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Community garden

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Everything is planted and growing in nicely at the new Port Jefferson Community Garden. 

Located on Beach Street, dozens of local volunteers helped create and institute the home for homegrown veggies and other plants that were planted in 16 raised metal beds.

And now, after a lot of dirt, sweat and elbow grease, eggplants, heads of lettuce and different flowers are starting to sprout up.

Trustee Rebecca Kassay, who planted the seed for this pilot project earlier in the year, said that it’s going to be more than just your typical garden. 

Photo by Julianne Mosher

“To build the physical infrastructure of a community garden is one thing, but from early in the planning process, the committee agreed that dynamic educational programming for both the Beach Street gardeners and the community at large was essential to our mission,” she said. “When we gather to open our minds and learn together, we benefit both as individuals and as a community.”

This Monday, on July 19, Port Jefferson Village Community Garden is hosting its very first program, “Best Practices for Organic Vegetable Gardening” at 6 p.m. 

A representative from Cornell Cooperative Extension will be discussing tips and techniques to get the most out of your organic vegetable garden and will be held on the garden grounds.

“Whether you’re a novice or a pro, eight years old or 88 years old, come down and learn something at this Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County program, sponsored by the Port Jefferson Free Library,” she said. “We ask that attendees bring their own chair if they wish to sit during the presentation.”

The program is free for Port Jefferson residents and non-residents. For anyone so inclined to contribute, there will be a jar to collect donations for the community garden to fund future programs and garden projects.

“This is the first of many programs on offer from the Garden to help locals —Port Jeff residents and beyond — make the most of their personal and shared green space,” she said. “I’ve been gardening since I could walk, but especially because it’s Cornell Cooperative Extension program, I’m sure that I’ll learn something new on Monday.”

Progress is being made at the Beach Street community garden in Port Jefferson. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Nearly three-dozen volunteers spent their Saturday building metal beds that will soon be home to veggies and other plants at Port Jefferson’s new community garden.

On May 22, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., 32 volunteers contributed between one to nine hours of volunteer work toward the building of the Beach Street Community Garden. 

The build comes after months of planning, spearheaded by trustee Rebecca Kassay and the PJV Community Garden Committee — a group of volunteers who helped scout out a location that would be beneficial to gardeners young and old. 

“While I planted the seed, it could not have sprouted, thrived and borne fruit like this without the time, efforts and support of so many individuals and groups,” she said.

Kassay said the garden will be able to give residents an opportunity to grow local, organic food and enjoy outdoor recreation together, while creating learning opportunities for its villagers and maintaining parkland. 

The pilot project was approved unanimously by the village during its March 15 board meeting, and $4,000 of village beautification funds was contributed specifically for irrigation and raised-bed materials.  

Volunteers putting the garden beds together. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“Looking at how far this project has come in such a short span of time — only five months — I am overwhelmed by gratitude for this community, the passionate individuals who stepped up to the Community Garden Committee, and community stakeholders who didn’t hesitate to ask how they could help make it happen,” Kassay said. “On Saturday, we kept saying ‘many hands make light work,’ and that was true for the day as well as the project at large.”

While Saturday saw hot temperatures and slight humidity, that didn’t stop the group from prepping the land for its new life. For years, the space on Beach Street was home to a playground that eventually fell into disrepair. As of late, it was an empty lot.

According to Kassay, the volunteers assembled 24 raised-bed kits — each with about 150 pieces in the kit; lined the bottoms of each bed with cardboard; installed 25 fence posts; dug a 12-inch trench around the perimeter of the garden; stapled up deer fencing; installed a poultry netting rodent guard; and moved about 9 cubic yards of topsoil into the raised beds — thanks to Holmes Irrigation which donated company time to help.

“I think it’s an excellent use of property that has sat vacant for too many years with really not a good function,” said Barbara Ransome, director of operations with the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce. “I think this will add another dimension to our community. It’ll engage our residents … maybe assist with businesses that want to do organic gardening. It’s really a win-win.”

Resident Kelly DeVine came down to help out because she was excited for the cause.

“I’ve watched this piece of property go from a playground to this disused lot,” she said. “And when I heard about the community garden, I was really thrilled because I like the environmental aspect of it and the opportunity to start encouraging people to compost, but also the community building. I’m meeting so many of my neighbors out here on this beautiful day and that’s what is so special about living in Port Jeff.”

If the pilot garden project is successful, the committee expects to expand with more raised beds at the Beach Street site in 2022, and in subsequent years create a second garden site at the Highlands parkland uptown.

