Is there anything more delicious than eating a fresh picked tomato from your garden? The weather is getting warmer and now is the perfect time to start planning your fruit and vegetable garden. Growing your own food is not hard, and with a few tips about how to plant and tend to your garden you’ll be rewarded with a season of delicious produce. This week I’d like to share some advice from my 25 years of experience growing a successful edible garden in Rockaway.

First off,  always plant what you like to eat. Think about what a typical week’s dinner plan looks like and make choices based on what you eat. Throw in some fun varieties of plants that you can’t find in the supermarket, and experiment with new flavors that you can incorporate into your cooking.

Here are some vegetables that I’ve found work great in our Rockaway soil. Tomatoes love our sandy soil and when you’re choosing which tomatoes to plant, try some small grape varieties or heirlooms that pack incredible flavor. Cucumbers, summer squash and zucchini are always favorites. Bell peppers and hot peppers like the beach weather. If you love the heat of hot peppers, try habaneros. They make for a delicious hot sauce and will punch up the flavor of any dish.

Herbs are easy to plant and care for. Basil will add amazing flavor to anything you cook. Make sure to pick off the top stems. This will stop the plant from flowering. Oregano and chives have always come back year after year.

Certain fruits also do great here in our Rockaway soil. Strawberries love to grow in sand. Raspberries and blackberries come back every year.

When you start to plan for your garden, here are some pointers of what leads to success:

Find a sunny spot. Most vegetables love sunlight, so look for a spot that faces south and is not shaded by a tree or a building.

Prep your soil. If you haven’t already applied garden lime, do so, and give your space a good watering. Then break up the soil and apply compost, manure, peat moss, and other organic fertilizers that will create healthy soil.

If you have any concerns about your soil being contaminated by Sandy, do not hesitate to get it tested. The last thing we want is to grow food that is intended to be healthy, but turns out to be harmful to our family. At my company Sungold Design Group, if we find that our clients’ soil is contaminated, we replace it and start with fresh soil.

Give some space and don’t overcrowd the area with too many plants. Create a good environment will help deter issues like disease, fungus, and lack of nutrition.

Water Wisely. Water in the morning, or early evening, but never at night because a damp dark environment can cause fungus and disease. Avoid watering during the heat of the day because the sun can burn the leaves.

With this knowledge and some TLC, you’ll have a bountiful edible garden this season. And if you happen to have a bumper crop, and I hope you do, make sure to share with your friends and neighbors!

No Space. No problem. Next week I’m going to talk about edible and ornamental container gardening .

(Alex is the Founder and Landscape Designer for Sungold Design Group, LLC a landscape design and installation firm in NYC and Rockaway Beach. Her website is www.sungolddesign.com.)

 

After Sandy: How Does Rockaway’s Garden Grow?

By Dan Guarino

Hurricane Sandy took so many things away from our area. But it also created opportunities for new things to grow. The Wave asked resident Alex Berkowitz, founder and principal landscape designer at Sungold Design Group, LLC, to tell us about how the storm has changed her life and how things are growing in Rockaway. 

Read the complete interview with Alex here:

Dan Guarino: Tell me about yourself.  What are your connections to Rockaway? What were you doing before Hurricane Sandy?

Alex: My name is Alex Berkowitz. I'm a former chef, an artist, and now a Landscape Designer and small business owner.

I was born and raised in Rockaway. I learned how to ride a bike here, played with my friends on the block, would collect shells on my beach with my grandma. I went to P.S. 114Q, and that’s where some of my teachers started to encourage me to do art. It worked because I went on to study art through college and worked as a professional artist after graduation. I was even the youngest vendor at the Rockaway Music and Arts Fair. I was about 9, and designed t-shirts and hand painted sneakers. Everyone thought it was adorable that such a young kid was manning the booth, but I took it very seriously. Looking back, it must have been adorable, and even more so because this kid was so serious about her hand painted sneakers.

The beach has always been very important to me. Besides my family, my neighbors, and my upbringing here, the beach is really what grounds me. In the warmer weather, I would go to the beach after high school to read my assigned books. I found just being near the beach so calming. It would also be the place where I'd go with my friends as teenagers to have our heart-to-hearts. Once you walk on the beach you forget all the chaos and worries in life.

