Northport Native Garden Initiative Co-Founders at their second annual Native Plant Sale. From Left: Nicole Tamaro, Matt Gorman and Sara Abbass.
Photo Credit: Meghan Fisk
Meeting a Northport Native Garden Initiative Founder: A Very Busy Bee!
I met Sara Abbass when she came into The Firefly Artists one day in early 2021. She was walking around the Village of Northport sharing a cool fundraiser for the Ocean Ave Elementary School PTA. The endeavor was designed to also support local businesses, and to be a booster for the masks that were helping us all get to be a little more human again.
We soon started brainstorming children’s art classes. Somehow, we got onto plants. She then shared a really cool idea of an organization she’d helped start with some friends that seemed to set a fire behind her eyes: The Northport Native Garden Initiative (NNGI).
The next time I saw her, Drigo Morin and I were at the monthly Northport Village Board meeting to inquire about Plein Air. She and Trustees were excited about a demonstration garden of native plants that they were installing at Village Hall, right there on Main Street.
Buzzing About the Second Annual Native Plant Sale
Now. Wow. The first thing I see when I come to get my plants and help out at the 2nd Annual NNGI Spring Plant Sale is a table in the driveway manned by kids and a sweet black dog. They’re selling lemonade, cookies and other treats to raise money for Grateful Greys an organization that serves Greyhounds. They tell me they have a $300 goal and are pleased to report that they’ve already earned well over $200.
Around back is a yard full of plant orders, several tables filled with specimens not yet spoken for, and a bunch of busy bee volunteers helping folks find what they are seeking.
“This is nothing,” one tells me, “Before, the whole yard was filled. It’s so much bigger than last year!”
Nicole Tamaro, another co-founder, provides a quick rundown of a nicely organized setup. She then directs us to wagons, and leads us to find our own orders. We laugh at the irony that the Iron Weed will be late because the spring has been so cool, but today is more like muggy July.
Mostly, though, conversation swirls about the large variety of plants they are fetching and brainstorming with neighbors as they guide them in placement and care. Honeysuckle and certain ferns are in short supply – everywhere. They ponder solutions and earnestly brainstorm other options.
The Hard Work is Paying Off!
“We are so happy people have been so receptive and that this is taking off,” says Sara when she finally has a moment to recognize me and chat. She laughs at how tired she is. This exceptionally multitasking mother usually does manage to get her sleep, which is wonderful, thank you, but last night they came home exhausted and exhilarated. They finally crashed and then sprung up to do it all over again!
She doesn’t look tired, though. None of them do. They’re having a good time and thrilled that their efforts to help folks make more thoughtful landscaping choices seems to be making a difference.
“Until you know, you don’t know,” says Sara, “and you can’t learn unless there are folks willing to teach.” She looks at me, “That’s why we’re so committed to offering lectures ourselves, and to bringing in outside speakers so we all can learn more.”
Not Just Natives
In addition to serving neighbors yards, they’ve also raised and matched funds to seed oysters that will help filter the water in Northport Harbor. The truth is, we live on a densely populated island of many harbors and depend on our groundwater. How we live impacts all of that for generations, and there’s already great damage to repair. It’s a lot to deal with, and it’s nice to know there’s something folks can do that makes a difference, one yard at a time: Ecologically supportive landscaping.
As Sara and others offer guidance to customers regarding their selections, another co-founder named Matt Gorman offers an informative tour of his own increasingly diverse native gardens. He shows me native Blueberries and Joe Pye Weed, Goldenrod and New England asters.
“The Chokeberry is aptly named,” he says, pointing to a plant with beautiful clusters of white blossoms.
“Oh, yeah?” I say, “Is it toxic?”
“No, but if you eat them when they first ripen they will really pucker your mouth.” His eyes gleam, “You can make good jam out of them, though.” He explains they’re actually considered a “superfood” with nearly twice as many antioxidants as blueberries.
He indicates native honeysuckle and clematis vining around the gazebo, talking about how the slightly different conditions on either side of the structure impact growth. Then, he shows me one of his favorite elements: Little birdhouses filled with bamboo that mason bees are busily entering and exiting.
Love the Pollinators...
“We got these guys as cocoons,” he smiles. The Initiative has a workshop they ran with Blossom Meadow Farm about these important pollinators on their website. There’s also a 101 on native gardening. Once they get through the sale, they’ll upload more.
“I loving hanging out with my bees,” I say, “but I’m surprised you have them right here on the gazebo.”
“They won’t hurt anyone,” he answers, “The males don’t even have stingers. The females….you basically have to squeeze them to get them to sting you. They’ve got better things to do than bother us.”
He is a fount of information and clearly totally jazzed about his plants. “How’d you get into this?” I ask.
“It all started with some Butterfly Milkweed I got. I noticed how many pollinators it attracted and I just started thinking…what else could I add? I started researching, and bringing things in…pretty soon I had a lot of native plants and SO much wildlife in my yard. Birds, bees, butterflies, more…it’s really cool.”
Professional Design Services
I marvel at one particularly large order in the yard. It’s going to a client’s home in Asharoken for, in addition to the non-profit, Sara has now founded Sara Mairéad Landscape Design, Inc.
“It is so much fun to design for different areas,” she says, “Full sun is easy. I like hard to plant spots and hard to find plants.”
“Woodlands may be my favorite,” she continues, “I love taking areas where people say, ‘I can’t do anything with this’ and creating something special.”
“I love naming them, too. ‘Woodland Oasis…” you can see she might start to daydream, but she quickly turns earnest, “I try to bring it all to a different level, to create a really good feeling for clients…one that gets them excited and invested, too.”
Although they are very locally focused on their Northport community, the NNGI is also totally jazzed about the partners they have found to jam with in their endeavors. They mention Kimberly of KMS Plants, who supplies much of their inventory, as well as others they have befriended. In addition to a very active Facebook page the group is really happy about their new website, which empowers them to host all sorts of information.
“You know what I think is the coolest thing about that?” asks Nicole, “We’ve now got an interactive map where people can add themselves and tell us how many native plants they have.”
“Why do you love it?” I ask
“Because it shows people how involved others are becoming in this, and how even one yard can make an impact. It connects our community through native plants.”
While gardens are often places of delicious solitude, they are also community touchstones. You can see it in the friendships here and on their map. It is evident in the folks they are connecting with and amplifying island- and even nation-wide. You can find it right here in their conversations with neighbors seeking guidance, who are talking to each other as much as to the busily working friends, family and volunteers.
It is clearly evident that they are totally jazzed, and making their deepest difference one yard, one plant, one person at a time.
It’s really cool. Check ‘em out.
For more information on sustainable landscaping, check out our full list of Native Garden and Ecolandscaping Resources, It has just been updated to now also include contact information for Sara Mairéad Landscape Design, Inc.