In order to become a part of the garden’s community, there is a lottery system to obtain a raised bed. There are 20 total raised beds available for rent, with four communal herb/flower beds for registered gardeners. Four of the raised beds have higher sides for gardeners with different abilities.

Submissions are due to Village Hall by June 4 and recipients will be notified via email by June 10.

Those interested can apply at portjeff.com/communitygarden, or may drop off the lottery form to Port Jefferson Village Hall, Raised Bed Lottery, 121 W. Broadway, Port Jefferson, NY 11777.

Members from the Port Jefferson Community Garden Committee at the Beach Street location. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Just in time for spring, Port Jefferson’s community garden is planned and ready to get started.

On March 15, the Village Board of Trustees voted an overwhelming “yes” to the new pilot community garden program. 

The idea behind it, Trustee Rebecca Kassay — who “planted the seed” on the project — said it would be able to give residents an opportunity to grow local, organic food and enjoy outdoor recreation together, while creating learning opportunities for its villagers. The garden would be dedicated to maintaining parkland and be a staple to the community.

And she felt that this quaint area could benefit from its own garden.

“I’ve been around vegetable gardens since I was born,” she said. “My father kept — and still keeps — an impressive half-acre in St. James.”

After completing a degree in Environmental Studies, she moved to Harlem where she found a tense neighborhood being gentrified had one common ground — Jenny Benitez’s community garden in Riverside Park. 

“It was in my time volunteering there that I most clearly saw how this simple human tradition humbles, delights and invites unity between people from all ages and backgrounds,” she said.

Since November 2020, a group of 11 residents volunteered their time to become part of the Community Garden Committee, hoping to launch the garden on an abandoned, vacant plot of land on Beach Street. 

Village gardener Caran Markson said that a long time ago, the land was once a playground with broken-down equipment. Since it was removed, it has been bare, looking for a new purpose.

“The property has been empty for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It was very underutilized.”

For months, the group researched, planned and eventually implemented a design for the village’s first community garden. 

A rendering of the potential community garden located on Beach Street in the Village of Port Jefferson. Photo from Rebecca Kassay

According to Kassay, the garden will initially consist of 16 raised beds, with some being double-high beds for residents with different abilities. The garden will be accessible to all.

“Beach Street is a great little spot for Port Jefferson Village’s first community garden,” she said. “It is a flat piece of underutilized village parkland with plenty of sun for residents to grow some organic veggies.”

But the best part is, the Beach Street plantings are set to begin this summer, and if the pilot garden project is successful, the committee expects to expand at the Beach Street site in 2022, and in subsequent years, create a second garden site at the Highlands parkland uptown.

Kassay added the group is also looking to pilot Port Jefferson’s first composting program at Beach Street, after some research of area-appropriate methods, pending community response.

“This large effort is anticipated between 2023 and 2024,” she said.

Markson said the 16 beds will be planted with vegetables.

“Outside of the raised beds, we’re going to hopefully a whole bunch of berries, maybe grapes, and we can plant native flowers just to beautify this village,” she added. “It’s going to pull the community together.”

On March 15, Mayor Margot Garant and the village board contributed $4,000 of village beautification funds toward the project, specifically to irrigation and raised bed materials. 

Committee members have already begun collecting in-kind and monetary donations from community members to meet the project’s $8,600 2021 budget and will be circulating donation material mid-April.

“No contribution is too small,” she said. “You can find a committee member for more information and/or to give a donation at the weekly Village Farmer’s Market starting May 2.”

Once established, the garden committee will raise money throughout the year with suggested-donation programming and fundraisers.

Kassay said they are looking to break ground on the project May 1, with a ribbon cutting July 10.

“I’m really looking forward to giving fellow residents the ability to grow their own produce,” Kassay said. “Whether it’s a fun family project, a way to cut down on grocery bills, a way to meet new people, part of a journey to better health … I’ve been fortunate to have access to gardens throughout my life, and now I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this with my community.”

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A rendering of the potential community garden located on Beach Street in the Village of Port Jefferson. Photo from Rebecca Kassay

On Monday, March 15 at 3:30 p.m., the Village Board of Trustees and Mayor Margot Garant will vote on a resolution proposed by Trustee Rebecca Kassay to launch a pilot community garden program in Port Jefferson Village. 

The community garden aims to provide residents, who otherwise do not have garden-ready outdoor space, with square footage to grow their own local, organic food. The garden also provides new recreation and learning opportunities for community members of all ages and skill levels. 

Since the year’s start, Kassay and the 11 hardworking members of the Community Garden Committee have researched and met virtually to assemble the 14-page proposal for this pilot program. 

