flower shows. That is my real business. Growing plants and creating art with them.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Photos by Jim Munson

Local non-profit pivots fundraising effort and aids local farmers, community, and economy

The Smithtown Children’s Foundation has spent the last twelve years helping local residents in need. Funds are raised primarily by large gathering events. C0VID-19 has canceled all of those events for 2020. “We had to pivot just like every other business. Unfortunately, need is at an all-time high, when our funds are at an all-time low,” said Christine Fitzgerald, President, and Co-Founder of Smithtown Children’s Foundation. “We had to get creative.”

Farm to Trunk is the brainchild of SCF board member and former Nesconset Farmer’s Market Manager, Nancy Vallarella. “COVID related social media posts revealed local residents were ordering product from distributors that were sourcing produce from all over the country. With Long Island’s harvest approaching, why not organize a minimal contact delivery system that would help Long Island farmers, the local economy, and provide the consumer with the freshest, nutrient-packed produce available?” she said.

Red Fox Organic Farms, located on the property of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood, was the first Long Island farm to join this fundraising program. Jim Adams, Red Fox’s Farm Coordinator remarked,” We are thrilled and so grateful to be working with SCF. It’s just the connection we needed to begin sharing our food with the Long Island community.”

Smithtown resident Dawn Mohrmann has purchased the Red Fox Organic produce box for the past four weeks. “The Farm to Trunk Smithtown Children’s Foundation program has been an easy decision. A great foundation paired with great local, organic, farm-fresh food! Healthy produce for our family is what we look forward to every week,” said Mohrmann.

SCF’s Farm to Trunk will be bringing Sujecki Farms (Calverton), back to Smithtown as an additional produce provider for the Farm to Trunk Fundraiser. “Sujecki Farms has a following here in Smithtown. They have been an anchor in Smithtown’s Farmers’ Market history for over a decade,” said Vallarella. “They are a family that has been farming on Long Island for over 100 years. We welcome their products and are excited to continue to support their farming effort.”

All orders are placed directly with each farm and are delivered to Watermill Caterers, 711 Smithtown Bypass/Rt.347, Smithtown. Smithtown Children’s Foundation volunteers deliver the produce boxes to the customer’s car trunk from the southwest corner of the Watermill’s parking lot every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. There is no on-going commitment. Consumers can order week to week.

Information on the program can be found on the Farm to Trunk — Smithtown Children’s Foundation Facebook.

Order links:

Red Fox Organic Farms — https://www.redfoxfarm.farm/product-page/red-fox-box

Sujecki Farms — https://www.sujeckifarms.com/product-page/smithtown-farm-to-trunk-veggie-box

Photos from Nancy Vallarella

If Caran Markson could make the world green, cover it in manicured sets of pollinating flowers and sweet smelling herbs, she would. 

Hearing her talk about planting and gardening, the possibilities seem endless. If she had unlimited hours in the day, she would pick up every spare piece of litter on the road from Port Jeff to Montauk, she would kneel in the medians along Route 25A with cars flashing past on either side and weed the curbs of their overgrown stalks and giant vegetation. If she was the queen of gardening, there would be a pocket park on every corner of every publicly accessed street in Suffolk County, or even wider, all of New York state. If she was the monarch of the pollinating flowers, there would be a gardener for every county, town and village, and she would lead her army from the front.

PJ Village Gardener Caran Markson transplants and weeds near the Village Center June 24. Photo by Kyle Barr

To hear her speak, one may truly believe the world could be green from one end to the other, if only there were more people with mindsets like hers. 

“A gardener’s work is never done,” Markson said. “Turn around after you’ve done something, and if you don’t enjoy it or see the progress you’ve made, then you’ve got to go do something else.”

But alas, she can only control what goes on in Port Jefferson village, and there’s more than enough there to keep her occupied. Since she started six years ago, she has turned from one of two seasonal part-time village gardeners to the lone full-time caretaker of the village’s many pocket parks. She’s out nearly every day of the week, most of the time beginning the job at 6 a.m. She’s out on the weekends too. She’s out in the blazing sun and the drizzling rain. In normal times, she would open the basketball court and Rocketship Park and take out the trash. She still walks all around the village and picks up litter, every single discarded wrapper and cigarette butt. To her, strewn garbage is public enemy number 1. 

“Because I’m a nut, and I’m an absolute anal person as far as litter is concerned,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely disgraceful everyone throws everything on the ground.”

In autumn, she keeps the parks clear of debris. In the winter, she’s out shoveling snow. She has worked with the Long Island Explorium to construct three rain gardens at Village Hall, the Village Center and the Department of Public Works building, the last called the Whale’s Tail for its unique shape. She works an area of 3 square miles, from the country club to downtown and uptown to the village limits near the train station. 

