EASTHAM — Vida DeMale and her friend Ann Darsie saw eye to eye on their town’s roadside traffic islands: they were awful and overgrown. The two of them gathered six additional volunteers, including Vida’s husband, Dan DeMale, and took matters into their own garden-gloved hands, planting flowers in the traffic island at Hay Road and Route 6 in 1984.
They didn’t think to get permission from the town, though that came swiftly enough, says Frank Dobek, president of EFFI — Eastham Famous Flower Islands.
EFFI has since adorned 21 other traffic islands with colorful blossoms and continues to grow even after the loss of its founder and former president, Vida DeMale, who died last year at age 94. DeMale participated in EFFI “right until she drew her last breath,” says Carol Burton, a gardener and former president of the organization.
Even when DeMale could no longer garden, she knew what needed doing. “The islands carry on her legacy,” Burton says, “making the people of Eastham smile.”
The heat and drought this summer have been hard on local flora, but the nearly 150 EFFI volunteers who maintain the islands have not thrown in their trowels. (They bring their own tools, by the way, and often supply water as well.) They’ve also enlisted neighboring homeowners and businesses to help sustain the plantings by allowing volunteers to connect hoses for watering.
Each EFFI mini-garden is autonomous, says Burton. Every plot has one “captain” who leads a group of volunteers in caring for the flowers at that spot.
Earl Krause, a career engineer and hobby gardener, joined EFFI as a volunteer in 2008. Krause is a captain of the garden at Bridge and Governor Prence roads. It’s a boat-shaped plot nicknamed “the U.S.S. Pablo” after Paul “Pablo” Alarie, an EFFI volunteer from Orleans who died in 2019.
Krause says he brought his “engineer’s perspective” to expanding on Alarie’s patriotic red, white, and blue color scheme. With some inexpensive wood and a little bit of creativity, Krause turned the plot into a tri-level ship, with white and red begonias and blue ageratum placed on different “decks” for a multidimensional effect.
The islands provide pops of color that local residents clearly enjoy. Gardeners receive compliments and thanks constantly from passersby while tending the islands, Burton says. Some drivers even hand cash to EFFI members as they garden.
That helps cover an annual budget of around $4,000, according to Dobek — money that the captains spend on soil and flowers on buying day at Agway.
Donations went up during Covid, Burton says: “The people of Eastham have kept the flowers blooming during this time.” The group sends a handwritten thank you note to every donor, she adds.
Otherwise, the group is funded five cents at a time through donations of redeemable bottles and cans tossed into painted receptacles at the entrances to local beaches.
Dobek joined the group in 2005 after retiring and moving to Eastham the year before. He says most members are retired, and many are, like Krause, passionate plantsmen.
“It takes a special kind of person to take care of these gardens,” says Krause. When one member of his Bridge and Governor Prence team recently gave birth, she sent her husband to cover her shift. Now he’s weeding, deadheading flowers, and watering.
“EFFI,” says Krause, “has become a family affair.”