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: , , , , , , ,


Anonymous Steve Nowotarski said...

A great show but needed more publicity. To all who read this follow Irene's calender for May not the one in Newsday as there are false leads in that one. Get the real one. Also with all this green talk isn't it time to go ORGANIC in your garden and lawn? It's easy and less expensive than all those chemicals and poisons. Ask me at
Welcome to spring.

5/01/2009 7:23 AM  
Blogger Melissa said...

I love the idea of buying locally grown flowers and produce. Thanks for the information. I didn't know that King Kullen offered locally grown veggies. I recently heard that Whole Foods is starting to sell vegetables provided by a Long Island vegetable grower. Sounds good to me! Are the King Kullen locally grown produce organic?

5/11/2009 2:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home