Is this really New York or are we in the tropics?
Heat-loving plants thrive in a Long Island garden.
See that photo of the banana tree above? No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, it shows the east end of Long Island and, yes, the landscape includes a grove of banana trees – close to 100 of them, about 16 feet tall.Skip to next paragraph
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Close your eyes and you can almost feel the tropical breezes rustling the giant leaves.
And, yes, although this garden is in New York State, those are palm trees over there, their fronds gently clacking in the ocean breeze.
And, yes, there is Dennis Schrader, smiling for all the world like a man who has turned nature and climate on its collective head.
Mr. Schrader and Bill Smith run a wholesale nursery on their 17-acre farm, but about 2-1/2 acres have been crafted into gardens around the house, a landscape firmly in the throes of zonal denial.
“We’re a few blocks from the Long Island Sound and a couple thousand feet from Mattituck Inlet, so we’re surrounded by water,” Schrader says. “It’s a big help. There’s lots of reflected light, and the water moderates the temperature in fall. This is one of the last places on Long Island to get frost. But on the other hand, it takes a little longer to get warmer in the spring.”
Welcome to island living in the Northeast’s little banana belt.
“One block away is the town of Cutchogue, which is the sunniest place in New York,” Schrader says. “The state agriculture department rated it that – somebody official.”
But what is now a sweeping tapestry of subtropical beauty overflowing its series of garden rooms was a tangled mess when Schrader and Mr. Smith bought the 1840s farmhouse.
“This had been an abandoned farm for about seven years,” Schrader says. “Before that, it was in corn, and before that potatoes for 50 or 60 years. We had to deal with seven years’ growth of poison ivy, wild raspberries, wild roses, and ... saltbush, a native, which has a nice fall seed display, but nothing you’d want 17 acres of.”
The previous owners had “farmed right up to the back of the house,” he adds, “and when the poison ivy took over, it grew 6 feet, easy.”
Little by little, the two cleared the acreage around the house by hand – “which was quite a chore,” Schrader says wryly – and spent the next year rotating cover crops to improve the soil.
“Corn is such a heavy feeder, there was not much nutritional value left in the soil,” he explains.
So various kinds of cover crops were planted to restore the soil’s nutrition – vetch gave way to sorghum, then to winter rye, which was followed by yet another type of rye.
“We kept tilling them in, and it really boosted things,” he says. “We got a nice loam.”
Moving from populous Nassau County to the country, Schrader and Smith were excited to have so much space and began a huge vegetable garden that “was bigger than the plot of land I previously lived on,” Schrader says.