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Gardening

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.”

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.

The seed starter kit, above, is a wonderful educational tool (plants in photo not included). Photo by Sam Benner

By Melissa Arnold

There’s nothing quite like spring in full bloom — the weather’s finally breaking, flowers are popping up everywhere, and it’s easy to get the kids outside for some fresh air and sunshine, even in the middle of a pandemic.

Unfortunately, most of the area’s most beloved spring locales are closed, their events canceled indefinitely until cases of COVID-19 have declined to safer levels. Without their usual income, many small businesses are struggling to pay the bills and must find creative new ways to keep the lights on.

Among them are Benner’s Farm in Setauket, well known in the community for its seasonal festivals and educational opportunities for both children and adults. With in-person field trips and large gatherings impossible, they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.

“Normally this time of year would have class after class coming in to see the farm and our new animals,” said owner Bob Benner. “We’ve had births of lambs, goat kids, chicks and bunnies, but no one can visit them — there are no workshops or Mommy and Me events, no birthday parties …. there’s literally nothing. So we’ve had to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do?’”

At Easter time, with 20,000 candy-filled eggs ready to go, Bob awoke in the middle of the night with an idea: What if they sold 50-egg boxes for families to have their own hunts at home? By the time the holiday arrived, they’d sold 100 boxes. Encouraged, the Benners sought to continue the momentum.

Next came an online store, with t-shirts and maple products for sale at www.bennersfarm.com, and a GoFundMe campaign which raised more than $6,000 to keep staff paid and animals fed.

Now they’ve created a “My First Garden Learning Kit” geared toward children containing everything you need to grow a dozen different flowers and plants. The kits include planters, potting soil, a template to sort and examine seeds, plant markers, and an instruction booklet with pictures and information about each plant at various stages of growth.

Both Bob and his wife Jean have spent decades working as teachers in addition to running the farm. Jean said that they work hard to approach every project with an educational focus, trying to see each aspect as a child would.

“We purposely chose seeds that are all different sizes and shapes, mature at different times, and are not too tiny so that kids can handle them,” she explained. “The seeds we’ve chosen are all meant to be interesting and recognizable. Marigold seeds look like tiny paintbrushes; calendula seeds resemble tiny worms.” 

The seed starter kits went on sale at the end of April. Within two days, they’d sold 70 kits and were ordering more boxes to fill. So far, so good. 

“It’s been successful especially because people are telling their friends and family. We’ve had orders come in from other places around the country, too,” said Jean.

The Benner family moved to Setauket from Northport in the late 1970s. Their eldest son, Ben, said that his earliest memories involved being dressed in overalls and driven to see the badly overgrown property. The area was first farmed in the 1750s, and the Benners revitalized it using books on homesteading as a guide. What was originally meant to be a hobby for Bob and Jean slowly evolved into something much more.

“This is our life here, and it’s so strange to see the farm empty,” Ben said. “We miss the energy of the kids, getting to see people every day, hosting our programs. This is all we want to do.”

While the Benners have no idea what the future holds or what events they’ll be able to host next, they know that the success of the farm rests in continuing local support and encouraging a love for nature in children.

“As a society, we’ve lost a certain amount of knowledge and appreciation for nature. Kids that grew up in previous generations would be out working in farms and gardens, and that doesn’t happen much around here anymore,” Ben said. “I think it’s such an important thing to learn about the process of how plants grow, and it’s a lot of fun to go out and pick your food, knowing where it comes from and knowing you did it yourself. We want to spark that interest in as many kids as possible.

Seeds included in the garden kit:

Calendulas

Sunflowers

Zinnias

Marigolds

Green squash (zucchini)

Purple bush beans

Peas

Corn

Beets

Swiss chard

Radishes

Tomatoes

Each kit costs $25. They can be picked up from Benner’s Farm at 56 Gnarled Hollow Road, Setauket. Call ahead to arrange an in-person, contactless pickup. Prepayments using a credit or debit card are preferred, but arrangements can be made for cash payment. Online orders placed at www.bennersfarm.com are $35 each and will be sent out within 24 hours. For the latest information about the farm, to make purchases or donations, call 631-689-8172 or visit their website.

