River and Roots garden shares the bounty in Riverhead

At the River and Roots community garden on West Main Street and Griffing Avenue in Riverhead, something new is germinating this spring.

“We’re now growing vegetables outside of the garden so that people can come by the fence and pick what they need. It’s community building,” said garden co-manager and trustee Amie Kennedy. “We’re lucky to have the fence because the plantings around the perimeter are a beautification project along with providing food for our town.” 

All along the western, southern and northern sides of the quarter-acre garden, now in its 11th year, there are tomato plants, sweet peas, raspberry bushes, beans, wildflowers, jalapenos, eggplants, zucchini, cucumbers, herbs and a huge fig tree.

“We are very aware of the food insecurity in Riverhead. We’re seeing more people come to the fence and ask if they can have some of the produce,” said garden co-manager Mary Ellen Santamaria. “It’s not all about what goes on inside the fence; it’s also what goes on outside the fence.” 

By utilizing a three-foot wide strip of real estate that borders the exterior of the garden, the hope is that passersby will help themselves to the produce and become more aware of the community garden and where their food comes from. “We want to plant what people like and want,” said Eileen Mackey, known as the garden’s “goddess,” who is also a co-manager. 

Gardeners who pay a yearly $35 fee can harvest the crops from their plots inside the fence, while anyone walking by the garden can pick from outside the fence for free. 

Ms. Mackey pointed out that students at Pulaski Street Elementary School recently donated excess green bean plants and will be watching over the sprouts as they grow.

“And with the playground next to us, we hope we can educate the kids there about the garden,” she said.

Along with putting new plants in the ground, the three gardeners will create signs to inform the public when certain veggies are ripe and ready to pick. 

Some of the produce, such as sweet peas, had already started climbing up the perimeter fence on their own. One of the gardeners put plastic fencing on the wrought iron to make it easier for vegetation that grows on a vine to shoot up.

“The fig tree outside the fence is very popular — so much so that all of the figs went to people who are not our gardeners,” Ms. Santamaria said. “Our members are very interested in helping those who need food.”

All three gardeners emphasized that the goal of the new initiative is to provide visitors with a sample of the garden’s offerings while ensuring there’s still enough for everyone. 

All of the garden’s 34 beds are currently flourishing with kale, chives, bok choy and tomatoes grown by member families, couples and individuals. Many of the gardeners cultivate a lot of one type of vegetable and wind up donating their bumper crop. Two raised plots in the garden are growing produce that will be donated to a food pantry. 

Additionally, two groups from St. Catherine of Sienna and East End Disability Associates tend the gardens here as part of their therapeutic programming.

“It was the dream of the garden founders who came up with the idea of a garden 11 years ago to one day be able to give back to the community,” Ms. Kennedy said. “We believe our garden will ease the burden [of food insecurity] a little bit.”