String lights and stars twinkled over beds of coral and white begonias, purple and pink salvias, towering oak-leaf and strawberry-vanilla hydrangea and yellow black-eyed Susans as friends sipped fresh lemonade, snacked on fresh seafood, perused crafts and mingled on a balmy night at the Gardens at Beds & Borders in Laurel.
During the day, this nursery is a wonder for the eyes, a haven for butterflies and hummingbirds fluttering over multihued blooms, seeking nectar. But its new Friday Night at the Garden attracts those searching for an oasis from the workweek and edible delights of the human variety.
What started as a one-off idea — manager Luisa Alvarado thought she’d host their yearly mid-summer plant sale at night and turn it into a party with food and drink — turned into a Friday night fiesta. After painting the garden center bright colors to make it more visible from the Main Road, she hung up string lights for the affair. And lo and behold, people came.
“We lit up the place one Friday night, and ever since people wanted to come back for more,” said Alvarado, who was happy to oblige. “I like to see my friends enjoying their time.”
But there was something more at play.
“We had a really great year, but some of our friends didn’t,” said Alvarado, who runs the garden center while her husband Freddy is in charge of growing their wholesale operation. “I wanted to support my community and Latino vendors who didn’t have an easy time during the pandemic.”
The 25-acre patch of fauna and flora known as the Gardens is more sanctuary than plant stand. “This place is magical,” said Alvarado, a native of Guatemala City who lost her mother when she was seven and didn’t have much of a home growing up. “This community is my haven. I love my customers and my new family here, and we wanted to give back.”
After her mom died, Alvarado’s older sister moved to New Jersey, worked at restaurants and the cafeteria in Princeton University, earning enough to send to Guatemala to put Luisa through school. After she graduated college, she moved to Florida to live with her father, who had been estranged from her.
Eventually, she relocated to New Jersey to be with her sister in 2010 and discovered the North Fork through her childhood friend Angelica, whom she found on Facebook. As fate would have it, the day she reunited with Angelica, Alvarado met her husband-to-be, another Guatemala native. The two married in 2013 and started renting the Gardens at Beds & Borders shortly thereafter from owner Kevin Cande, widower of its founder, Kathryn Pufah, who died of melanoma in 2003.
“It was like learning to swim in the deep end. I just jumped in,” said Alvarado, who grew up in an urban environment, had worked in banking and knew very little about horticulture when she and Freddy took over the Gardens. But the move proved fruitful. Not only did she discover a new passion, devouring as many books on botany as she could check out of the library, she and Freddy set down their own roots in that fertile soil.
“Maiddy was born that first year, and I was at work three days later,” said Alvarado, now a mother of three.
On any given weekend, you can find Maiddy, now 6 years old, selling homemade lemonade with her brother Marcello, 4, while Maya, 15 months-old, darts about. But the true stars of their Friday nights aren’t the kids, as adorable as they are, or even her rainbow assortment of annuals, perennials, succulents, shrubs, floral arrangements and tropical blooms — though they have a way of glimmering in the starlight and will be deeply discounted this Labor Day. It’s shine time for the area’s unsung chefs, food purveyors, musicians, artisans and entrepreneurs, who she’s lovingly taken under her wings.
“I try to give them the exposure they have a hard time getting on their own,” said Alvarado, who’s become like a sister to Balo Alvarez, who was serving his delectable ceviche, made from fresh, local squid, shrimp, octopus, peppers, red onions and garnished with North Fork grown cilantro micro-greens, and his stuffies, or baked seafood cakes that have gained a cult following. After 12 years of working behind the scenes as a chef at Southold Fish Market and then helping set up various Lucharito’s outposts locally, he took a small-business course at Stony Brook University and launched Balo’s Foods, a catering company and soon-to-be food truck.
She’s also included vendors like Cornell Oysters, sweet and savory snacks from the Tr(eaterly) baking company, singer-songwriter Deanna Hudson and art from North Fork artist Kara Hoblin, who painted a bright hummingbird-themed mural at the Gardens earlier this summer. This weekend, Alvarado will be featuring ceviche and lobster rolls from Balo’s Foods, beachy jewelry and accessories from Sea Finds, crochet accessories handcrafted by Blue Merino Designs, seashell art by Marni B, eco-friendly totes from Just Burlap Bags and of course, lemonade from Maiddy.
And if you can’t make it this week, Alvarado says she’ll be continuing the fun into the fall, transitioning to cold-weather food and accessories.
Friday Nights at the Gardens runs weekly 5-9 p.m. 600 Laurel Lane, Laurel; 631-298-1836.