 

A honey bee drinks nectar and transports pollen through the process. Photo by Polly Weigand

They buzz and flutter and are disappearing from Long Island’s environment.

Monarch caterpillar eats milkweed, its only food source. Photos by Polly Weigand

Pollinators, bees and butterflies are in decline on Long Island and nationwide, a situation that experts say is threatening the food supply. Ladybugs, too, are a threatened population.

To address a range of human health concerns, Executive Director of Long Island Native Plant Initiative Polly Weigand aims to repopulate the Island’s communities with native species plants and shrubs to re-establish important lost habitat for pollinators. The idea is to protect human healthy by preserving food and water supplies.

“Native plants provide food and habitat for wildlife,” Weigand said. “And it reduces the need for pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, ultimately protecting Long Island’s groundwater supply.”

Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook and St. James is a big supporter of the initiative. The site’s 140 acres were restored to include only native plants and shrubs. As it expands to 210 acres, it’s repopulating the land with a palette of native flora.

Homeowners can also take part in the movement.

Creating native habitats in your own landscape contributes solutions to many serious concerns and therefore, can be rewarding for Long Islanders.

The caterpillar then forms its chrysalis on the underside of the milkweed leaf before it emerges as a butterfly. Photo by Polly Weigand

“Protecting Long Island’s aquifer — the sole source of all our drinking water — is critically important,” said Seth Wallach, community outreach coordinator for Suffolk County Water Authority. “We also strongly encourage all Long Islanders to visit www.OurWaterOurLives.com to learn how they can help, and take the pledge to conserve water.”

The native solution

The first step for any landscape project, Weigand said, is to identify the light, soil and water conditions. 

“When you plant native species in the right location, that’s it,” she said. 

Milkweed and asters are two very versatile plants to consider, she added. The milkweed’s leaves provide habitat for Monarch butterfly eggs and forage for the caterpillar. Its blossoms can also provide nectar once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Butterfly metamorphosis, a miraculous process to witness, can potentially take place in your own yard.

“People plant gardens for butterflies but perhaps they could consider planting gardens or areas for caterpillars,” Dan Gilrein, entomologist at Cornell Cooperative Extension.  “This might help support some butterfly populations as well as help birds, many of which include some caterpillars as a large part of their diet, and many caterpillars are quite beautiful and interesting.” 

Three of Long Island’s more abundant native milkweed varieties include common milkweed, butterfly milkweed and swamp milkweed. Common milkweed and butterfly weed are good choices for sunny and dry locations. The swamp and butterfly weed habit grows in clumps, whereas the common milkweed is a rhizome that tends to spread across larger areas through an underground root system.

Goldenrod is also a good choice, she said.

“It’s a myth that it causes allergies,” Weigand said. “Goldenrod pollen is not dispersed by wind.”

For shrubs, bayberry is a nice option. Its fragrance lingers on your fingertips after touching it and evokes the scent of a beach vacation. It’s also beneficial to birds.

Butterfly drinks nectar from the milkweed. Photo by Polly Weigand

“Its waxy fruit is crucial high-energy food for migrating birds in the fall,” Weigand said. 

Choke berries and service berries are also good landscape options. Aronia not only flowers in the spring and displays bright foliage in the fall, Weigand said, its berries are edible and is similar to the acai, which has become a popular breakfast food.

Long Island Native Plant Initiative operates a website chock full of information with images on native plants (www.linpi.org). The nursery sells both wholesale and retail. Weigand encourages people to request native plants at your local garden center to help create demand.

“I love sitting and watching the many different types of pollinators attracted to native plants,” Weigand said. She recommends observing and learning to appreciate the show. “It’s native plant television.”

