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Port Jeff village trustee on her environmental role in crafting village policies

Rebecca Kassay introducing a youth committee at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Italy, 2016. Photo courtesy of Kassay

Village of Port Jefferson trustee Rebecca Kassay is at the forefront of several environmental initiatives. TBR News Media caught up with her for an exclusive interview to discuss these matters in depth. In this interview, Kassay addresses her early involvement in community organizing, her first term as trustee and her vision for the village and its environment. 

What is your background and why did you get involved in local government?

I went to SUNY New Paltz for a degree in environmental studies and a minor in communications and media. During the summers between my semesters there, I interned at Avalon Nature Preserve in Stony Brook. I worked with their three week teen program and, in working with these young people, I saw how excited they became and how engaged they were with their local community and their environment. 

Interning over the summers, I began a dialogue with the park director to say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there was a year-round program to engage the youth in this area to do things like habitat restoration, species studies and beach cleanups?” When I graduated from New Paltz, I got a call from the director and she said, “That idea that we’ve been talking about, do you want to give that a shot? Do you want to try to start that program?”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony at the first of four Relic beach cleanup stations in Port Jeff village. Photo courtesy of Kassay

At 21 I was starting my own program at a nonprofit. It was very overwhelming, but we started off strong and just kept building. I ended up working with hundreds of teenagers over the course of seven years at Avalon, engaging with dozens of nonprofits in the area and seeing what their environmental goals were. After working there for seven years, I began asking myself: “What’s next? What is it that I want to continue doing to build upon this experience?”

In 2013 I started a bed and breakfast at my home and it opened in 2014. I essentially had two full-time jobs — one as a Port Jefferson business owner and one working at Avalon Park and Preserve. I decided to hand the program off to someone else at Avalon and just run the bed and breakfast while I figured out where I wanted to take my skill set. 

When COVID hit, I coordinated over 40,000 pieces of homemade PPE and comfort care items to frontline workers during the height of the pandemic. Through that, I began talking to local politicians about this effort and in Port Jefferson, someone said, “Hey, why don’t you consider running for office?” That sounded like a pretty cool way to get involved, so I started collecting my signatures. I ran unopposed and have had a really interesting first term. 

What ignited your interest in environmental issues?  

Back in the 12th grade [at Smithtown High School], I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I took Advanced Placement Environmental Science. It was the first course that I took that seemed to be very practicable. I felt that everybody should be taking this course because it has to do with how we interact with what’s around us. If you are humble enough and you’re willing to frighten yourself with the facts of where we might be going if we just continue on the path of neglecting our relationship with the environment, then it’s something scary to think about. 

It’s very apparent to me and others that we need to start making some changes. We need to figure out which changes to make in order to help the Earth continue to exist in a meaningful way.

Climate change is a lens through which we have to view pretty much all of our problems, especially being a portside village. —Rebecca Kassay

What are some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the village of Port Jefferson?

In my view, many of the environmental hazards facing the village stem from climate change, which is something that a lot of people don’t want to talk about. The impacts of climate change are relatively new. It’s really in the past decade or so that we’re starting to see these more frequent and intense storms and more rain from these storms. What everyone has always done in the past is not working anymore. The types of decisions that are being made, the ways decisions are being made — they need to take climate change into account. It’s not going to get any better, it’s just going to continue getting worse. 

Climate change is a lens through which we have to view pretty much all of our problems, especially being a portside village. We have a very tight relationship with the water — the harbor and the Long Island Sound. If we don’t start looking at the facts that are being given to us by engineers and scientists, we’re not going to be making the best decisions for Port Jefferson residents, not just today but Port Jefferson residents 20 or 50 years from now. 

What are your thoughts on the state of Port Jefferson Harbor?

I know that the Setauket Harbor Task Force does a wonderful job. It may sound like they’re just in Setauket, but they also steward the Port Jefferson Harbor. They do a wonderful job monitoring the harbor’s water quality and make great efforts to identify solutions and put them into place. I think that the harbor itself is doing fairly well thanks to these environmental groups.