My connections to Rockaway grew much stronger after 9/11. At the time I was just starting a semester abroad in Paris. This was a dream of mine since I was a little kid, and I worked very hard to get into this program. But things didn't feel right there. There was very little sympathy for the attacks, and it just didn't feel right being there at that time. Because 9/11 brought so much devastation to Rockaway, it only felt right to take a semester off from school and do whatever I could to help my community. I volunteered with the Chamber of Commerce to help Rockaway businesses that were suffering because of the post 9/11 economy. I remember working on an initiative to get Christmas lights on our major shopping streets. It was bad times for the community. So much loss. Everyone had a story to tell. I felt at the time we were all just doing the best we could as neighbors in this community to help each other in any way possible.

Before Hurricane Sandy I had a career working in the Food & Beverage Industry. I started working on an organic farm in Upstate New York, and at night in the world-famous Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY. I wanted to see the full cycle of our food system by having a hand in it from farm to plate. After several stints in fine dining, I worked as an R&D Chef at Fresh Direct, developing meals with three-star chefs. One of the chefs I was working with, Roberto Santibanez then of Rosa Mexicano, influenced me to travel and learn more about flavors and spices. I went on a six-month solo journey where I worked in kitchens in Thailand, India, Laos, and Japan. I spent my free time going to spice plantations and learning about the origin of flavors. When I returned, I got an opportunity to work at Food Network as a manager in the New Business department. I developed concepts for taking the Food Network brand to live experiences. We launched a cooking school, and worked with the Yankees to have a Food Network presence at the (then) new Yankee's Stadium.  My boss from Food Network left to start a liquor brand, and brought me on to manage product development, branding, marketing, and business strategy, and from there I was exposed to the cocktail world. Speakeasy bars were a new and exciting thing at the time, and loved the complex cocktails that the bartenders would make based on vintage recipes. In many ways it's very similar to a chef creating a new dish. Because of my chef background, I appreciated their creativity and use of complex flavors. I went on to do marketing and brand development for several other liquor brands in the New York market.

DG: What was your experience with the storm and the aftermath? How did it affect you and your family?

AB:Hurricane Sandy was a changing point in my life. After the storm there was no time to ponder what happened, you just had to deal with the calamity at hand and try to save your house. There was no electricity, a gas shortage, all my clothing went out with the flood, so I basically had to wear the same clothes for two weeks because the idea of shopping for anything other than flashlights, wood to board up windows, or duct tape was something I couldn't even think about at the time. Saving our house and finding food and gas was the only thing I could think of then. I learned survival skills, working with contractors, and dealing with insurance agents- it was like a crash course on homeownership. I also learned how a community really comes together. Despite the individual devastation, all of my neighbors were trying to help each other out. In fact, I think we grew closer as a neighborhood from helping each other out through the worst of times.

I also remember this grey veil that was cast over Rockaway. I remember how dramatic the color change was once you were in Brooklyn- everything was in color and vibrant. Here it was like being in a black and white picture. About a week before the storm I bought these giant mums in purple, yellow, and orange. We put them in the shed during the storm, (which was the only place that wasn't affected) and I remember when we took them out and put them on the mud that used to be grass,  I got very sad because they were symbols of the ‘old’ life, the ‘good life’ where things where beautiful, and for me the Rockaway lifestyle was about enjoying the beauty in life. The mums quickly died in the dampness of the air. Later on the garden that I worked on for 20 years died from the flooding. At the time there was nothing to show for the happiness that came from living in Rockaway before Sandy. It was a tough adjustment.

DG: So how did your involvement in gardening come about? How has this been a change from what you did and how you lived before?

AB: It’s a funny story. I’ve been gardening as a very serious hobby for over 20 years. As a teenager I would go around to gardening nurseries around the tri-state area. I would take any chance I could get to tag along with my moms' friends who had green thumbs, and talk to anyone who would teach me how to garden. I would walk around the neighborhood and study everyone's gardens. I would talk to neighbors and see what they knew. When I went upstate to work on the organic farm, I learned about organic and biodynamic farming and when I came back I used those principles in our vegetable garden and started experimenting with growing food that worked in our sandy Rockaway soil.

After the hurricane, like many, we had nothing in the front of our house. It was very depressing to walk up to this barren area of mud. My dad wanted to replant, and since I had gardening and design background, he wanted me to design and be in charge of the new landscaping. But there was a catch! He told me that he wanted me to design a landscape that was 'hurricane resistant' because he didn't want to have to keep on replacing the landscaping if god-forbid we had another storm like Sandy. So I went on to research salt and flood resistant trees, shrubs, and plants. I would walk around the neighborhood to see what landscaping survived. Based on this I designed the house to be 'hurricane proof', but still have the feel and colors they like.

When it was planted, my neighbors started coming over to hire me to design their properties. I then enrolled in The New York Botanical Garden Landscape Design Program, made great contacts with experts in the industry, and as they say, the rest is history.