The pilot is proposed for currently-vacant village parkland located at the intersection of Beach Street and Sheldrake Avenue. The plan proposes 16 raised beds, noting that some should be built double-high for residents with different abilities. 

The committee is currently responding to questions sent by the board after the initial pilot presentation at the village board meeting on March 1, addressing specifics around community programming, initial budget and infrastructure. 

If the board approves the pilot program at this Monday’s village meeting, the Community Garden Committee expects that gardeners can be signed up and growing their own produce by early this summer. 

The pilot program will launch with a modest budget, seeking to raise funds and attract material donations for the project. 

Throughout the year, the committee plans to invite local experts and enthusiasts to host programs offering gardening how-to’s, cooking lessons, nutrition/wellness tips, children’s activities and more. 

If the pilot garden project is successful, the committee expects to expand with more raised beds at the Beach Street site in 2022, and in subsequent years, create a second garden site at the Highlands parkland uptown. 

Any residents interested in updates about this project can email [email protected] Residents who are interested in updates about this project can sign up for the garden newsletter here.

Courtesy of Port Jefferson Village Trustee Rebecca Kassay.

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.

Above, a birdhouse made with the library’s 3D printer peeks out among the hydrangea bush and impatiens. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Ellen Barcel

Tucked among the quaint shops on East Main Street in Port Jefferson is an urban oasis.

A community garden came to Port Jefferson this past growing season. The new garden is located in front of the 1812 Captain Thomas Bayles House, right next to the Port Jefferson Free Library on East Main Street. The former home of the Scented Cottage Garden gift shop, the historic building was sold to the library last year. Erin Schaarschmidt, head of teen services for the library, said “there are no plans just yet” for the future of the building, and “public input is needed” with suggestions for its future use, but the front lawn of the property was quickly put to use.

Teens pick vegetables in the community garden to donate to a local food pantry. Photo courtesy of PJFL
Teens pick vegetables in the community garden to donate to a local food pantry. Photo courtesy of PJFL

The idea for the community garden came from Anthony Bliss, youth services librarian. Bliss, who works with children and teens, wanted something that the younger children could do. “And teen volunteers are always clamoring for community service,” said Schaarschmidt. “The teens started the seeds in the teen center in spring [which is across the street from the main building]. Then the children came with their families to plant [the seedlings]… the teens have been weeding it to keep up with it.” Even when school started, teens have been coming in the afternoons after school. Commenting on the dedication of the teen volunteers, Schaarschmidt noted, “The teen volunteers even came when it was 90 degrees or more and in the rain. It really was a labor of love.”

Teens weed the community garden during the summer. Photo courtesy of the PJFL
Teens weed the community garden during the summer. Photo courtesy of the PJFL

The garden featured several types of tomatoes and peppers in raised beds. Welcome Inn, a soup kitchen in Port Jefferson, was the recipient of the bounty. But vegetables were not the only plants raised in the community garden. Lots of annuals including sunflowers, impatiens, zinnia and salvia, many in colorful planters decorated by a local Girl Scout group, filled the garden, as well as herbs such as basil and mint. There was even an aquatic garden with water hyacinths and a fountain. Painted rocks placed carefully along the beds completed the picture.

The brightly colored birdhouses that adorn some of the larger perennials in the garden, such as the beautiful hydrangeas, are embossed with the letters PJFL. But what is more unique about them is that they were made using a three-dimensional printer that the library owns. A 3D printer makes objects from a digital file. So instead of printing out a photo of a birdhouse, the 3D printer produces the birdhouse itself. Using PLA, a type of biodegradable plastic, the teens created the colorful additions. The library owns the printer, but currently it is used only for special programs. “It takes one to two hours to print each thing,” said Schaarschmidt, so the process is time consuming, but “in the future [the public] will be able to use it.” She noted that the library is working out details, including the cost.

Now that autumn is just about here, plans include putting in a fall display of mums and corn stalks. Noted Schaarschmidt, “The Friends of the Library will be having a small sale of pumpkins to raise money for the library on Oct. 22.” She added, kids will be able to have their photos taken. “It will be a family event.” Check the library’s website, www.portjefflibrary.org, for specifics, or call 631-473-0022 closer to the date.

Community gardens have so many benefits: produce for those who can’t afford it, service for local volunteers and, of course, the beauty of the plants themselves. They increase local property values and they cut down on the distance food must travel, helping to control pollution, to name just a few. For further information on community gardens, especially if you are interested in starting, or taking part in one, can be found at the American Community Gardening Association website: www.communitygarden.org.

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