Donation allows volunteers to spruce up River and Roots Community Garden

Boots were on the ground in Riverhead — but not for reasons you might expect — as River and Roots Community Garden workers and volunteers from as far away as Staten Island joined forces to rebuild garden beds with support from a local sheet metal workers union.

The management of Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation Union Local 28 provided a $3,000 donation and contributed all the supplies and some of the labor needed for the project, enabling River and Roots to launch its ninth season. In 2011, Riverhead Town gave the not-for-profit group a license to use the land for a community garden on West Main Street, just feet from the Peconic River.

“This was town property that really was not being utilized,” said River and Roots co-founder Amy Davidson. “We had a vision to get the community involved and we did … in this town, if you just say, ‘We need help,’ they’re so generous and they’ve always come to our aid.”

After just a year, however, Superstorm Sandy devastated the property, confronting River and Roots with significant financial challenges. Although they did eventually manage to refurbish nine plots that were destroyed by the storm, much of the garden was left in shambles. 

River and Roots vice president Brian Nigro, a SMART Local 28 member and husband of garden co-founder Laurie Nigro, said he recognized how quickly the property was deteriorating. He put in a request to see if his union, which has supported community-based projects in the past, would be willing to help with the restoration effort — and it was.

So from 7 a.m. March 30 through the following evening, a team of about 50 people worked to rebuild a total of 36 beds, a significant number of which were built at double height to accommodate gardeners with physical limitations.

“This was a vacant piece of land where guys would drink all day,” Mr. Nigro said. “I think it’s important for unions to give back to the communities they work in. I’m glad the management of 28 saw that, too.”

Part of the 50-person team that gathered to renovate the River and Roots Community Garden on West Main Street. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

Though River and Roots is insured and has managed to find local donors from across the country for previous projects — initially through a fundraiser at the former Martha Clara Vineyards — maintenance and costs associated with new ventures can get pricey, according to Laurie Nigro. Conditions at the Main Street garden were not previously tenable for either gardeners or passersby, she said, with mountains of rotting wood crumbling around them. 

“We charge $25 to rent a bed for the year and we still have to pay insurance every year on the garden, so finding that money, we were going to have to look for donations in the community,” she said. “When Brian said, ‘Let me speak to my union and see if that’s something we can manage,’ it was like one of those lifesavers.”

Reflecting on the group’s 2011 start, Ms. Nigro grew nostalgic.

“Amy and I were two people who — nobody knew who we were. It’s not like we were into politics. At the time, we were stay-at-home homeschooling moms,” she said. “We were like, ‘So, give us this really prominent piece of land on Main Street and let us garden it.’ ”

With enough lobbying, though, the women were able to sway the Town Board within 18 months and garner a good bit of local support. Former deputy supervisor Jill Lewis saw their vision and served as their driving force, Ms. Nigro said.

“Now looking at it … how could they be so nuts to let two women they’d never heard of have this really amazing thing?” she said. “They put a lot of belief in us. Without the town support, it never would have happened.”

While the garden is generally kept locked, it is open to the public when gardeners are on site. Edibles including raspberries, blackberries, figs and plums are planted along the perimeter of the garden to make them available for public consumption.

Top photo caption: River and Roots Community Garden members and volunteers work on the town property’s 36 garden beds Saturday. A number are being built at double height to accommodate gardeners with physical limitations. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

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