DG: Post-storm what kinds of things have you helped people with through your new work?

AB: I founded my company, Sungold Design Group, LLC, with a main goal of bringing back the gardening side of the Rockaway lifestyle- beautiful flowers and trees and grasses. To do this wisely, I needed to modify the choice of plants we put into the soil after Sandy, I found trees, shrubs, and perennials that are hurricane resistant. A lot of my clients see the devastation as a opportunity to plant the gardens of their dreams- and I make that happen. Also, I know it doesn’t sound very glamorous, but soil quality has also been a big issue. You can't just plant anything in the soil like the old days. Because of the flooding, the soil has lost most of its nutrients so what I'm known for is refurbishing the soil with organic and all-natural nutrients, so my clients have a great foundation to grow a new gorgeous garden. Also, because of the potential contamination from the storm, I have been working with my clients to remove and replace the soil in their vegetable gardens. It's important to make sure your food is safe to eat, and that's especially true when you're feeding kids.

 DG: What are some of the common questions and concerns people have about their gardens, trees etc.? And how has the storm affected Rockaway from the perspective of growing things? Are there things people should know?

AB: The most common questions that I get are "why did my tree/shrub/plant die during the storm?" and "Is the soil safe to plant food in?". First off, to understand why our landscaping died, we have to understand that its roots were saturated with salt water, and most plants can't tolerate those conditions. With the extreme flooding, and god knows what mixed into the flood waters, our gardens just didn't have much of a chance. With the second question regarding soil safety, I tell my friends, neighbors, and clients that we need to be careful to repair the soil. We don’t know what went into it and if it's gone by now. We need to make sure that the garden we’re planting for our family is healthy is safe to eat from. I've developed a method of soil testing, and adding nutrients to the soil to make it ready to plant. In my house, because we plant an organic vegetable garden, I removed the entire depth of the soil and replaced it with new top soil. I then went on the condition it with tons of compost and nutrients to get it back to it's pre-Sandy health. So far it's worked, and we've had some of the best tomatoes we've ever grown!

DG: What do you see for the future for what you’re doing and for Rockaway?

AB: I think my client said it best when she told me that they wanted to take this as an opportunity to plant the garden she's always dreamed of. The majority of the homes in Rockaway were landscaped from 1950-1990, and they all have a similar 'look' that is a reflection of the style of those eras. We're now in 2016 and landscape design has advanced and gotten quite diverse. My vision is that people take this opportunity to create a landscape that is something unique and more personal. My vision for landscaping in Rockaway is that every home landscaped would be personalized to the homeowners taste and sense of beauty. There are so many options for trees and plants, and styles of landscaping that would work great in Rockaway. In fact, last year we planted an English style cottage garden on one block in Belle Harbor, and three blocks away, planted an elegant 'seaside' formal front yard that reflected the architecture of the house and it's owners style. Now's the time to create unique landscapes that reflect the diversity of this community and its residents.

It's a very exciting time to be a resident of Rockaway. It's going through a renaissance, with awesome new restaurants, great boutiques, and a surge of talented artists and greater appreciation of the arts community. Rockaway just keeps on getting stronger! It's funny because when I was growing up, I had a hard time explaining where I lived because no one knew where Rockaway was. Now it's in the media all the time as the 'next big thing'. Part of me still wants to keep my neighborhood a secret, but I think that ship is sailed.  

DG:  How do you feel about what you are doing now? And what is your favorite thing about Rockaway?

AB: If ever I believed in destiny, it would be now. Every facet of my background is used in my business- artist, chef, organic farmer, brand and experience developer, marketing manager, etc. In fact, I feel as though every decision I've made professionally has been building to my career as a landscape designer owning Sungold Design Group,LLC. Whether it's through food, art, and now flowers and trees, what motivates me in life is being able to create beautiful things that make people happy.

My favorite thing about Rockaway is the community. I've always explained it as a 'small town in a big city'. Kids play on the same block where I played with my friends growing up. You always run into someone you know when you're out running errands or having dinner. Neighbors watch out for each other. There aren't that many places in New York City that have those qualities.

Above all, I would say that just knowing that the beach is so close fills me with both a sense of calm and hope. It reminds me of the laid back community we have, and also the promise of endless summer days shared with friends and family. I will never get over how fortunate we are to live so close to this awesome piece of nature! It's odd because for all the amount of harm that it's done to Rockaway, the love of living near the beach and the lifestyle that comes with it, are what binds us as a community.