The crops in East Hampton Town’s community oyster gardens require no watering, but they do need plenty of (sea) weeding.
The town launched its third community oyster garden earlier this year, with about a dozen residents tending to cages of oyster seeds in Accabonac Harbor in Springs. A Hog Creek garden launched in 2017, and the original at Three Mile Harbor began in 2016. Both are in Springs.
The concept is similar to a traditional community garden, where participants come together to learn more about gardening, improve their community — in this case with bivalves that filter 50 gallons of baywater per day — and enjoy what they reap.
“It helps us maintain our water quality,” said Barley Dunne, director of the town’s aquaculture department. “We do know our water quality out here is exceptional.”
A $250 or $150 membership fee funds the program, and each participant gets training and a cage with 1,000 tiny oysters. Once every three weeks from April through October, they must pull in their cages and scrub away the thick green macroalgae and other sea plants growing inside.
“We have weeds in the garden and weeds in the bay,” Dunne said.
Oysters feed on the algae, so there is no need for additional nutrition, and the shellfish, which are spawned at the town’s Montauk hatchery, take about 18 months to mature.
Dunne said the cages remain submerged from October through April since bivalves don’t grow in water with a temperature of less than 50 degrees. The bivalves, spawned in February and now slightly larger than a fingernail, will be 2 inches long by the end of August.
Oysters are the best shellfish for the program due to how fast they grow and the lack of care needed during the winter, Dunne said.
Participant Francesca Rheannon, an environmental activist who is also president of the Accabonac Preservation Committee, which advocates for the harbor, said when she first placed her seeds in a cage earlier this month more than 1,000 oysters fit in half of a cup. Three weeks later they had grown exponentially.
“We went out there on Saturday and these oysters were 20 times that size,” she said. “Some were the size of dimes.”
With 40,000 oysters in the water, the gardens are a small percentage of the 2.5 million oysters grown every year by the town's aquaculture department, but it helps residents feel invested in the town’s aquaculture program.
The garden program is modeled on Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training, or SPAT, which offers gardeners the chance to grow at-home docks but also has community gardens in Hampton Bays, Southold and Sag Harbor. More than 1,000 people have participated since the program begin in 2000, according to Kim Tetrault, the organization’s community aquaculture specialist.
The program draws environmentally conscious people from all walks of life, ranging from a 14-year-old intern to the 88-year-old volunteer who is showing him the ropes.
“We’re fostering environmental stewardship, education and meaningful, purposeful work for all ages,” Tetrault said.
East Hampton Town Community Oyster Garden
Cost: $250 the first year, $150 for returning gardeners
What you get: Training, access to cages, about 1,000 oyster seeds
Sites: Accabonac Harbor, Three Mile Harbor, Hog Creek
Restrictions: Must be an East Hampton Town resident
More information: Call the town aquaculture department at 631-668-4601 ext. 7901