Stacy Colamussi creates her own impressive fertilizer from kitchen scraps with the aid of red wigglers. Photos from Stacy Colamussi and the Town of Huntington

On a sunny Wednesday morning in June, Town of Huntington Deputy Clerk Stacy Colamussi presented her vermicomposting “worm fertilizer” demonstration to over 60 residents at the town’s Senior Center.

Stacy Colamussi creates her own impressive fertilizer from kitchen scraps with the aid of red wigglers. Photos from Stacy Colamussi and the Town of Huntington

As an avid gardener, Colamussi has always composted, but over the past several years she has started vermicomposting: raising special composting worms that eat all her kitchen scraps, newspapers and junk mail. Colamussi then uses their waste, or castings, to fertilize and protect her plants.

“Worm fertilizer is a great way to go green – imagine if everyone practiced vermicomposting,” Colamussi, who wholeheartedly attests to the process and its success, and has now devoted her time to educating others on its benefits, seeking to make everyone’s backyard a little greener. “We can dramatically reduce waste sent to waste management facilities, while reaping the benefits of vigorous and healthy flowers, plants, shrubs and lawns, not to mention vegetables! Worm castings can be used on anything, not only in the garden.”

During her presentation, Colamussi demonstrated the vermicomposting process, explained how to get started and answered various questions about using worm castings in the garden before giving away bags of her homemade worm fertilizer as souvenirs for attendees.

Upon receiving an interested and enthusiastic response from those present, Colamussi announced she would be presenting her vermicomposting demonstration at several local libraries during the summer and fall.

For gardeners eager to immediately launch their own vermicomposting project, Colamussi explains the process:  

To begin, you should weigh your food scraps for one week to see how many pounds of scraps you accumulate. Then, buy the number of worms you need to consume your scraps. One pound of worms, which is about 1,000 of them, will eat ½ to 1 pound per day. You can buy red wiggler (Eisenia fetida) worms online.

The bin 

You can make a homemade bin or buy a commercial one in which to keep worms. It’s very simple. I started with a homemade bin, using two Can-O-Worms and a Worm Factory that a friend gave me. I have now migrated to commercial bins. I actually have three. They can be kept inside or outside, but temperatures have to be 55 to 80 degrees year-round. Therefore, I keep mine in the house. There are many YouTube videos and articles online to show you how to make a bin.

Setup 

To set it up you need bedding. Shredded cardboard and /or paper is what I use. No plastic or glossy mail. For the initial setup, soak the cardboard and paper and wring it out so that it’s like a wrung-out sponge in terms of moisture. Place the bedding in the bin and add the worms. Leave them for a few days so that they can acclimate. Then, add a small amount of chopped up food. Check in a few days to see if they finished it. Start out with small amounts and don’t add anymore until its mostly gone. Over a few weeks, you’ll learn how much to give them. I rotated spots where I deposited the scraps for about a year, for example: top left, then top right, then bottom left and then bottom right. Each time I feed them, I add some dry shredded paper to absorb moisture from the food. It will take three to six months in the beginning to get a good amount of castings (aka: poop). Now I harvest castings weekly. Castings are miracle food for plants!

“Worm fertilizer is a great way to go green – imagine if everyone practiced vermicomposting.”

— Stacy Colamussi

Currently, I feed the worms once a week. I keep a Ziploc bag in the freezer and every day I just throw my scraps (banana peels, avocado skins, pineapple, asparagus, pepper scraps, etc.) in the bags. At the end of the week, I defrost the scraps and chop them up and give it to the worms. No citrus, onions, garlic or hot peppers. Other than that, anything you would normally compost you can give the worms. Coffee grounds, eggshells and so forth. You don’t have to chop the scraps, but it will take much longer for them to eat if you don’t. I put mine in the food processor, because I want tons of castings all the time.

