On a recent morning, Nadja Farooq filled a container with freshly picked tomatoes at the Central Islip Community Garden, then turned her attention to a fellow gardener to show him the correct way to cut back his cilantro plant. Soon, she told him, he’d have the option of saving the herb’s seeds for planting next year or using them in recipes calling for coriander — the dried seeds of the cilantro plant.
Farooq, 53, of Central Islip, works full time as a nurse. But she nonetheless visits the garden several days a week before or after work, as well as on her days off. There, she teaches her neighbors, many of whom live in apartments or condominiums without gardens of their own, how to grow food.
“A lot of people think you just put a seed in the ground and it grows, but it’s not that easy,” Farooq said. “There are weeds, pests and diseases you have to deal with, some flowers that need to be deadheaded [a chore that involves removing dead flower heads from plants to encourage more blooming],” and the common areas between and around the beds must be weeded, mulched and maintained, she said.
And as the manager of the Central Islip garden, it’s up to her to coordinate and lead the effort.
Farooq is one of roughly 450 active master gardeners on Long Island, a group dedicated to teaching sustainable gardening and demonstrating the best gardening practices to the community. Doing so can take many forms, from working in community gardens and developing initiatives to combat food insecurity, to presenting educational programs and promoting the benefits of composting.
The process to become a master gardener, which is overseen by Cornell Cooperative Extensions in each county, requires a significant commitment.
In Suffolk County, prospective gardeners must complete a 15-week course overseen by Roxanne Zimmer, the director of community horticulture. The program there includes in-person and virtual half-day sessions, with lectures, workshops and field trips.
The Nassau County course, headed by master gardener volunteer program liaison Jennifer Hochuli, runs for 12 weeks, with meetings twice a week — once in-person and once via Zoom. There is also coursework, online homework assignments and occasional weekend field trips.
“We bring in expert guest speakers, and each class has a different focus area, such as turfgrasses, native plants and wildlife, vegetable growing, fruit and berries, landscape design, soil science, plant biology, entomology and beneficial insects, permaculture, water quality, invasive species, composting or pruning,” Hochuli said.
“It’s not easy becoming a master gardener,” she added. In the Nassau program, “The midterm and final exams are pretty extensive. There’s also a volunteer commitment, and there’s a lot to that.”
In Suffolk, there are no homework assignments, but students must instead identify and plan an “action project,” said Zimmer. Working in groups of two or three, students propose a project and spend the semester researching the logistics of implementing it. When they graduate, she said, they must perform a total of 125 hours of volunteer work during their first two years as master gardeners. After that, Suffolk master gardeners must log 30 hours per year to retain their master gardener status.
Nassau County master gardeners, meanwhile, must commit to a total of 120 volunteer hours during the first three years of completing the program, then 40 hours per year to retain their master gardener status.
Roughly two-thirds of Suffolk and 80% of Nassau master gardeners continue to be involved beyond that “internship” period, according to Zimmer and Hochuli.
Farooq’s action project was to revitalize her community garden, which had fallen into neglect, and recruit and train others to keep the garden thriving.
But volunteer efforts run the gamut, Zimmer said, and some master gardeners choose to use skills acquired in other parts of their life to help further the master gardeners’ mission.
Ellen Rubin, who owns a public relations and marketing company, lends her 50 years of business expertise to the cause. Since completing the program in 2020, she has enlisted well-known gardening experts from around the world to speak virtually to Long Islanders at the Suffolk Cooperative Extension’s Spring Gardening School.
“A lot of my clients have books or relationships with book publishers, so I was able to go through them, and we were able to have their clients who have a recent book come and speak at our events,” said Rubin, 74, who lives in Cutchogue and Manhattan. “I’m the event planner. It’s fun. I really, really like doing it.”'
Instead of action projects, “one of the main ways to volunteer [in Nassau] is at the demonstration gardens at East Meadow Farm,” Hochuli said.
“Community members should be able to come in and see different ways to string tomatoes or go into our Gold Medal arboretum and see a new shade plant and get inspiration and learn from the gardens,” she said, adding that master gardeners maintain those areas.
Nassau master gardeners also help collect inquiries and test soil samples at the plant diagnostics and soil health center in East Meadow. They also do outreach at the Long Island Fair, Hochuli said.
Audrey Thomas of Roosevelt, who completed the Nassau program in 2019, serves as a fruit and vegetable judge at the annual fair. Thomas, 70, said she believes that “if you want to eat healthy, you should know the benefits of having fresh vegetables and know how to grow them.”
So, the retired telecommunications technical associate said she spends much of her free time at the Roosevelt Community Garden. “I go at 5 o’clock in the evening and show the gardeners what to do,” she said, adding that she even gives out her phone number “so they can call me if they ever need help.”