There are some issues. I myself have a sailboat and I’ve become more acquainted over the past few years in how boaters can affect the water. I’m really glad that we have a free pump-out boat in our harbor that will empty your boat’s sewage tanks for free. You just have to call them and the boat will come over because boaters’ sewage can have a very negative effect on our harbor. However, the water quality itself seems to be quite good. 

What is the village doing to comply with new DEC guidelines regulating stormwater runoff into harbors and bays?

I can’t speak to the absolute current status of them, but I know that the village is very aware of the upcoming regulations and is looking closely to see what is the best pathway forward to meeting them. 

Has the village considered adding rain gardens?

The village was granted funding for three rain gardens and those rain gardens are in front of village hall, the village center and the DPW planning department uptown. Those are great examples of the types of plants you would put in rain gardens. I personally think they are very beautiful and they can really help to retain stormwater, especially on individuals’ properties. It’s a beautiful addition, as opposed to this very expensive cistern in the ground that you might have to put in to retain your stormwater. And it’s also great for the environment.

You have prioritized planting trees throughout the village. What will these new trees do for overall environmental quality?

Trustee Rebecca Kassay holding 300 tree and shrub saplings from the Saratoga Tree Nursery, which were distributed and planted as part of the village’s Arbor Day celebration.
Photo courtesy of Kassay

There are so many reasons we are pushing to plant more trees. The presence of trees helps in the absorption of stormwater. Large trees will lower the general temperatures in the area where you have a critical mass of trees, so homeowners will spend less fuel and less money on air conditioning in the summer and even heating in the winter because trees can block wind coming off the harbor. 

For folks who are not as in love with the environment as myself and many others, they should know that planting more trees statistically increases property values. To have these larger legacy trees on your property gives the property itself and the neighborhood a greater sense of being established. 

Trees are a staple in the ecosystem, providing a habitat for birds, pollinators and critters of all sorts, and these species are beautiful. I joke and say that the reason I bought my house in particular is because it has a beautiful oak on the front corner. I really love being the steward of that oak. It was there way before I was born and I think it will be there after I pass. It’s an honor to have the responsibility of taking care of the property that it lives on.

This month, the Six Acre Park Committee will present to the Board of Trustees. Can you provide readers a preview of that?

Absolutely. The committee has found consensus in agreeing on a mini arboretum-like park [at Highlands Boulevard], planted a bit more densely and focusing mainly on native species of trees. These are the species of trees and shrubs that have been evolving in this area for eons, so the local and migratory wildlife rely on these species. These are our oaks, these are our tulip poplars, these are the species that were here before people started moving in, harvesting timber and building homes and roads.

The concept is to give back to nature. Instead of taking trees down to build a parking lot or a development project, we’re actually putting the forest back. Not only is it going to be aesthetically beautiful, it will also be something valuable for wildlife and for wildlife lovers. If you go for a walk through this park, there will be a walking path throughout it. It’s a chance to bathe in nature and observe the beauty of what’s around you.

What can residents do to help improve environmental quality?

Trustee Rebecca Kassay (bottom-left) with a group of gardeners and volunteers at the newly established Beach Street Community Garden. Photo courtesy of Kassay

I think the village government has a great opportunity to set the precedent for our residents and say, “This is a village that prioritizes environmental efforts.” I am working to be a strong voice to keep that in the conversation so that whatever we’re looking at, we’re considering how this may affect the environment and to see if there are any opportunities to have a positive effect on the environment. 

As far as residents go, I’m delighted in starting our first community garden in Port Jefferson village. I’ve also been working on these Arbor Day efforts. I pushed to start the committee on the Six Acre Park. Through creating all of these venues, I’m looking to tap back into my community organizing background and have it not just be the government taking action, but the government engaging its residents in being a part of that action. When someone feels that they are a part of something, they’re much more likely to follow through, to feel proud of it and talk to other people about it.