The garden 

I have raised beds and practice square-foot gardening. My soil is ⅓ castings, ⅓ peat moss and ⅓ vermiculite. I brew worm tea weekly and apply as a fertilizer and pesticide. I also side dress my plants, vegetables and flowers every couple of weeks with the castings. I have been gardening for 40 years and have learned new things every single year. I am now completely organic, and I stopped all chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So far, the castings seem to be providing the soil amendment I need, and the plants are super healthy and growing vigorously. The use of worm castings is supposed to increase yield by 20 to 25 percent. I am seeing that this year. I grew zucchini and cucumber plants from seed one month ago. At three weeks, 5-inch high plants had six to eight flowers on each. I’ve not experienced anything like that in the past!

Worm castings are GOLD and you get to save the environment!

It’s time to garden!

Join the staff at Frank Melville Memorial Park, 1 Old Field Road, Setauket for a free gardening class at the Red Barn on Saturday, May 25 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Come share garden success stories and Master Gardener Haig Seferian will answer your questions. And, no one will go home empty-handed. For more info, call 631-689-6146.

The sign for Patriots Hollow State Forest along Route 25A in Setauket. Photo by Kyrnan Harvey

By Kyrnan Harvey

I was able to attend a meeting of the Three Village Community Trust last Thursday that addressed the complicated issue of nonnative invasive plants. Guest speaker Luke Gervase of the Long Island Invasive Species Management Area led the discussion that emphasized Patriots Hollow State Forest, the few dozen acres of woods running north and west of Route 25A in Setauket, roughly opposite Stop & Shop. Recently the trust announced that it is working toward a stewardship agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as reported in these pages, to restore the woods, currently impenetrable with fallen and cracked trees and the bittersweet, greenbriar and multiflora rose that have seized the day.

But this is not a virgin forest. English settlers in the 17th century farmed along North Country Road and what would become 25A, and the Setalcotts likely did the same before that. 

The Fitzsimmons family started farming there in 1939, growing potatoes, and in ensuing years acquired parcels and rented the land to other farmers. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Center owned 30 acres along 25A since the 1960s, which was tilled as late as 1980. In other words, this was more or less open land until the farming was discontinued. 

Immediately thereafter began the ecological succession of plants that start germinating in fallow fields. On Long Island these would have first been sun-loving perennials like asters, grasses, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), goldenrods and milkweeds, but also sun-loving woody plants like eastern red cedar, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, Rosa multiflora, sumacs (Rhus spp.), wild raspberries and blackberries (Rubus spp.). Native trees like gray birch and black cherry and exotics, like white mulberry and black locust, soon start displacing the pioneering species.

Desirable successional tree species would be hardwood natives like oaks, sassafras and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), but 40 years later at Patriots Hollow we have, in this prime location within the Old Setauket Historic District, a vast mess of nonnative invasives like black locust, tree of heaven (Ailanthus) and Norway maple that out-competed other canopy trees like the native red maple, the caterpillar-hosting black cherry and the dignified white oak and have precluded the prosperity of understory natives like shadbush (Amelanchier), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), spicebush and American holly, not to mention the potential of an array of wonderful undergrowth perennials.

Restoring Patriots Hollow Forest to a multifunctional habitat (for birds and insects, as well as for human use with trails) by engineering species diversity through vertical layering (canopy trees, understory trees and shrubs, undergrowth perennials) and horizontal layering (woods, edge of woods, open clearing) is a daunting project. It requires a vision, human and financial resources and a coherent set of attainable goals. Cynthia Barnes, president of the board of trustees for the Three Village Community Trust, says that a task force will be meeting to draft some preliminary guidelines and ideas for restoration of this DEC property, including doing an inventory of the flora and fauna and describing the current conditions. The task force will work on hosting facilitated public planning workshops in collaboration with the DEC later this year.

