Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Once upon a time – before Levittown and the LIE, before strip-malls and McDonald’s and, god help us, McMansions – Long Island and farming were synonymous. It was a time when potatoes covered more than 72,000 acres and cauliflower auctions were common events.

Well, we don’t have to give up the ghosts of times past just yet. The truth is that when it comes to farm-fresh produce, our island still has a lot to offer. I realized this more than ever the other day when I attended a press conference organized by the Long Island Farm Bureau to tout the Island’s billion-dollar agricultural industry and rev up the “Grown on Long Island” and “Pride of New York” campaigns.  

Both campaigns promoting the agricultural and horticultural products of our island and our state – everything from apples and eggplants to marigolds and merlot – have been around for quite some time. “Grown on Long Island” started in 1988, which seems like eons ago when you think about how life has changed in the past 21 years. Forget about extra pounds and gray hair, who would have dreamed of iPhones and Twitter and laptops for that matter? Ponder this – in 1988, there were 45 million PCs in use in this country; last year there were more than 264 million. But I digress.

The event was held at Martin Viette Nurseries in East Norwich, where Michael and Russ Ireland – the brothers who own the place – told me that 99 percent of what they sell is indeed grown on Long Island. And the garden center, which marked its 80th anniversary last year, was in full flower for the spring planting season. It was a giant bouquet of marigolds and geraniums and impatiens as well as other blooms guaranteed to dispel any lingering thoughts of our miserable winter. Not to mention enough vegetables seedlings to fill salad bowls across suburbia.

A refurbished pickup truck from bygone days was loaded with corn and a colorful display of the kind of vegetables that abound in our island’s fertile fields and farm stands added to the scene.

The theme of the day was spelled out in banners and placards: 

As you might expect speakers were also in abundance but they were notable in the 80-degree heat for their brevity.

They included New York’s new United States senator, Kirsten Gillibrand -- pictured here with (from left) Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi; Joseph Gergela III of the Long Island Farm Bureau, which represents more than 650 Long Island growers, and New York State Commissioner of Agriculture Patrick Hooker. Michael Ireland (pictured below, left, with Sen. Gillbrand and his brother, Russ) spoke and so did Tom Kullen of King Kullen – the Island’s homegrown supermarket that has the distinction of being America’s first and has been featuring locally grown produce for the past decade. Tom was perhaps the most succinct: “Keep growing it,” he said. “And we’ll keep buying it.”


To me, the message was as elemental as compost. We really do grow a lot of wonderful things and we should reach for them in supermarkets and garden centers and at farm stands and farmers’ markets. Especially gardeners, who by our very nature, dig the earth. We know the unadulterated joy of growing what you eat. In my garden, lettuce and arugula and spinach and beets and carrots border beds that are now filled with hundreds of tulips. But when the tulips fade to memory, I’ll take them out and put in tomatoes and eggplants and zucchini and butternut squash and peppers and Swiss chard and beans. But I’ll turn to my local farmers' market in Northport for the things I don’t grow – like broccoli and cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

On the cusp of the 2009 growing season, the time is right to remind us that “Grown on Long Island” should be more than just a marketing slogan. It should be a lifestyle. I’m not saying we should turn Levittown back into a potato field, but we should support our farmers and flower growers and buy what they produce. And buying local is the easiest way to eat healthy, to have a beautiful and bountiful garden, to boost the economy and help out our beleaguered planet by reducing our carbon footprints. “Grown on Long Island” signs and placards will be sprouting up this season to identify the vegetables and flowers that have Long Island roots.

These sentiments spring from the fertile soil of our island and we should nurture them. 



Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, April 04, 2009


I'm no ornithologist but I think I spotted a new species of flamingo the other day. 

Not the Caribbean flamingos that raise clouds of pink at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, where the largest flock of the stiletto-legged birds live.

And not the plastic species that most people either love of hate. To be honest, I'm not sure where I stand on those mothers of all lawn ornaments, especially since I have three of them in a box in my garage. But that's another story.

No, the six flamingos that stirred my fancy in a greenhouse in Stony Brook were a different breed altogether. I can say with absolute accuracy that they were birds of a different feather.                   They were made of flowers. Kalanchoe to be exact. You know, the fleshy-leaved succulent that blooms in bouquets of white, pink, scarlet or yellow tubular flowers. It's a perennial in its native Madagascar, but here in the frigid north we nurture it mostly as an easy-care houseplant.  

And it’s a good thing they can’t fly because they were getting ready to strike poses in the aisles of Macy’s in Manhattan for the store’s annual flower show, which runs through April 19.

The flowery flamingos are the stars of the show, which is aptly titled “Dream in Color” and features more than a million plants in 11 different gardens as well as the department store’s famous window display – all of it the handiwork of Long Island’s own Ireland Gannon, the design division of Martin Viette Nurseries in East Norwich. 

When I saw the big birds – each of them fashioned from 3,000 separate kalanchoe plants – they were not in an altogether flattering position with their backsides up in the air and their long curved necks and hooked beaks barely a foot from the ground. 

Two workers – Raul Estrada and Edgar Garcia – were tucking pretty pink kalanchoes in varying states of bloom into the metal frames that form the skeletons of the faux flamingoes.

It was just a few days from show time. “We’re in high gear now,” said Peter Gustafson, the horticultural grand marshal for Ireland Gannon who was overseeing the installation in the Herald Square store and also directed the forcing of hundreds of trees and shrubs from tree peonies and Exbury azaleas to camellias and Chinese redbuds in the firm’s six greenhouses in Stony Brook. Peter also coordinated the production and delivery of everything from astilbes to orchids from other Long Island growers like Otto Keil in Huntington to nurseries in Florida and Maryland and Canada.

The final phase of the show takes place after hours as more than sixty people work all night for five nights to turn the store into a floral showplace. “The flamingoes are among the last things to go into the city,” Peter said as Edgar and Raul took plants out of 4½-inch plastic pots, stripped the leaves, knocked off most of the soil and plugged each kalanchoe into frames devised by the same Macy's designers and artisans who bring you the emporium’s Thanksgiving Day parade.


Four of the local birds will rule along the store’s center aisles and two will reign in a fountain – all of them rising nine feet tall from metal stands. Macy’s calls this a “salute to the plastic lawn flamingo and its impact on American gardens.” A clearly fascinating and controversial subject I’d just as soon leave for another blog.

For the first time, Macy’s is running simultaneous flower shows in other branches throughout the country. And when it came to the bird of praise, all eyes turned to Ireland Gannon, which created instructional videos for crews in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis.

As I left the greenhouses, workers were loading plants into the trucks. Corinthian peach trees, rhododendrons, fringe trees, flowering apricot trees, and 14-foot Okame cherry trees forced in the greenhouse were balled and burlapped and showing pink.

“They should pop for the show,” Peter said of the Okames. And there’s a second set timed to pop seven days from opening day for the second week.

The flamingoes, which were among the last things to leave Stony Brook, were already pretty in various shades of pink. “The question was,” Peter said, “how authentic do you want the color to be? It was a balancing act between the authentic color of a real flamingo versus the color of flamingoes you’d see on a front lawn in New Jersey.”

I’m hoping to make a trek into the city to see the flamingos in full color. You might be interested to know that there are 20-minute guided tours so you can learn more about the flowers that make up the flower show. Call 212-494-4495 for information. And you should keep in mind that Macy's is closed on Easter Sunday, April 12.  

As for Peter, it’s back to more flower power. About a week after this year’s extravaganza ends, he’ll be planning the show for 2010.

Labels: , , , ,