Do you believe the village is on the right track in terms of environmental quality?

I think that the village and the Town [of Brookhaven] and Long Island and the nation and the world still have a lot of work to be done. As far as getting closer to considering the environment in every decision-making process, I don’t think the village is any more ahead or behind any of our neighboring municipalities. I would love to help the Village of Port Jeff get put on the map as an environmentally minded village, a village that takes this into account. 

Again, every decision has to be a balance, but I think the environment has to be a higher priority in most decision-making processes because I see the window of opportunity closing to start pulling ourselves out of a direction that will negatively affect Port Jefferson residents, Long Islanders and people across the globe. It’s these local actions that can have a big impact.

Trustee Rebecca Kassay with the members of the Six Acre Park Committee at their first meeting in 2021. Photo courtesy of Kassay

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

I am very cognizant of the fact that we are not the only ones experiencing flooding or a decrease in tree coverage or any other environmental issue. I’ve started reaching out to nonprofits, to other villages, to people at different levels of government, asking to learn from their experiences so that we can move more efficiently in our local efforts here. To me, it’s very important to not try to reinvent the wheel every time you want to do something. 

This networking has been very helpful both in refining concepts that we might want to put into place in Port Jefferson and also in bringing funding into the village so that these aren’t taxpayer-supported projects but grant-supported projects. If we can start a great project and bring in a lot of grant money, then it’s just a win-win across the board. 

Also, one of my goals is to open peoples’ eyes to the miracles of nature on their own streets and in their own yards. We often think of nature as something to visit in state or national parklands, when in reality a relationship with, and a stewardship of, urban and suburban nature is equally profound and important. Far beyond the increasingly evident practicality of environmentalism, there’s a great joy to be embraced. 

I work to help folks see nature as an asset, as something to enjoy and protect, instead of the current narrative that often paints nature as inconvenient or consciously in opposition to humanity.  

Ironically, despite the narrative that environmentally minded actions or solutions are burdensome, there are often significant taxpayer cost savings in the long run. Taxpayers benefit when inevitable environmental issues are initially addressed with a long-term solution, instead of a series of Band-Aids which eventually fail and must be replaced by that same long-term solution.  

Melissa Cohen with her children Andrew and Alice Turner. Photo courtesy of Alan Turner

Port Jefferson will likely be greener at this time next year, thanks to the efforts of 59 first graders at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, their families and village trustees.

As a part of what Trustee Rebecca Kassay hopes will be an annual tradition, first graders will hear a talk in their class this Friday, April 29, on National Arbor Day, by Heather Lynch, IACS endowed chair of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University. At that point, the students will also get coupons for free saplings of white oak, red spruce or winterberry shrubs.

The students and their families can plant the trees or shrubs in their backyards if they have space and clearance or at the Port Jefferson Country Club. The trees planted at the country club will not interfere with any golf games or other activities.

“We want to help foster that relationship between our young, upcoming stewards of Port Jefferson and the natural environment,” said Kassay, who spearheaded the project.

Planting trees will help offset losses incurred during storms and as some of the older trees die.

While sharing games like bird bingo, Lynch also hopes to speak with first graders about the role that native plants can play on Long Island.

“Planting trees is like a gift to their future selves,” said Lynch, who also described the effort as “paying it forward.” She hopes first graders see the role they play in Port Jefferson history by planting trees that will grow as they do and that will become a part of their enduring legacy.

While first grade students will receive saplings for free as a part of the project, Port Jefferson residents can also buy them for $1 at the farmers market on Sunday, May 8, while supplies last.

Kassay is describing the purchase for residents as a “dollar and a dream.”

Planting these trees will strengthen the ecology of the area, providing homes and food sources for local birds and insects and reducing runoff, Lynch added.

