A Conversation with Phil Bucking

Phil Bucking.
Phil Bucking.
Phil Bucking.

By Douglas Feiden

The owner of the Sag Harbor Garden Center, and a past organizer of the annual Easter Bonnet Sidewalk Parade, talks about bonnets, business and the petting zoo he’s hosted every Saturday before Easter for the past two decades.

The petting zoo returns on March 26, from noon to 2 p.m., at the old railroad depot at 11 Spring Street. What can we expect this year?

There will be pigs and rabbits, and usually, we’ll have ducks and chicks and chickens. Some years, we have goats. There should be sheep. And of course, one of our favorites, we will have a couple of llamas. There will be about a dozen animals or so, and most of them will be baby animals, but the llamas are full-grown.

How do the kids relate to them?

The children get attached to the animals and often ask if they can bring them home, and of course, the parents aren’t too keen on that. But they all go back to the farm.

Do the kids have a favorite? Do the adults have a favorite?

The children usually like the pigs the most, and also the bunnies, maybe because the Easter Bunny leads the parade, which ends down at the garden center. He’s always here for kids to meet, and they can have their picture taken with him. As for the adults, they get a real kick out of the llamas.

Where do the animals come from? Where do the people come from?

The Suffolk County Farm and Education Center in Yaphank — part of the Cornell Cooperative Extension – brings us the animals. We get people locally of course, and we get a lot who come from Riverhead and points west just for the event. People come out from the city, too, to make a day of it. And one of the nicest things is that we have young adults who come in and tell me they’ve been coming to the petting zoo ever since they were little kids. Now, some of them have homes of their own.

What little extra treats do you have in store for the community?

We’ll have an author’s reading and book signing this year with Christian Mclean, who wrote the children’s book “Duckhampton.”

The Girl Scouts will be here selling cookies, popcorn, hot dogs and bottled water. And we’ll have high school kids out volunteering to direct people to the animals — and avoid overflows and bottlenecks and help make the lines shorter. That’s a really big help: The petting zoo draws several hundred people every year. The kids can pet the animals, they just can’t hold them. And every person who marches gets a goodie package from the Variety Store.

This will be your 21st annual petting zoo. It’s also the 21st year of the Easter Bonnet Parade. How did you each get started in 1996?

We were planning our grand opening, and one of the events was going to be a petting zoo. At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce was organizing the parade, and so we got together on this and decided we’d combine the two events and give a little something extra for the kids and create this great destination at the end of the parade.

What kind of bonnets are you seeing these days?

In the beginning, it was the more traditional Eater bonnets, a little more reserved, and a little less craziness! But people have gotten very creative over the years. We get baseball hats, firemen’s hats, bobbleheads of Mets and Yankees players, homemade bonnets with chicks and chocolate bunnies or little marshmallow peeps glued on top, and even a shark-head hat. Last year, one guy wore a fishing-tackle hat like Colonel Blake in “MASH.” Any kind you can imagine we’ve seen over the years. It expands how you define the word bonnet.

 And what kind of bonnet do you wear?

Usually, a garden center cap, but sometimes, I’ve glued plastic Easter eggs to a shade hat.

 It’s finally springtime. What are people buying these days?

It’s a good time for daffodils, tulips, pansies, hyacinths and Easter lilies, as well as fruit trees, like peach, plum, apple, cherry and pear. And flower and vegetable seeds —peas, lettuce, spinach —are also early spring sellers.