Which brings me back to our speaker, Gervase of the LIISMA, who made the point that it is advised to only gradually remove nonnative invasives, else you are clearing the way for a new wave of opportunistic invasive. For example, if you cut down all the black locusts, then you will quickly get a vast inundation of fast-growing Norway maples. But this presumes there will be little or no maintenance at the site. Thousands of freshly germinated maple seedlings can annually be quickly rubbed out with a scuffle hoe, if there is an integrated management plan in place.

Nor need a rigidly dogmatic approach be adopted. Perhaps some black locusts should be left, ones that have attained to the gnarly character of old age, considering that they are “near native”; that it is not prohibitively difficult to establish understory trees, shrubs and perennials under them and that their wood is for split-rail fencing. 

I advocate for a nuanced approach that would be capable of adapting to shifting circumstances and that would be capable of improvising wise decisions midstream.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com. 

Arrangements of cut lilac flowers can brighten a room and fill a house with their delightful scent. Photo by Kyrnan Harvey

By Kyrnan Harvey

My wife cut a large bunch of lilac flowers yesterday and stuffed them in a pewter pitcher. We inherited an old shrub when we moved to East Setauket. English ivy was growing up its gnarly stems, a young black cherry was growing right through the clump and bittersweet had twisted itself up into the crown. There were only a couple blooms the first May here — the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris — but I immediately freed it and cut out cracked branches and each year it has been more bountiful.

Lilacs are deer-proof and otherwise very tough and durable shrubs that present wonderful colors and scents to the early spring garden. Most are in bloom for the second Sunday in May, but if you plant a few different types — early, mid, and late varieties — you can have that lilac scent in your garden — and home — for four weeks. 

This week the earliest, the hyacinthiflora hybrids, may be about faded and finished. If you see a Syringa x hyacinthiflora label on a shrub in a garden center it will be a good variety: dark “Royal Purple” or reddish “Pocahontas” or “Maiden’s Blush.” Add one each year if you have the space. I planted an “Angel White” two years ago but so far it has been shy of flower.

Last year I discovered the gorgeous “Declaration,” with reddish tints in the purple, at a wholesale nursery. I gave one to mom and planted one myself. My son’s school bus driver apparently has a good eye for an unusual color so I got her one too. The common vulgaris lilac is not easily discerned from hybrids, but they flower a little later. I have my eye out for “Beauty of Moscow” (pink buds, white flowers), for “Primrose” (creamy yellow, most strongly perfumed), and for “Wonderblue,” but there are dozens of varieties, only a few of which are readily available commercially. Just avoid buying a plant merely labeled S. vulgaris, because it might be just a little too ordinary and there are so many good cultivars to seek out. My old stomping ground, the New York Botanical Garden, has an astounding collection, cataloged online. Hurry there and take notes. 

A week or so after the common lilac, the so-called Canadian lilacs flower. Bred originally in Ottawa by a Miss Preston they are hybrids labeled S. x prestoniae. “Donald Wyman” has been readily available for as long as I can remember, and maybe “Red Wine,” but that’s about all. 

Extend the lilac season with S. patula “Miss Kim” and S. meyeri “Palibin.” Known as Korean lilacs, they are both dwarfer than the old-fashioned varieties. “Miss Kim” is readily available, “Palibin” less so, though it has caught on in recent years. “Miss Kim” is a valuable addition for its flowering season well past all others, except the badly scented tree lilac. 

“Palibin” has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It doesn’t get much taller than five or six feet and it spreads broadly, rooting in. I have dug up pieces for years and planted them in clients’ gardens. It flowers profusely in light shade, doesn’t get powdery mildew, and is twiggy with small leaves.

All the other varieties must have tons of sun. Even then, they might be shy of flowering, especially when still young. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizer. Very old shrubs too can disappoint with flower production, and, moreover, be overgrown eyesores. Every few years you should cut to the ground a third of the gnarliest old stems, which encourages fresh new growth, and reduces the shrubs to better scale. Do this directly after flowering, and give them lime. Or — if you burn logs in your fireplace — spread the ash around your lilacs.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.