The trustees will invite the first graders, as well as community members, to help plant the tree nursery at the country club on Thursday, May 5, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with a rain date of May 6. Residents can park at the country club and follow signage from The Turn restaurant to the tree nursery beyond the driving range. 

Family response

For several families in Port Jefferson, this kind of effort validates their commitment and interest in the village.

Nadine and Richard Wilches moved to Port Jefferson last year with their 9-year old son Lucas and their 7-year old daughter Cecilia.

“One of the reasons we moved to Port Jefferson is to experience a closer-knit community that includes taking care of the environment,” Nadine Wilches said. “Planting this tree will be a learning experience.”

Cecilia, who is in first grade at Edna Louise Spear school, shared some of her awareness of trees.

Without trees, “there would be no air,” Cecilia said. “The tree eats carbon dioxide. We eat the opposite, which is air, so the tree does the opposite.”

Cecilia has learned some of what she knows about trees from the work her brother Lucas is doing on photosynthesis in his class.

Lucas was born on Earth Day and also appreciates the connection to preserving the planet, the mother said.

Wilches added that the family tries to be cautious about their carbon footprint and has a hybrid car and an electric car.

She appreciates that the school and the village are “reinforcing our home values around the environment.” 

If Cecilia could ask a tree a question, she would want to know if it hurts a tree when it loses its leaves.

First grader Andrew Turner appreciates how trees provide a home for animals. He will join the group planting saplings at the country club, and wants to know how long it takes a tree to grow.

Andrew, who likes woodpeckers and who currently wants to be a paleontologist like his father, Alan Turner at Stony Brook University, enjoys jumping in leaf piles in the fall.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today.”

— Rebecca Kassay

Andrew’s mother Melissa Cohen, who is a graduate program coordinator in Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, said she appreciates how this effort will help children in the school develop an understanding of trees and the benefits they bring to the community.

Longer term, Lynch, Kassay and others hope the first graders who participate in this effort develop a connection to the trees they plant.

“We envision these kids growing up with their trees,” Lynch said. “It would be amazing if the kids could all take pictures with their trees now and we can [see] them taking pictures when they graduate high school as a rite of passage.”

Kassay said these trees offer numerous benefits, including lowering heating costs from the shade they produce, increasing property values and stabilizing the soil by soaking up runoff from storms.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today,” Kassay said.

The first few cherry blossom trees were donated from the FealGood Foundation and the 9/11 Responders Remembered Memorial Park. Members of both groups and the historical society smile. Photo from Smithtown Historical Society

By Kyle Barr

The Smithtown Historical Society is looking to create memories that will last a tree’s lifetime with their most recent project.

The Walk Under the Trees Project intends to recreate the feel of the famous Washington D.C. cherry blossom pathway,  encourage the planting of trees and help create a beautiful destination for Long Islanders to visit.

Historical society spokeswoman Priya Kapoor was the driving force behind the project.

“The idea started in the beginning of the year, and we started approaching people back in June,” she said in a phone interview. “We want to make the grounds more welcoming and make it more of a community centered place so that people can walk there, they can bring their kids and their dogs.”

Executive director Marianne Howard said she hopes this project stops Smithtown residents in their tracks.

“We’re always seeking an opportunity to beautify our grounds,” Howard said. “People drive past us and they don’t know we’re here, and this will help people to stop and come look at something beautiful.”

On July 19 the historical society commemorated its first set of trees with John Feal of the FealGood Foundation, and Martin Aponte, president of 9/11 Responders Remembered Memorial Park. The FealGood Foundation, an organization that seeks to  improve the lives of 9/11 first responders,  donated five trees with the memorial park donating one. The plan is for the trees to line  the dirt road to the historical society’s main set of buildings.

Feal is a frequent D.C. visitor himself and is very familiar with the cherry blossom paths there.

“You think of beautiful trees, you think of cherry blossoms,” Feal said in a phone interview. “Every year I go to Washington — only because I have to — to try and get legislation passed, but I sometimes get to see the cherry blossoms.”

