Season of the Sol: The Lifesaving Montauk Community Garden

The Lifesaving Montauk Community Garden

The Montauk Community Garden crew at work.
The Montauk Community Garden crew at work.

I was tempted to introduce this first installment of Season of the Sol by unearthing some seldom-used metaphors that haven’t seen the light of day in years; buried somewhere beneath a mountain of file folders, perched atop my ridiculously tall bookcase, metaphors that would no doubt articulate the essence or fundamental need for a community-based garden — metaphors such as that of the special relationships that often sprout and thrive among a garden’s cultivators. Or the personal growth one seeks to attain by working the soil with calloused hands and a fertile mind. There is no shortage of comparisons I could plant here to make my point, so instead, I’ll be a tad more literal – the Montauk Community Garden saved my life!

It was during Labor Day weekend, some five years ago, with what had begun as a rather banal train ride into Manhattan to visit a friend. It quickly unraveled, turning into something that was far from a walk in the park. As anyone who has received Novocain for a dental procedure is aware, that numbing sensation usually felt in your cheek subsides within an hour or two after you’ve left the dentist’s chair. When that feeling, multiplied by 10, runs down the entire length of one side of your body, from head to toe without any warning, the experience can be rather frightening.

As the doctor explained to me the next day, after a battery of tests was completed, I had what’s medically referred to as a transient ischemic attack or TIA. It’s when blood flow is blocked while en route to the brain, often by a clot. A more colloquial term I’ve heard used for it is a “warning stroke.” Fortunately for me, the blockage was temporary, and symptoms subsided within a few days, leaving no signs of permanent damage.

The reasons for what might have triggered the attack were many — foremost being the stress I’d retained from my mother passing a few months prior. That was coupled with a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, with which I’d become all too comfortable. Clearly, what I needed most was to change my habits. What I hadn’t expected was just how seamless the transition would actually be, thanks to an amazing group of dedicated, soulful individuals that gather every Saturday morning from 9 to noon at the Montauk Community Garden.

The Montauk Community Garden crew.
The Montauk Community Garden crew.

It began nearly ten years ago as the brainchild of a casual conversation at a local watering hole between two venerable locals, Susan Vitale and Martha Reichert. The simple plot of grass on the corner lot next to a parochial elementary school would gradually be transformed into what is now a 5,000-square-foot oasis of vegetables, flowers and herbs in the heart of downtown Montauk.

During a recent visit to the garden, on what was a blustery, early April morning (and lucky for me, the initial day of “weeding and tilling”), I spoke with Greg Donahue of the Oceans Institute at the Montauk Lighthouse, who serves as team leader of the devoted crew.

“It took a little coaxing of fresh veggies hand-delivered to the Father at the Rectory each week before the diocese of Rockville Center granted us the space needed,” he quipped. “One of the sticking points was they required a plan – that it would have to benefit the community if they were to give over the lot to be converted into a garden. That’s when I was invited to come onboard, as we eventually came up with the idea to sell the produce and fresh flowers out front, donating all proceeds to local charities such as the Montauk Food Pantry and Meals on Wheels.”

From its humble beginnings, taking in approximately $1,000 the inaugural season, to the expansion and an ever-increasing variety of offerings, revenues have yielded nearly $28,000 since the garden began. Those are no small potatoes.

One of many reasons for the garden’s continued success has been the cooperation of other, much larger entities such as Quail Hill Farm and Amber Waves in Amagansett. By generously providing starter flats of veggies grown in their greenhouses, in addition to expertise in best practices from folks like Jane E. Lappin, formerly of Wainscott Farms, the community garden fosters a mutual interest in and connection to “sister farms,” who continue to provide restaurants, residents and visitors alike, with the freshest seasonal produce available.

I have to admit, for the longest time, fresh veggies were not a part of my daily meal consumption, at least until my health scare set me straight. I might actually have been the only person on earth to not have jumped on the kale bandwagon up to that point. Big mistake! The gardeners that year had planted several, distinct varieties of the cabbage relative; Lacinato, more commonly referred to as Tuscan or “dinosaur,” quickly became my favorite. You name the dish; I added kale (in addition to many other raw greens). Within three months, my bloodwork showed a significant decrease in each of the important risk categories; truly a transformative adjustment had begun to take root.

Of equal importance was (and continues to be), the warmth and generosity extended to me by the core group of ten or so Saturday morning regulars. I’ve felt incredibly welcomed from day one, and it’s hard not to with this bunch of supportive, compassionate individuals from such diverse backgrounds. Most enjoyable are the engaging conversations that typically occur, with topics ranging from current social and economic policy to Grateful Dead concerts and everything in between. Whether it’s the inquisitive weekender from Brooklyn or the local Girl Scout troop lending a hand while earning a badge or two, there is something to be gained for all who enter this magical space.

Another way in which the garden is able to kickstart the planting season is through its annual spring benefit. This year’s event will once again be hosted at the beautiful Harvest on Fort Pond, located at 11 South Emery Street. Starting at 1 p.m. and running ‘til half past 4 on Sunday, May 7 — the afternoon is filled with live music provided by local band Lost Time, an extensive number of donated items from nearby businesses to be raffled off. Delicious cuisine and a cash bar will round out the festive offerings.

Tickets can be purchased in advance for $20 at Naturally Good Foods & Café, White’s Liquors, and the Montauk Salt Cave – or for $25 at the door.

Yearly subscriptions to the East End Beacon will be included in the raffle, in addition to a complimentary copy of the May issue to all who attend. Please join me in congratulating the folks who make the Montauk Community Garden the special entity that it has grown to be. They’re the first of many local organizations, businesses, or persons to be honored in this space for a quarterly column I reverently refer to as Season of the Sol.

Dave Davis

Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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