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

Every spring, Jeremy Haniquet works under the warm May sun, gingerly turning over the soil in one of the six box gardens he built in his Shirley yard. He is careful not to disturb the vining peas he planted in March as he sows corn directly into the soil between them. As he does so, he remembers the taste of fresh peas plucked from their pods, by his much smaller 9-year-old hands, in his mother’s Central Islip garden.

“We were a family with six boys,” Haniquet, now 35, recalled recently. “While my mother liked keeping flowers, she was growing vegetables out of necessity.”

To paint a picture of the “refrigerator requirements” of the family, Haniquet said, “I’m 6-foot-2 — and I was the runt.” As his mother labored to grow food, Haniquet kept her company, often eating crops right off the plant.

When he started attending Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead in 2014, Haniquet became interested in school gardening and wanted to launch a campus project. He got the green light from the office of student affairs, which connected him with other students who had expressed similar interests. Before long, they had constructed a 1,250-foot garden and began donating crops to local charities.

Haniquet now attends Stony Brook University, where he is majoring in political science and philosophy. He has become involved in Edible School Gardens of the East End, a group whose mission is to teach children about where their food comes from and how to grow it, and he regularly returns to the community college to help out. This year, Haniquet started seeds at home for the campus garden, and he aspires to apply what he learns in his public policy courses to create a program that will get a garden in every school in Suffolk County.

Jeremy Haniquet plants butternut squash in the front vegetable garden at his home in Shirley, April 29, 2017. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

To expand his horticultural knowledge, Haniquet took a botany class and is enrolled in the Master Gardener training program through the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

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“Gardening has come back into the public consciousness,” he said. “You’re seeing it a lot more across the board, in all age groups, because people want to have fresh fruit and vegetables. They want a relationship with their food as it’s coming up.”

When his son was born in 2009, Haniquet started his own garden because he wanted to ensure his child “was getting optimal nutrition.”

“I liked the idea of avoiding fruit that’s been on a shelf for two weeks and a truck for two months,” he said.

This year, Haniquet’s garden will include about a dozen vegetables and fruits, including goji berries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and black and red currants.

Sweena Varghese, 39, and her husband Joe, 38, stand by a garden bed where they will grow vegetables, on April 29, 2017, in East Meadow, with their children Katie, 4, and Vivian, 7, playing in the yard. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

As Haniquet’s son watches him tend his gardens, he eats broccoli rabe and arugula right off the plant, just as Haniquet did years ago.

“These are things he would never eat if I brought them home from the supermarket,” Haniquet said. “He won’t even eat them when I cook them. But he eats them straight out of the garden.”

A new trend

It’s that straight-out-of-the-garden allure that is captivating the interest and attention of young adults across Long Island and the country. Gardening is becoming trendy again. The farm-to-table restaurant movement certainly has played a role, as many 20- and 30-somethings want to know exactly where their food is coming from. It’s no surprise, then, that edibles are the most popular plants with this new generation of gardeners.

Among them is Victoria Ferremi, 20, of Sayville, who describes herself as an “intrepid home gardener and food grower.” She attends Farmingdale State College, where she is majoring in horticulture technology management with a minor in business management.

“My main goal is to one day have my own wholesale greenhouse business,” Ferremi said.

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But what would inspire a young woman barely out of her teens to get outdoors and into the garden, especially when so many of her cohorts prefer playing video games and watching Netflix?

“My mother is an avid gardener, and I would always help her when I was little,” Ferremi said. “Going into horticulture wasn’t my first idea because my mother is a nurse and I was going to major in nursing. But she pushed me toward horticulture because she knew I liked it, and I’m so happy.”

Ferremi said that as a child, her family’s annual trips to Maine helped solidify her appreciation for nature. “I always loved being outside exploring trails and checking out the plants and funguses that looked like alien pods,” she said. “When I was very small, I loved to play in the mud and dig. As I grew older, I started to help in the garden.”

Ferremi trimmed the family’s hydrangeas earlier this spring, and planned out where to plant the begonias. Soon, pumpkins, zucchini, tomatoes and melons will go into the ground.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Ferremi, adding that she finds gardening extremely relaxing. “When you plant something, it’s like creating an art piece: It first starts out not looking so good because it still has to settle and grow, and once it’s in bloom you look at it and go, ‘Wow, I did that!’ ”

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In addition to using her growing knowledge and skill set around the home garden, Ferremi enjoys volunteering.