Now Feal will not have to drive as far to see those special trees.

Aponte said that for those who work with 9/11 first responders, trees have a big significance for those who worked at Ground Zero.

“After those buildings came down there was one particular tree that stood amongst all the wreckage and debris that was falling,” Aponte said in a phone interview. “They dug it out and got seedlings and saplings and made more trees from that particular survivor tree. We surrounded our park with these survivor trees and they’re growing today. They symbolize that we as Americans are survivors regardless of what happened and the aftermath of it.”

Feal said his organization and the historical society have a good working relationship, and that the history of 9/11 first responders and the town are intertwined.

“9/11 is part of the history of Smithtown,” Feal said. “The memorial park tells the story of the history of 9/11 and the courage and the honor and the sacrifice of the men and women who worked at ground zero, and many of them are from Smithtown.”

The Smithtown Historical Society is accepting donations sponsoring new trees, flower beds and even small donations for bricks in a planned walkway. If you are interested in sponsoring a tree, or for information, contact the historical society offices at 631-265-6768.

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

By Alex Petroski

Cleaning up is hard to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Margot Garant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flowers of a peach tree that volunteered in the author’s garden. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Each spring we see trees covered with beautiful white and pink flowers. Many times we decide we want one or more in our own gardens. But, first we need to identify the specific tree. Recognizing which is which can be relatively easy. For example, the Kwanzan cherry tree has beautiful double pink flowers. The small to medium sized trees, at maturity, tend to be wider than tall and for all practical purposes are sterile. You won’t get a crop of cherries from these but they are stunning.

Another common flowering tree is the dogwood. There are a number of varieties but the flowers — single, white or pink — have four petals on each flower. The ends of the petals usually have a notch at the end. Technically, they’re not petals but bracts, a variety of leaf. The flower is the very central part and is followed later in the season by berries.

Sometimes you can identify a tree by ruling out what it isn’t. Pear tree flowers are white, so if you have pink flowers, it’s probably not a pear tree. Most apple trees have pink buds but the buds open to white flowers.

An unidentified tree, believed to be a plum leaf sandcherry (purple leaf sandcherry), frequently used as a landscaping plant due to not only its flowers but its leaf color, which remains deep burgundy throughout the growing season. Photo by Heidi Sutton
An unidentified tree, believed to be a plum leaf sandcherry (purple leaf sandcherry), frequently used as a landscaping plant due to not only its flowers but its leaf color, which remains deep burgundy throughout the growing season. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Frequently each spring we see a number of pink flowers that are not so easy to identify. If you’ve fallen in love with the tree, you need to identify it in order to acquire one or more of your own. Many years ago a pink-flowering tree seeded itself in my backyard. For many years it bore beautiful flowers but never any fruit. I never did identify it, assuming that it was some sort of fruit tree. It lived out its life there until one spring its flowers and leaves never sprouted. It went as quietly as it had come. I was really disappointed when I had to cut it down.

More recently two flowering trees sprung up in my front yard. Each spring they are covered in beautiful pink flowers. They bear fruit, so I know the answer — they are peach trees. Unfortunately, the peaches are small, green and bitter, but the trees are beautiful so I keep them for their flowers and shade.

But, what if you see a pink-flowering tree with no fruit — it could be harder to figure out what it is. There are a number of ways to attack this problem. Start by taking one or more pictures of the flowers, leaves and bark. The flowers disappear quickly and are frequently one of the easiest ways of identifying the plant. With pictures you have a reference. If the gardener is around, ask him or her or ask an arborist or an extension educator.

To identify the tree by yourself:

Look at the flowers — their general description, shape and how many petals they have.

Check out the leaves. Their color (green or burgundy) will be a clue as well as their shape and size. Many crab apples, for example, have burgundy leaves as do some plums.

The bark of various trees can be quite different so don’t forget to check it out.