At 61, with a wiry frame, Markson is like a coiled spring as she attacks green spots in the village such as the gardens next to Harborfront Park and in the center of the roundabout next to the Village Center. Three years ago, she described it as “a bunch of weeds, and a bunch of overgrown looking bushes.” The village parks department helped remove the old shrub, and Markson replanted it with many native plants like Sweet Joe-Pye weed and tall asters. Though she said some thought the plantings seemed sparse, now the area is full to bursting with color once her plants grew out. Among mistakes novice gardeners often make, the biggest are forgetting the importance of maintenance and not recognizing that plants will grow out to occupy more of the space they’re in. 

It’s been much the same for Markson as she’s grown to fit her role. Her family is from Port Jeff, and both her parents and children attended Port Jefferson School District. Her mother was the one to originally teach her about horticulture. She quit being an oral surgeon’s assistant to take care of her terminally ill mother. Once she passed, Markson came back to Port Jeff to “reinvent myself.” Her children are in their 40s, and the plants dotting the village have become her babies.

Mayor Margot Garant said the gardener has an annual budget of around $15,000, but that Markson “does magic with it,” making it stretch by accepting donations from Port Jeff and neighboring communities and by replanting from denser areas of the village to parts that need more. The village gardener and mayor also thanked Kunz Greenhouses in Port Jefferson Station for working with them to provide many of the flowers and greenery all across the village.

The family-owned Kunz Greenhouses has been around for close to 60 years and has been working with the village for nearly four decades. Carolyn Zambraski, who along with her brother is the second generation of greenhouse owners, said she often works with Markson, offering suggestions of native plants and ideas for different planting beds. Driving around the area, the greenhouse owner said the village gardener’s work has made a noticeable improvement in Port Jeff.

“It’s certainly getting better,” she said. “The anchor is a great example, as that was really an eyesore with evergreens and rocks a few years back. The village is going in the right direction.”

Port Jefferson also put up the money for Markson to go through her Master Gardener program with the Cornell Cooperative Extension. She received her certificate of completing 85 hours of training July 25.

“She cares 1,000 percent — her whole heart is in it,” Garant said of Markson. “I find her to be an exemplary employee with an old-fashioned work ethic you can’t just get anywhere.”

As much as she does, Markson isn’t stopping. She has an idea to create a children’s garden in a small patch of grass next to Rocketship Park, adding she is working with Port Jeff’s grant writer Nicole Christian to get some type of funding for such a project. She imagines it as a place where young people can walk through and learn about nature and planting. 

She also wants to work with school-aged children to create small gardens next to the downspouts at Village Hall, where she says there are erosion issues.

Beyond that, though, her ambition stretches past what might be humanly possible. She wishes there were more like her on the town, county and state level who paid as much attention to beautification, to make every stretch of road, street, parking lot, park as perfect as can be. 

“Beautification is so important,” she said. “Everything should look beautiful.”

Above, the Vanderbilt Mansion Terrace Garden and quatrefoil fountain with Northport Bay in the background. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum
Transformed gardens on view through September

Eleven local nurseries and garden designers, plus the Museum’s corps of volunteer gardeners are taking part in the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s third annual Gardeners Showcase.

They redesigned and transformed garden areas, planted new perennials, annuals, shrubs, and trees  — and enhanced the beauty and ambience of William K. Vanderbilt II’s Eagle’s Nest mansion and estate, home of the Museum. The stunning results are on view through September. For now the Vanderbilt has reopened its grounds only – not its buildings – to visitors on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

All visitors are asked to wear a mask when unable to maintain 6-feet distancing from others.

“We are grateful for the enthusiastic response of local landscaping and gardening professionals who have volunteered their talents to beautify the historic estate,” said Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, executive director of the Vanderbilt.

“These floral artisans, as well as our own veteran corps of accomplished volunteer gardeners, have invested their time, labor, and resources. Their enhancements will be enjoyed by thousands of summer visitors,” she added.

Jim Munson, the Museum’s operations supervisor, who created the event, said, “We thought the pandemic might prevent this year’s showcase,” he said. “However, thanks to the undying support and incredible talents of these designers, the showcase has become a reality.

“Many of the gardeners have been affected financially and personally by this health crisis, yet here they all are, once again selflessly giving their time, donations and incredible talents to the Vanderbilt to make it a better place for all. Simply sitting on a bench, listening to the birds and taking in the beauty of the gardens is an absolute gift,” he said.

