Years ago, Craig den Hartog got an idea for spreading a little sunshine through his Terryville neighborhood. But the idea didn't flash in his head like a lightbulb. Instead, it was a daffodil bulb -- and not just one, but tens of thousands of them.
Den Hartog planted the seed for Old Town Blooms, a community-based movement that started with four volunteers and has planted 15,000 daffodil bulbs and other perennials in public spaces along a 7.3-mile stretch of Old Town Road in Brookhaven Town. The road starts at Route 25A in the hamlet of East Setauket and heads southeast, winding through Terryville, Port Jefferson Station and ending on Route 112 in Coram and Selden.
If you travel the gently twisting road in the springtime, you'll get an eyeful of bright yellow daffodils on both sides. As the fall planting season approaches, den Hartog will begin planting the bulbs.
Den Hartog knows a bit about making things grow. He owns Emerald Magic Lawn Care Inc., a Holtsville-based business that focuses on soil testing and plant diagnosis. Every fall over a few weekends, den Hartog pays some of his employees to work alongside local volunteers to plant the bulbs. With about four helpers, den Hartog, 53, said it takes about four hours to plant 1,000 bulbs.
The number planted goes up each year. Each of the past two years they've planted between 4,000 and 5,000 bulbs.
"A few hours invested creates weeks of community blooms and smiles," he said.
The project took root about seven years ago when den Hartog and three of his neighbors began discussing their increasing frustration with the mix of litter and weeds strewn about the entrance to their otherwise tidy Terryville development.
"It was so unkempt," said Karen Laidlaw, 58, a retired nurse and gardener who is one of den Hartog's neighbors and volunteer planters.
Back then, traveling down Old Town Road was disheartening, Laidlaw said. "People driving up and down the road were just using it as a trash can. The weeds were waist high. It was driving me insane."
Den Hartog and his three neighbors took action, starting with heading out early on weekend mornings to pick up trash. Then they decided that planting something beautiful in the newly cleared public areas could make an even bigger impact. From there, they got the idea to plant all along the road. That's when the community started to notice.
"You can complain as much as you like, but no one's going to do anything about it unless you do it," den Hartog said.
Miles of smiles
Scientific research supports the concept that flowers bring about good feelings. In a 2005 article published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, scientists reported on the results of three studies that all confirmed that flowers elicited true smiles, positive social behavior and even improved memory in study participants.
The color yellow, in particular, conveys a sense of hope and optimism, according to "The Effects of Color on the Moods of College Students," an article published this year in the journal SAGE Open. It reports that the psychological symbolism of yellow carries a strong association to happiness, creativity and friendliness.
A neighborhood effort
That first fall, den Hartog and a handful of friends planted 250 bulbs. Each year since, they have planted more, with neighbors pitching in to help prep areas by cleaning up litter and clearing planting sites.
A couple of years ago Old Town Blooms came to the attention of Joan Nickeson, chairwoman of the beautification committee for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, after she began getting compliments on the daffodils in bloom.
But, Nickeson said, "I couldn't take credit for that and I sought him [den Hartog] out."
Though she had never met den Hartog, Nickeson, 51, quickly embraced the vision of Old Town Blooms and told members of the civic association. The group donated $100 to the effort, and Nickeson also spread the word to the Brookhaven Town Council. Nickeson, who is also a founding member of the Cumsewogue Historical Society, said she felt compelled to help den Hartog brainstorm ideas to raise awareness of his effort through volunteering and fundraising. Old Town Blooms now has a Facebook page and a website: oldtownblooms.com.
Last year, den Hartog tried to get more people involved in the planting effort by leaving bulbs in about 300 mailboxes of homes on Old Town Road, with a note asking neighbors to plant the bulbs for the good of the whole community. Because of his ongoing efforts, den Hartog was named a person of the year in 2013 by the Port Times Record, a local news weekly.
Den Hartog said he has invested more than $5,000 in the Old Town Blooms effort and raised about $800 in donations. The price is worth it, he said.
"It's cheaper than the disappointment I would have if I didn't do it."