If possible, go back to the tree after the flowers have fallen and the fruit appears.

When does the tree bloom? The garden variety of dogwood, Cornus florida, even the pink-flowering ones, tend to bloom a good month earlier than the Kousa dogwood.

How big is the overall mature height of the tree and what is its shape?

A Kwanzan cherry tree. Photo by Ellen Barcel
A Kwanzan cherry tree. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Now, with your photos in hand, check out the various characteristics against descriptions and pictures either online or in a guide to trees. I use the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees, Eastern Region.” It is a great source to identify trees in general, since it has full color photos of flowers, leaves, fruit/nuts, bark, etc. If going online, enter as much information you have into the search engine as possible.

You’ll notice that fruit trees (apple, crabapple, peach, etc.) tend to have flowers with five petals while dogwood has only four. Check the center of the flower. What color is it? The shape of the petal is helpful. Are they long and thin or more rounded? Cherry blossoms tend to have a small split at the end of each petal while plum petals do not. The leaves of cherry trees tend to be flat while those of plums are curled lengthwise. The bark is a great indicator also. Cherry trees tend to have bark that has horizontal markings while plum trees do not. Good luck in identifying your mystery plant!

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions to [email protected] To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve in Commack hosted a maple sugaring event this past Sunday, Feb. 28, where employees of the park demonstrated both Native American and colonial techniques on maple sugaring.

All participants were able to taste real maple syrup after they learned how to tap a tree for it in their own backyards and also learned about tree anatomy and photosynthesis.

The southern pine beetle has been spotted in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens Preserve. Photo by Giselle Barkley

In light of the uptick in southern pine beetle populations on Long Island, environmental officials are looking to weed out the issue in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens Preserve.

Last December, the Department of Environmental Conservation proposed a timber thinning to combat the beetle’s presence in the state park. The prospective contractor wouldn’t only harvest pine trees in the park, but also cut down hardwood trees to use for personal benefit. New York State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor) and Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) voiced their opposition to the proposal on Feb. 11.

According to their statement, the project mainly involves the selling of scarlet oak trees rather than harvesting the beetle-infested pitch pine trees in the park. The property was not preserved to provide contractors with lumber, but to preserve the land, as the pine barrens property sits on the Island’s purest waterway. No bids were made on the contract thus far.

“We were going to do this thinning out as a preventative measure, and [the proposed plan] was their response, and we didn’t feel that it was logical,” Englebright said. “This doesn’t address that this crisis is advancing.”

The southern pine beetle appeared in Long Island en masse, in fall 2014, and has devastated thousands of acres of Pine Barrens property, according to Englebright. The beetle, which creates tunnels in the tress, targets all types of pine trees, including pitch pine trees like those found in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens Preserve. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation found infested pine trees in October 2014.

“When the extent of the infestation became known, it was apparent that there needed to be a lot of control efforts,” said Anthony Graves, the Town of Brookhaven’s chief environmental analyst. “But there was no funding. … the State was trying to figure out a way to go ahead and engage control efforts [with the opposed timber harvest plan].”

According to Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, there are not many cases of beetle infestation in the park. However, the Connetquot River State Park in Oakdale lost around 3,600 acres of pine trees to the Southern Pine Beetle. Graves added that wind could have picked up the small beetles and carried them from New Jersey to the Island.

Warmer winter weather over the past few years has also contributed to the increase in pine beetle populations.

In the DEC’s proposal, it added that harvesting the trees will also help other trees grow. It added that harvesting is a common practice when combatting this type of infestation. There’s no mention of harvesting oak trees in its preventative thinning plan. Amper said the reasoning was odd, as the pitch pine trees are much taller than the oak trees that are currently marked in the park.

Englebright, LaValle and Thiele requested $3.5 million in the 2016-17 state budget to properly address the infestation without unnecessary harvesting. Graves said the best and cheapest way to deal with the beetles is to cut down infected trees.

