Garden volunteers promote sustainability at St. Francis


Community members young and old gathered at St. Francis Episcopal Church in North Bellmore last Saturday for a day full of events in honor of Earth Day. The congregation, known for its vast community garden, works to promote sustainability in suburban settings and combats issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, like food insecurity.

The Garden at St. Francis is in its 12th growing season, and since its founding has expanded to accommodate vegetables that are grown all year round. The garden is pesticide-free, fertilized by compost and pollinated by bees from is own beehive.

The church held its first Earth Day Fest, which attracted droves of volunteers. They gathered early in the morning to work in the garden, and took part in a variety of activities throughout the day, including outdoor yoga, earth-centered crafts for kids and a drum circle.

Kristin Talbot, the church’s garden manager, said the day was intended to be both educational and fun. “We tried to make activities that were one, just fun, and interesting for people to do,” Talbot told the Herald, “but also to get people thinking about what they can do to help the earth.

“We’re asking folks, what is your pledge to the earth?” Talbot added. “Maybe some of us can cut down on reusable utensils. Maybe somebody’s going to go to school to be a farmer and do sustainable agriculture.

“There’s all various ways people can participate,” she went on, “and that’s kind of what our message is. If you can’t get into the garden with us, you can still help the earth.”

Also taking part were Emma Zheng and Carine Morrison, representatives of New York Project Hope, an organization funded by the New York State Office of Mental Health and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help communities combat pandemic-related challenges.

“We offer free crisis-centered counseling, and we also have a referral program,” Morrison explained. “If someone is in need of housing, food — different things like that — we offer them through an agency called New Horizon Counseling Center.”

Zheng and Morrison were set up at a booth adjacent to the garden activities, where they met with attendees and told them about programming they offer.

Garden activities pause during the winter, Talbot said, but the volunteers are now preparing for their first farmstand of the season, which will likely take place on a Sunday in early June. Every week thereafter, the farmstand will offer shoppers fresh produce. What’s left from week to week will be donated to local pantries, including the Bellmore-Merrick Community Cupboard.

Carl Bucking, a member of the St. Francis congregation and a regular volunteer, said he was attracted to the church because of its commitment to the community. “We’re here to serve — we’re here to help people,” Bucking said. “There’s a lot of folks that have trouble getting access to three meals a day. One of the things the garden does is provide a lot of organic produce for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it.”

People can volunteer at the garden on Wednesdays, from 3 to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon. Additionally, Talbot said, the church is always looking to coordinate with groups that want to visit, such as local Boy Scout or Girl Scout troops, interfaith youth groups or other organizations.

The garden regularly works with Life’s Work, an organization that serves adults with intellectual disabilities, as well as the Helen Keller Services for the Blind.

“You do not need a time commitment,” Talbot said. “You can come one time, and then come 18 weeks later — and also, we try to make gardening and our tasks accessible for anyone who walks in here.”

At the first farmstand, shoppers can look forward to fresh lettuce, radishes, turnips, spinach and beets. As the season progresses, there will be different rotations of produce, depending on the weather.

Seniors and veterans can get produce through several programs. Starting July 1, veteran services agencies offer Fresh Connect coupons, and senior centers offer Farmers Market Nutrition Program Coupons for produce.

Bucking said that St. Francis serves as an example for all church parishes. “Maybe not everyone can do a garden,” he said, “but the idea that you’re addressing a need, and you’re addressing things that really matter — if you do that, you’re going to do well.

“That’s what we’re here for,” he added. “I am enormously proud to be affiliated with this parish — I think they’re doing tremendous work.”

Talbot said that individuals or groups that are interested in volunteering can always call the garden, at (516) 679-1184. Its Facebook page, The Garden at St. Francis, regularly updates the community on events and activities the garden hosts.