Murray Strongwater's first garden was a bust.
It was World War II, and Americans were encouraged to plant victory gardens to supplement their diets, as food supplies were diverted to U.S. troops overseas. Strongwater, then 13, and a friend joined the group of local men planting in the open fields of Lynbrook. The adults' gardens produced plump tomatoes and robust cabbages, but his novice attempt was less than successful.
"Oh, god, it wasn't so good," Strongwater, 87, said in the backyard of his Hewlett Neck home. "These guys, their stuff was gorgeous."
Now, more than 70 years later, it's Strongwater who has the enviable garden. Among the manicured lawns in his community, Strongwater's half-acre paradise of produce is obscured by his two-story home and colorful flower beds. The retired business owner grows about 20 types of vegetables -- from Brussels sprouts to zucchini -- enough to feed himself, his wife, Charlotte, 83, and a nearby group home for adults with disabilities.
"You have to have some common sense and be willing to do the work," Strongwater said, who also pickles some of his garden's bounty.
The recipients of his generosity marvel at the gems he produces. For seven gardening seasons, he has delivered varieties of vegetables packaged in bags and five-gallon buckets. "He's been a tremendous gift," said Tawanna Saxton, the program supervisor at the South Shore Association for Independent Living in Woodmere.
A recent Thursday afternoon brought lots of sun to the garden. "That's cauliflower and that's Brussels sprouts," Strongwater said, pointing to a leafy cluster near the shed. Vegetable plants wrap the edges of the property, taking up a third of the backyard. The Strongwaters love tomatoes especially -- that's why he grows 12 varieties -- and they are part of an added bonus for the ardent gardener. "Out here, I'm noshing on the stuff all day long," he said.
There are lima beans, cabbages, carrots and herbs -- fragrant rosemary and tarragon. Leeks, kohlrabi and daikon radishes flourish on raised beds a foot off the ground. The elevated beds help to get more depth and moisture from the soil, which he cultivates from four compost piles. The more freedom roots have to grow, he explained, the healthier the produce will be. "Plus the fact that you don't have to bend so much," he said. It also lets him scoot between rows on a wagon to weed more easily.
Heads of cabbage peek out from between clumps of decorative grasses in the flower beds at the far end of the yard. Strongwater doesn't like to waste seeds, so when more sprout than can fit in his gardening boxes, he places the seedlings anywhere there is space.
None of the Strongwaters' three adult children gardens, but he gets an occasional hand when his 10 granddaughters visit. Watering is made easier with a sprinkler system.
Charlotte prefers to stay inside and paint watercolor scenes, and she's not a fancy vegetable person. "I just cook it, dice it, splice it, cut it, chop it," she said. "I like plants inside the house."
Strongwater is self-taught. When he has a question or an idea, he'll do research and then rely on the intuition he's developed to cover the rest. He uses his own compost, he said, because it makes the soil healthier than anything he can buy.
Years of practice have taught him to let freshly picked onions bask in sun to help them stay firm in storage, he said, and he uses grass clippings from the gardener to mulch his beds because it keeps the weeds down and the moisture in. Strongwater spends every moment he can tending his plants. His wife said if he's inside, it usually means the weather is too hot or rainy.
After his failed gardening attempt as a teenager, Strongwater resolved to keep at it because he enjoyed the work and the challenge, no matter the location. He dug a garden in his sister's yard during a brief stay when he was 23. And after he and Charlotte married in the 1950s, they lived with her mother and he planted there, too.
It became a habit he loved. For half a century, he owned a fashion glove manufacturing business that took him to Taiwan, the Philippines, China and Japan. He would always pack a trowel and trade the satin and lace gloves he brought with him for gardening ones. "Wherever I was, I had a garden," he said. "Gardening and tennis, those were my things."
For Strongwater, a property's value, in part, depended on yard size, sunlight exposure and soil quality. When the couple decided to purchase their current house 37 years ago, he had one priority. "When he saw the backyard, he didn't care about the inside," Charlotte said. "He said 'This is it.' " The Strongwaters' previous home in Woodmere was prone to flooding, prompting their move in 1978 to their current home where the shore of George's Creek is visible from their backyard.
"The funniest thing is that there is such flooding here -- we left that place to come to a place that had less flooding," she said. "And it was just terrible [three] years ago." That's when superstorm Sandy swamped the garden with 18 inches of water, taking down all of Strongwater's tomato trellises. The storm washed away his trees and decorative shrubs, but it didn't erase his resolve.
The missing shrubs gave him a chance to experiment with growing vegetables in other areas of the yard. He likes to try new crops and storage techniques. Last week, he made bread-and-butter pickles for the first time.
Not every experiment goes well, however. On his first attempt to make sauerkraut, the smell was so terrible that a utility worker stopping by thought the fermenting cabbage in the garage was a dead animal. This year, he wanted to use the dining room. "I told him if he did that, I would divorce him," Charlotte said, chuckling.
The group home Strongwater has befriended is a mile from his home. That first year of sharing crops, he had more produce than he could use and wanted to give back to the community. "I called up Island Harvest and said, 'I would like to contribute food to a food bank or something, where's the closest one?' " Strongwater said.
The home's staff and residents were delighted when he began his deliveries, Saxton said. During the summer, he visits once or twice a month, and when he arrives, the residents greet him at the door.
"We're limited financially in what we can do, so any donation we can receive is great, especially when it's something that promotes health and wellness," Saxton said.
He brings them whatever is in season. Between the home and friends, Strongwater says he gives away about 60 percent of what his garden produces. The home's 10 residents cook meals with Strongwater's offerings. "We look forward to every summer," Saxton said. "When people give us things from the community, it promotes inclusion. It promotes strong communities and families."
Donations and outreach can be a way to bring fresh, healthy food to those who might not otherwise have access to it, said Vincent Drzewucki, a horticulture resource educator with Cornell University's Nassau County cooperative extension. "There's kind of a big movement toward growing things yourself, and buying local and growing local," he said. The extension's farm in East Meadow aims to teach people about buying produce, and whatever is leftover from the weekly farm stands is sent to food banks. "It serves not only an educational purpose, but it provides the charities with extra produce," he said.
Strongwater said he wishes more people were aware of both the need and the opportunity to help their community. "If other people can find a way to contribute or do something for places like this, it would be nice. They know exactly where their charity is going."
Strongwater worked to prepare his latest delivery to the home. A wooden table outside the shed held a five-gallon bucket of leeks, a large daikon radish, some string beans and tomatoes. He hoped to take the produce over soon, he said. But first, he had some work to do in the garden.
Where gardeners can donate
Care to share gifts from your garden? Here's where you can donate them.
THE MARY BRENNAN INN
100 Madison Ave., Hempstead
Monday-Friday, 9-11 a.m. and 2--4 p.m.
40 Marcus Blvd., Hauppauge
Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
875 Jerusalem Ave., Uniondale
Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
LONG ISLAND CARES NASSAU
84 Pine St., Freeport
LONG ISLAND CARES SOUTH SHORE
163-1 N. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
LONG ISLAND CARES HARRY CHAPIN FOOD BANK AND HUMANITARIAN CENTER
220 Broadway, Huntington Station