“The cutting of the heavily-infested stands is widely accepted by federal and state agencies that have been dealing with this problem for the last 100 years,” Graves said. “In the U.S., it’s a long-term problem with the beetles damaging commercial forests. It’s that long-term information that’s being used to drive the plan.”

The community roamed around Benner’s Farm in Setauket in search of sweets on Saturday, Feb. 20, during its annual Maple Sugaring Day. Families learned the history of maple sugaring, how to tap trees, turn sap into syrup and how to make sugar candies. Participants also enjoyed freshly made pancakes with farm-made syrup. Maple syrup, sugar candies and jams were also sold during the event.

In between eating pancakes, learning about maple sugaring and sampling sap from a tree, families roamed the farm to visit the animals and treat some to a leftover pancake. Children played on the Big Swing up in the woods and visited with the resident barn cats, Lightning, Thunder and Storm. A sweet time was had by all!

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Tree hibiscus do well in a planter in full sun. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

 

Last week we took a look at some specific plants that can grow in small spaces. Since there are many options, we’ll take a look at a few more this week.

Tree hibiscus do well in a planter in full sun. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Tree hibiscus do well in a planter in full sun. Photo by Ellen Barcel

A wide variety of vegetables can be grown in pots or tubs including string beans, cucumbers (with a trellis) and squash. Remember to replant for a second crop when the plants cease bearing. String beans, for example, can continue to grow well into the fall.

Roses can also be grown in tubs (medium-sized plants) or window boxes (for tiny rose plants). Like herbs, roses need sun; so select a location for your pots, rock garden etc. that gets at least six hours of sun a day. Miniature roses come in a wide variety of colors: ‘Sun Sprinkles’ is a bright yellow, ‘Hot Tamale’ is a gorgeous mix of deep pink and yellow, ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is a burgundy and ‘Innocence’ is the palest shade of pink, almost white.

Remember to check your rose plants for thorns. If the one you select has a lot of them, make sure you locate it where someone won’t trip and hurt themselves. Miniature roses are prone to the same problems that medium and large rose bushes are, namely black spot (a fungal disease) and aphids. So, you need to take the same care that you would if growing a full-sized plant, that is, use a rose spray unless the variety you select specifically says disease resistant. Also, avoid watering the leaves — aim the hose at the soil. Keeping the leaves dry helps to prevent fungal diseases. If you have a deer problem, make sure that the rose bushes are planted where the deer can’t reach them.

Since roses prefer soil that is only slightly acidic (6.5) to neutral (7), growing roses in pots works well from the soil pH since most potting soil is closer to neutral. If you decide to plant your small roses in your garden soil, test it first. If it is very acidic, you need to add lime.

String beans do well in a planter in full sun. Photo by Ellen Barcel
String beans do well in a planter in full sun. Photo by Ellen Barcel

In addition to shrub roses, consider a tree rose — a wide variety of colors are available — which can be grown in a large tub. Tree hibiscus also does well in tubs.

If you have enough space on an open porch, deck or patio, you can grow dwarf evergreen trees. Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea clauca) is a sturdy evergreen that grows well in USDA hardiness zones 2 through 8. This dense, slow growing tree prefers full sun and because of its small size fits into small spaces as well as large tubs. Putting a pair on either side of an entrance way gives a formal appearance. You can even decorate with small Christmas lights and ornaments come the holidays. It can be pruned into a topiary if you wish. While the tree can reach 10 feet tall, it’s such a slow grower that it will not usually be a problem for 25 to 30 years.

Squash plants do well in a planter in full sun. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Squash plants do well in a planter in full sun. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Dwarf deciduous trees grow well in tubs. Dwarf fruit trees provide flowers in the spring and fruit in summer or fall. ‘Juliet Dwarf Cherry,’ for example, grows just five to eight feet tall, is self-pollinating and does well in USDA hardiness zones 2 through 7 (Long Island is zone 7). Because of their small size, it’s easy to prune them and easy to put netting to protect the fruit from hungry birds. Other dwarf trees include dwarf apple, pear and fig. Dwarf lime, lemon and orange can be grown outdoors in summer but must be moved indoors in the colder weather.