And because many of her neighbors don’t know about the garden, she said she walks through the community handing out flyers.
When she’s not showing folks how to maintain their community garden plots, Thomas said she’s “really gung ho” about volunteering at Clark Botanical Garden in Albertson and the East Meadow Farm, where she tends the rose garden and berry patch.
A school garden grows
Back in Suffolk, Sonia Spar, a Spanish teacher at Riverhead Charter School and New Suffolk Common School, chose food insecurity as the focus of her action project. To address this issue, she has dedicated herself to engaging children and their parents in growing their own food on the Greenport Elementary School campus, where her sons attend school.
While enrolled in the Suffolk master gardener program at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spar, 50, who lives in Southold, said she “began to notice an incredible food insecurity that people on Long Island were suffering. And with that crisis in mind came the idea to reimagine the school garden.”
So, in collaboration with Principal Joseph Tsaveras and the art and STEAM teachers at the school, Spar worked to increase the garden’s size from 15 to 40 beds.
Spar said the project brought the whole community together. “People donated plants, soil, wood chips and the transportation of the wood chips. Kids helped put the irrigation together and filled the beds with soil, and my husband helped build the wood frames for the raised beds. Everybody was so happy to collaborate on it,” she said.
Spar and Shannon Silverman, a STEAM teacher at the school, handle many of the weeding, watering and maintenance chores in the garden, especially over weekends.
“Sonia is a true community leader,” Tsaveras said. “She is the liaison who has helped us bring the community into our garden, [which now] is more like a complex, with a hoop house and a chicken coop with 17 chickens.”
Of the 40 beds at the school, 10 are assigned to families who don’t have space to grow their own vegetables at home. Produce and flowers to attract pollinators are grown in the others, and custodians, children and teachers help care for them.
“The garden is like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Spar said. “The kids snack from the plants when they’re outside, and anybody from the community can enter and help themselves to lettuce, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes and whatever else is growing.”
‘Made my retirement'
Being a master gardener, however, doesn’t always require physical activity like digging, bending and weeding. In addition to folks like Rubin, who share the business savvy they acquired throughout their careers, those with physical limitations can lend their knowledge, socialize and contribute in non-strenuous ways.
When shoulder, neck and back pain forced dentist David Rolnick of Woodbury into retirement in 2013, he didn’t have a plan for a second act. But, he said, a “little blurb in Newsday” about the master gardener program sparked his interest.
“I was no more of a gardener than the average homeowner on Long Island,” Rolnick, now 75, said, “but I interviewed with [the Nassau Cooperative Extension], took the course, and it totally made my retirement.”
Over the past 10 years, Rolnick has held every executive position on the Nassau board of directors, on which he currently serves as vice president. He’s also on the vegetable committee and part of the team that runs the extension’s Seed to Supper program at local senior centers, libraries and community centers. The course aims to teach residents about nutrition and how to grow their own food.
But composting is Rolnick’s favorite committee. “A while back, we transitioned from production to education because we’re all senior citizens, and it was a lot of physical work,” he said. “Now, when people visit East Meadow Farm, we discuss [composting] with them, encourage them and teach them best practices” so they can do it at home.
“One of the great ironies of my life is that, being a dentist for 40 years, I spent my days preventing and repairing the effect of decay. Now, as co-chair of the composting committee, I spend a lot of time promoting decay,” quipped Rolnick, who said he has logged nearly 2,000 volunteer hours as a master gardener.
“The best part about the program is the people you meet who have a common interest in volunteerism and sharing their knowledge and the mission of the CCE, and improving the lives of people in the county,” Rolnick said. “You’re learning for yourself and sharing what you learn with your fellow master gardeners and the general public. We’re one of the best-kept secrets on Long Island.”
How to become a master gardener
Want to become a master gardener? Course offerings for next year have not been finalized in Nassau, but those interested in the program should visit ccenassau.org/horticulture or call 516-832-2591, extension 100, after Jan. 1 for application information.
In Suffolk County, course information for 2024 is as follows:
- Applications will be accepted at ccesuffolk.org/gardening/-courses starting Nov. 1, followed by phone interviews.
- The program runs from Feb. 28-June 12.
- Classes meet from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. Sessions are held in person at Suffolk County Farm, 350 Yaphank Ave., Yaphank; at various field trip sites; and online.
- Tuition is $425, plus a $125 fee that is returned after 125 volunteer hours are completed in the two years after graduation. Some scholarships may be available. Tuition includes a T-shirt, ID badge, course materials and background check.
- For more information, email Roxanne Zimmer at email@example.com.
— Jessica Damiano
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