Participating designers, identified by signage at showcase sites, are: Carlstrom Landscapes, Inc. (Terrace Pool); Centerport Garden Club (Rose Garden), de Groot Designs, Inc. (front entrance); Designs by Nelson (saltwater pool and balcony planters); Flowers by Friends (Sun Dial Garden and Saltwater Pool); Gro-Girl Horticultural Therapy (Sensory Garden); Haven on Earth Garden Design (Planetarium Garden); Mossy Pine Garden & Landscape Design (Clover Leaf Garden); Pal-O-Mine Equestrian J-STEP Program (Sensory Garden); Trimarchi Landscaping & Design (Courtyard Gardens), Tropic Al (Bell Tower/Bridge Garden); Vanderbilt Volunteer Gardeners (Memorial Garden, Columns Garden, Tent Gardens & Vegetable Garden).

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. The admission fee to tour the grounds is $14 per carload, members are free. Tickets are available online only. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org to order.

Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci and Councilman Ed Smyth joined Andrew Steinmueller, President of ARS Landscape & Design, the first business to “adopt” and beautify two pieces of public property under the Adopt-a-Corner community beautification program, for a special unveiling of the installations at the southwest entrance to Heckscher Park in Huntington on June 24.

ARS Landscape & Design planted their first Adopt-a-Corner installation at the Prime Avenue entrance to the park in September of 2019 and added a second installation at the Main Street and Prime Avenue corner entrance to the park, maintaining both installations throughout the year. 

A box of complimentary wildflower seed packets was installed by the landscape company at the second installation, from which visitors to the park can take a complimentary seed packet. A second box of seed packets will be installed next to the first installation on the western Prime Avenue entrance to the park within the week.

Businesses, organizations and residents can adopt, beautify and maintain a select piece of public property approved by the Town of Huntington for one year, with the option to renew for a second year. 

Supervisor Lupinacci sponsored the Town Board resolution creating the Adopt-a-Corner program in October 2018 after Andre Sorrentino, the Town’s Director of General Services, approached him with the idea to involve the greater Huntington community in beautification projects across the town.

“Adopt-a-Corner is quality of life initiative, that offers a creative outlet for residents, business owners and organizations to display their pride in the Huntington community, while helping beautify our town at no cost to our taxpayers,” explained Supervisor Lupinacci. “Thank you to ARS Landscape & Design for these inaugural Adopt-a-Corner installations and for the seed packets they are giving away.”

“I am the prime beneficiary of this Adopt-a-Corner installation because my office is located across the street,” stated Councilman Smyth. “I see this beautiful corner every day. I encourage everyone to make the town look its best by adopting a corner. The resident or business which adopts a corner may put place a small plaque with their name or dedicate the corner in honor of someone.” 

“Over these past few months, we have been faced with a pandemic that forced us all inside and gave us all a feeling of uncertainty. Audrey Hepburn once said ‘To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,’ I hope that by planting these gardens, I can spread a little joy and hope for what tomorrow may bring,” added Steinmueller.

Pictured in photo, from left, Councilman Smyth; Andre Sorrentino; Supervisor Lupinacci; Andrew Steinmueller (holding Addison Steinmueller); Bonnie Steinmueller (holding Ashton Steinmueller); Liz Steinmueller; and Joseph Digicomo. To apply to adopt a corner, visit www.huntingtonny.gov.

Photos courtesy of the Town of Huntington

By John L. Turner

Insight as to the value placed on a wild plant by past generations can be gained by how many common names it’s been given. Typically, a plant with the minimum of just one name has it as a means by which to recognize it and to distinguish the plant from other species. A plant with a number of names, though, suggests a species of greater significance, value, and utility, and such is the case with Shadbush, a common understory shrub or small tree which grows in Long Island’s deciduous forests.

The Shadbush blooms in late April to early May (top photo) and produces edible fruit in late spring to early summer (above). Stock photos

This attractive tree goes by a few names: Shadbush, Shadblow, Serviceberry, and Juneberry. The reference to shad stems from more ancient knowledge of recognizing patterns of nature. Many years ago shad, a species of river herring, was significantly more abundant than today and the spring shad runs up major rivers to reach their spawning grounds was an important event for many people, providing an ample supply of cheap protein. 

Perhaps it was the shad fisherman, or maybe others, but they noticed this tree blossomed at the time the shad were on the move. The five-petaled white blossoms meant migrating shad, hence the connection made permanent by the common name of Shadbush.

The white blossoms of the Shadbush in late April through early May also provided another signal — that winter was done, the ground has thawed, and the dead could receive burial service with caskets sometimes adorned with sprigs of the Serviceberry blossoms.

