Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print and online media. She has worked on Newsday's interactive endeavors since 1994, and currently is Deputy Editor overseeing Newsday.com's Lifestyle and Entertainment coverage. Jessica enjoys toiling in her garden -- a never-finished work in progress -- and helping local gardeners solve their horticultural problems in her Garden Detective column, which appears every Sunday in Newsday. Her Garden Detective column and blog have been awarded Press Club of Long Island Society of Professional Journalists Awards. Jessica lives in Glen Head, NY, with her husband John, daughters Justine and Julia, dogs Maddie and Miguel, and a whole bunch of perennials, vegetable plants and weeds. Ask a question Show More

When you think of community gardens, you might imagine divided plots shared by gardeners who want to grow food but might not have a piece of land to call their own. In many cases you’d be correct, but access to a plot isn’t the only draw.

Community gardens are gathering places that bring neighbors together and provide space for them to grow quality produce for themselves or for local food banks and soup kitchens.

They forge friendships, share tips and seeds, learn the best cultural practices, get access to high-quality, locally grown produce and get some good old-fashioned exercise, human interaction and vitamin D along the way.

Long Island is rich in community gardens, with at least 40 shared spaces between Great Neck and Gardiners Bay. Each typically comprises individual plots or raised beds, and access to a water supply. Some also provide loaner tools and free compost and mulch, as well as instruction and even starter plants. Members get to oversee a plot for the season and can usually grow whatever they please on it, from radishes to roses. They visit often to till and toil, stopping by for an hour after work or an entire weekend day to plant, water, weed and commune with nature.

Space is a hot commodity, with membership registrations for summer beginning as early as January. Oftentimes, membership is free, but some gardens carry a nominal fee.

A fresh idea

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Several years ago, Frances Whittelsey of Huntington Bay became acutely aware of the lack of fresh food available to some people in the community.

“The food banks were not able to provide even sufficient canned and boxed food, and I realized they were not able to give people any kind of fresh vegetables or fresh fruit,” recalled the retired journalist and Hofstra University journalism professor. So Whittelsey, 70, joined forces with Lawrence Foglia, 65, a local farmer who had been active in town matters, and together they amassed a consortium of local social services agencies, members of the slow food movement, a group dedicated to food that’s good for the environment and the people who grow, prepare and consume it, and others to formulate a plan. They met with town officials and gained approval to start the Gateway Community Garden in Huntington Station. The garden opened in 2010 with 30 beds built with wood and filled with compost provided by the town, and it has been growing ever since. Members grow food not only for themselves, but also to donate to local food banks, fulfilling Whittelsey’s mission in two ways.

“Not everyone has enough space, or enough sun, to grow a garden,” Whittelsey said. “People come to us because we have ideal conditions. The quality of the soil is excellent, it has never been walked upon, never exposed to chemicals, and it’s nice and soft,” she said, adding that members have grown straight, 18-inch carrots at the garden, which is no small feat coming out of Long Island soil.

Outdoor laboratory

Over at the Seed to Table Community Garden in Freeport, program director Debra Wheat-Williams has different goals. She strives to provide an “outdoor learning science and nutrition laboratory” for local youths. The garden holds educational and hands-on planting workshops, some of which are taught by teenagers from the community.

Many of those teens attend Freeport High School and are enlisted to help out at the Freeport Farmers Market, which works in conjunction with the garden through their mutual parent, the Cedarmore Corporation. Cedarmore focuses its efforts on youth programs. The young gardeners are treated as entrepreneurs-in-training as they participate in the process of planning their garden to selling the produce they grow at the market. Proceeds are directed back to the garden, and instead of paying for the use of their plots, the teens are paid a salary while receiving what Wheat-Williams calls “financial literacy training.”

Wheat-Williams, 61, who spends her days as senior manager of financial services for NYC & Company (formerly the NYC Convention and Visitors Bureau), started Seed to Table in 2012 with help and financial support from Sustainable Long Island, a Farmingdale-based nonprofit that works to advance local economic development, environmental health and social equality. She grew up in Freeport but lives in a community next door, Baldwin, so she has a strong connection to the South Shore village and a sense of investment in the future of its youth.

“Through the filter of becoming an entrepreneur, we gear them all toward college and teach them about business,” Wheat-Williams said.

Other community gardens across Long Island provide cooking classes and demonstrations, hold community fundraisers and serve as a place for members to socialize. Gateway, for instance, hosts social events, potlucks and full-moon parties during summer.

“It’s a place to just be calm and feel good,” Whittelsey said, fondly recalling a late member who was known for weeding and watering very early in the morning, then spending time “simply sitting and contemplating.”

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“To be able to plant a seed and watch it pop out of the ground and grow into food is a thrill,” Whittelsey said. “For many people it’s a meditative and spiritual experience. It is for me.”