The Garden Festival and its inauspicious start in Riverhead

Joe Van de Wetering, the Garden Festival's founder, outside Peconic Bay Medical Center on Friday. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Joe Van de Wetering, the Garden Festival’s founder, outside Peconic Bay Medical Center on Friday. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

When Joe Van de Wetering told Central Suffolk’s board of trustees he could earn the hospital $100,000 through an on-campus plant sale, they didn’t believe him.

They rejected the idea, but a year later, after some deliberations, the board approved the project — with some restrictions, however.

His plan to feature a Battle of the Bands?

It would have been too loud, he was told.

His pitch to sell shellfish and other farm goods?

The health department would never go for it.

Still, he organized the first Garden Festival  in 1995.

It raised just $7,000.

“I was devastated,” said Mr. Van de Wetering, who had then just moved to the area from Huntington Station. “I couldn’t believe this. What was wrong with the people in Riverhead?”

But he got some encouragement from Nancy Uzzo, an administrator at the hospital.

“She just said to get it to be a bigger event next time — and it did,” Mr. Van de Wetering said.

The event — planned for May 7-9 in Riverhead, Manorville and Westampton Beach — is now entering its 20th year. And in that time it’s generated $1.3 million for the hospital, now called Peconic Bay Medical Center.

One thing Mr. Van de Wetering has never told the hospital staffers and board members since 1995 is “I told you so.”

“No, when you open your mouth you get more jobs,” he joked.

To help recognize his efforts and those of others, Peconic Bay Medical Center’s guide to the 2015 event features a photo Mr. Van de Wetering on the cover, standing alongside Judy Barth, now the event chair who took over the gargantuan task of running the Garden Festival from Mr. Van de Wetering 10 years ago.

“After 10 years, I was looking for someone to relieve me,” said Mr. Ven de Wetering, a retired Northrup Grumman engineer. “There was always a lot of work to do.”

The Garden Festival guide also recognizes the efforts of his late brother, Peter Van de Wetering, who started Van de Wetering Greenhouses in Northville and had donated to the event. He died last May.

Joe Van de Wetering said another one of his brothers, Jack, was instrumental in bringing Joe aboard at the hospital after first asking him to think of and organize a hospital fundraiser.

Ms. Barth said she was working for Jack Van de Wetering, also a big plant donor for the event, when she first got involved in Garden Festival event 19 years ago.

“When I first got involved it was more that I was the one with retail experience to be able to set it up” in a florist and garden center manner, she said.

“I think that probably once it got set up, what I liked about it most was that it was something the hospital did that reached out to the whole community, something that everyone could afford to participate in,” Ms. Barth said. “Because a lot of hospital events are cost prohibitive to a lot of people. This way, everyone could be a part of making the hospital work.”

Of his family’s generosity and willingness to serve its community, Joe Van de Wetering said his brothers owning big businesses and having money helped.

“But if people are in need,” he continued, “we would always write a check or get involved in our church. It’s a natural thing. It’s part of what you should do when you live.”

He also said he “likes challenges,” and even joined the hospital’s board of directors in 1996 and served for 20 years.

He still volunteers with the hospital’s foundation, which raises money to support its efforts.

Samantha Vigliotta, PBMC’s director of donor relations, said this year’s proceeds — which the hospital is hoping surpasses the old record of about $114,000 — will be earmarked for pediatrics and expansion of the hospital’s Project Fit America program, through which hospital and school officials work to foster a love of fitness at an early age.

“You get to buy flowers and you get to also support the hospital at the same time,” she said.

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