If the flowers are pollinated, berries form in late spring to early summer, giving rise to the last of its common names — Juneberry. The berrylike fruit is delicious and relished by numerous wildlife, including many birds. Us humans like them too and often turn the fruit into pies, jellies and jams. Technically, the fruit is known as a pome, as are apples, and this isn’t surprising since both apples and Shadbush are members of the Rose family.

The genus name Amelanchier is a french word first used to describe the species.

Four species of Shadbush occur on Long Island, with three of the species found in rich but well drained soils  and one on the eastern end located on sandier, more droughty soils. They range from being a modest multi-stemmed shrub just a few feet tall to a tree 20 to 30 feet high. In forest settings, given its smaller stature, Shadbush grows under taller oaks, black birch, and hickories and, where common, produces scattered “blossom clouds” of white beneath these taller trees. It has attractive smooth grey bark and its leaves are small and oval with toothed margins. Come autumn the foliage turn orange/red, adding a nice splash of color to the forest.

Whatever you wish to call it Shadbush has so much going for it — from its rich folklore, to pretty flowers, attractive bark, and tasty fruit — that I hope you make its acquaintance and perhaps try a berry or two.

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

From left, Callie Brennan, Kristin and Barry Fortunato
Kristin and Barney Fortunato. Photo from WMHO

Fort Salonga residents Kristin and Barney Fortunato (pictured on right) have joined the ranks of many helping to make a difference in the lives of all the health care warriors on the COVID-19 front lines.

Maintaining a massive backyard garden that neighbors and friends lovingly call the “Fortunato Farm” is one of their passions. Kristin, a teacher in the Huntington School District and Barney, in construction management, originally started the garden as just a hobby. Over the years, it grew into a large-scale project that continued to expand growing produce, plants and beyond.  They now have 16 raised garden beds with 700 square feet of growing space. All produce is grown from seed using organic growing practices.

Kristin and Barney Fortunato. Photo from WMHO

This year they had an amazing bounty and wanted to share not only with family and friends but also those healthcare workers in need. They organized a huge plant sale and raised almost $700, all of which was donated to their friends Callie and Tim Brennan, owners of Crazy Beans Restaurant in the Stony Brook Village Center. This donation helped Callie (pictured in top photo on the left) and Tim in their ongoing efforts to create and deliver even more lunches to those dedicated Stony Brook Hospital workers.

“I love gardening. I love the feeling of my hands in the dirt, the ability to provide healthy food to my family and friends and community. I was able to both share my passion for gardening and healthy living with the community, while doing good and giving back to front line workers in the hospital. It was a win – win,” said Kristen.

For information on making your own donation to Stony Brook eateries, call the Ward Melville Heritage Organization at 631-751-2244.

By David Luces 

For Susan Orifici, head of graphic, archival and special projects at the Village Center in Port Jefferson, a walk along the water at Harborfront Park inspired a plan to spread positivity in the community during these uncertain times. 

“I saw the rocks on the shore and I thought of the idea of doing something creative with them; something that would be perfect for families and children who come to the park,” she said. 

The idea culminated into what she calls the “Be Kind Movement,” where individuals can come up to a table in front of the Village Center, pick out a rock, take it home and paint a message of hope, kindness or a fun design. Once they are done painting his of her rock, Orifici said they can place their rock in the designated “Kindness Garden” located behind the Long Island Explorium at the Children’s Park off East Broadway. 

Orifici also suggested that individuals use permanent markers or acrylic paint when designing their rock as these will last longer out in the elements. 

The graphic artist said the table and sign in front of the building is there 24/7. “We try to have it up everyday,” she said. “If it’s too windy or if it’s raining we take it down for the time being.”

In a short time, community members have embraced the movement, with almost  two dozen decorated rocks placed in the kindness garden so far. 

“I couldn’t be happier with the feedback we’ve been getting; everybody loves the idea,” Orifici said. “I wanted to connect with others during these times and  provide a ray of hope.”

Orifici, who is currently working with five other employees inside the Village Center, said it can be lonely sometimes as there’s only so much they can do at the moment but seeing the progress of the kindness garden has been uplifting. 

“It feels great seeing people stop by the table and taking a rock home with them,” she said.  

While the Village Center remains closed to the public, Orifici said she hopes once restrictions are lessened by the state they will be given the go-ahead to conduct a soft-opening of the center followed by an official reopening. 

With the ongoing success of the kindness garden, Orifici said she hasn’t thought about expansion yet but mentioned that participants could start placing rocks in the flower beds around Harborfront Park. 

She is thankful for the support so far. 

“Port Jeff is a tight community. We understand how they feel during this time, we miss them here [at the Village Center],” she said. “We hope they continue to be strong and keep being creative.”

Photos courtesy of Sue Orifici