What Charlie Nielson calls a garden would be considered a farm to most. But then again, this technical associate at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source can cheerfully recall completing projects that would be far too daunting for most others to consider taking on.
Nielson began working at Brookhaven Lab in 1967 as an electronics technician after growing up in Nassau County and serving for four years in the Navy. He moved to Speonk, about 16 miles southeast of the Lab, around that time, and by 1973, he finished building the house where he and his wife Charlotte still reside.
“I was introduced to construction going out with my father as a kid,” said Nielson. “During my first years at the Lab, I worked on the electronics for the Lab’s bubble chambers in rotating shifts. That gave me enough daylight to build a 2,000-square-foot ranch in only 15 months.”
Once the house was completed, Nielson began growing vegetables and fruits. First inspired by his grandparents’ farm in Medford, he has planted and grown enough to cover an area 80 feet wide and up to 200 feet deep — 16,000 square feet — nearly every year since, harvesting everything from tomatoes and potatoes to various berries, cabbages, and squash. He has also raised a number of chickens at different times.
All of Nielson's crops are grown organically as he refrains from using chemically formulated fertilizers or pesticides.
“In the fall, I throw all of the leaves and grass clippings into the garden and then till it — good fertilizer comes from that. I also use seaweeds, fish emulsion, and other organic sprays, and rotate the crops,” Nielson explained.
Nielson always plants lots of extra crops in case some do not grow as planned. If he ends up with more than he and his wife can eat, they can and pickle the extras. In more recent years, however, Long Island’s increasing deer population has drastically hurt his yield, forcing him to give up completely on the crops he planted for 2009. He plans to surround more and more area with electric fences in the coming years, dissuading bud-eating bucks and does from chowing down on the harvest before he can.
The current project on Nielson’s 1.25-acre property is a barn that he began building in August of 2008. Totaling 384 square feet (24 feet long, 16 feet wide, and 13 feet tall) and complete with windows and plans for a solar panel to power a simple light system rather than a hard-wired electrical system, he is building the barn by himself, along with some help from a few friends.
The new structure will house his three-cylinder diesel tractor and its attachments: rototillers, leaf-blowers, shovels, spades, sprayers, and more — all the equipment that Nielson needs to maintain his productive plot.
“I do a lot of these things myself because I’m fussy and like to know that it’s done right, plumb and square,” Nielson said. “I designed this barn, or utility shed, as a basic rectangle with a gable roof so it matches the house. And I’ll use the same color siding, too.”
The barn should be completed by mid 2010. Nielson does not know what his next project will be — possibly redoing a bathroom in his house — but whatever the next project may be, you can bet that Charlie Nielson will be eager to take it on. After all, he still sees that farm as just a garden.
Think you or one of your colleagues has a good story to tell? Email us! Although we can't write about everyone, we would love to hear your ideas and suggestions.