Bonsai: If you’re really into gardening as a hobby, consider bonsai, plants deliberately kept miniature by root and branch pruning. Bonsai are grown in small containers, but, a warning, this hobby is for the dedicated gardener as it requires a fair amount of work and knowledge. Deciduous plants such as Japanese red maple make for beautiful bonsai but must also be wintered outdoors, in a protected area, as the bonsai version needs a period of rest just like the full-sized plant.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions and/or comments to [email protected] To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

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Weeping willow trees are beautiful, graceful deciduous trees. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Many years ago, I had two absolutely beautiful weeping willow (Salix babylonica) trees. They easily topped my two story house, and then some. I really enjoyed walking underneath the branches, looking out at the world, sort of like looking out through a light green curtain. And they provided beautiful shade.

Then, a really nasty hurricane came along. Down went the first and then the second tree. This happened when other trees — maple, oak and pine — all survived.

What happened? The answer is that weeping willow trees (natives of Asia) are very shallow rooted. When the wind really picked up, the roots couldn’t hold the trees in the wet soil, so down they went. And mine weren’t the only ones I saw down.

Does that mean that you shouldn’t plant weeping willow trees? Not necessarily. If you have an area sheltered from the wind, like a hollow, this might be the ideal location.

There’s another problem with the weeping willow tree. It craves water, so if you really want to plant this fast growing, graceful tree, make sure it’s not near a cesspool, well or in-ground swimming pool, as the roots can head in that direction, doing damage to the concrete.

The weeping willow tree grows well in U.S. Dept. of Agriculture hardiness zones 6 to 8 (Long Island is right in the middle at zone 7). It particularly likes to grow near water, but while the hardiness zones are limited, it does tolerate a wide range of soil pH levels. It’s a great shade tree quickly reaching 30 to 40 feet tall, growing as wide as is tall. Give this one plenty of room.

Another willow, pussy willow, (S. discolor) is native to North America. The deciduous shrub first produces furry catkins (or cat’s feet) in early spring. Many people like to cut branches from this stage of the plant and use them in dried arrangements or to make wreaths. If you do cut branches, do not put them in water or they will progress to the next stage, flowers.

After flowering, this easy to grow plant then produces green leaves. It is definitely grown for the early catkins. Pussy willow grows well in zones 4 through 8 or 9 (depending on variety).

Although most pussy willow plants produce gray catkins, there’s a rare variety (‘Mt. Asama’) that has a burgundy ones. A weeping pussy willow (S. caprea ‘Pendula’) can be grown as a small ornamental tree reaching 6 to 8 feet tall. As most weeping plants, the latter is really nice in winter when snow and ice covers the weeping branches.

Another popular willow that does well on Long Island is the dappled willow (S. integra). Like many other willows, the shrub is fast growing and can easily reach 15 to 20 feet tall and wide. However, if you really like this shrub, it can be pruned to keep it much smaller. In fact, it’s the new branches in spring that have mottled leaves that make it really stand out in the garden.

The dappled willow does well in hardiness zones 4 to 9. It is a native of eastern Asia, including China, Japan and Korea. Like other willows, the flowers are catkins (a cylindrical flower with no obvious petals). The cultivar ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ comes out very pale pink in spring.

Are willows deer resistant? Good question. Some sources say yes and some no, so you’ll have to see what the deer in your area like. However, rabbits do like willows, so you should take whatever precautions you normally take to keep your plants safe from them. While willows, in general, like moist soil, some varieties are somewhat drought tolerant once established. In general they like sun but tolerate light shade, and do well in a wide variety of soil conditions.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions to [email protected] To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.