“I’ve helped out with my church garden, and my sister and I have been trying to get a youth group together to help take care of it,” she said, adding that the first order of business will be to “get that galinsoga weed” that plagues the property.

Although she initially learned from her mother, Ferremi said these days her family learns from her. “I answer their questions, and if they have a weed invasion, they come to me.”

A growing hobby

Ferremi isn’t the only millennial leading her family in the garden. According to the 2016 National Gardening Survey, an annual study of consumer gardening practices and trends conducted by the Harris Poll, the number of millennial-led households growing food grew by 63 percent between 2008 and 2013 — from 8 million to 13 million. And of the 6,000 U.S. households that grew food for the first time in 2015, 5,000 of them had a head of household in the 19- to 35-year-old age group.

The survey attributes those findings to the generation’s concern for nutrition, the environment, its carbon footprint and wanting to know the origin of its food. It is also the most highly educated age group, but, on average, has higher levels of debt and lower levels of income than the two previous generations. In addition, the high cost of produce seems to be a contributing factor, with edibles most often the plants of choice.

Millennials, who total 75.4 million, are the first generation to exceed Baby Boomers in number and now account for approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population of 325 million people. According to the survey, they are responsible for a 25 percent increase in gardening households with children.

When Sweena Varghese, a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization, began cultivating her East Meadow garden, she was 35, the tail end of the millennial age bracket. Today, with three seasons of gardening prowess under her belt, she has taken the lead in the family’s garden but enlists the help of her husband and children. Her husband, Joe, 38, does the heavy lifting, and daughters Vivian, 7, and Katie, 4, taste-test all the berries — right off the plants. The girls help plant and water, too.

Varghese, 39, grew up in New Hyde Park in a family of immigrants, and credits her upbringing for her love of homegrown produce.

“My parents had a garden, and my aunts and uncles gardened,” she said. “Coming from India, they appreciated the value of getting something they grew with their own hands — and getting fruits and vegetables they couldn’t find at the market.”

Varghese’s children may very well one day credit her in similar fashion: During the summer, she said the family often picks tomatoes, onions and eggplant for dinner and cooks them on the grill. “My kids love it,” Varghese said. “They eat the vegetables I make, and they pick the berries and eat them.”

When the Vargheses bought their house three years ago, she said it needed a lot of work, especially in the yard. “There were huge hedges that practically took up the entire property, so it looked like there was no yard,” she said. “We took everything out, and when we opened everything up, I said to Joe, ‘I want an area that’s mine to garden in and put in vegetables.’ That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

So the couple cleared a small area in the backyard along the foundation of their house, and Varghese planted “a lot of herbs,” plus corn, zucchini, tomatoes, onions and garlic.

“I was super adventurous that first year,” she said. “The plants were growing, but my mistake was I didn’t build a fence, so I literally watched the rabbits and squirrels come and eat everything I was growing.” The corn, she said, grew taller than 6 feet, “but when I went to pick them, there was no corn in the husks!”

By the end of the season, Varghese had harvested only one tomato and one cucumber. “I was ready to give up, but I said, ‘Let’s try a fence.’ ”

The second year, Varghese’s father-in-law installed a chicken-wire fence around her garden, and she planted tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, eggplant and bell peppers. Opposite that foundation garden, she planted blueberries and a raspberry bush.

“I got tons of tomatoes, but the bell peppers stopped growing midway, the broccoli didn’t grow at all and the zucchini didn’t grow, either,” Varghese said. “But I found out zucchini needs more space. There’s a lot more science to gardening than just putting plants in the ground.”

Undeterred, and gaining ever more knowledge from her trials and errors, Varghese decided to keep things simple last year, planting only tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and bush beans. She also added another blueberry bush “for cross-pollination,” and blackberries. “I had a huge garden, and I was picking every day in the summer,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

This year, she finally feels she’s got the hang of it. “I’m going to stick with what I planted last year, but try different varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers,” Varghese said, adding that she is also going to plant a peach tree.

Like many others her age, Varghese, who has a bachelor’s in political science from Hofstra University, gets much of her information online, turning to Pinterest and other websites for gardening tips.

“I Google a lot of my questions,” she said. “If I see something looking a little odd or something growing on a plant, I look it up.”

One thing she shares in common with the generations of green thumbs before her is an appreciation for spending time outdoors and investing hard work and hours that will ultimately reap rewards not only of food, but of pure joy.

“After planting and watering and taking care of plants every day, they become your babies,” Varghese said.