How Seed Starters Started

This article by Sue Theriualt first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2022.

One of the many ways RIWPS encourages the use of native plants in the landscape is by providing access to quality and affordable offerings through our May, June, and August sales. To ready the inventory for these sales, two groups of RIWPS volunteers are gathering at our two greenhouse locations, one on the East Bay and one on the West Bay. The groups are aptly named Seed Starters East (SSE) and Seed Starters West (SSW). 

As a SSE volunteer and a Rhode Islander, I had to chuckle when I realized it felt like a big deal to be crossing three bridges to get to Wakefield, on the eve of a blizzard, to talk to three long-time volunteers of SSW. I was warmly welcomed into Cathy King’s home and offered hot tea and cookies with her, Pat Cahalan, and Helen Drew, with 20, 15 and 10 years of service respectively 

I learned that SSW’s history has been more transient than SSE’s. SSE has had the good fortune to be at Plane View Nursery in Portsmouth for the last thirty years, while SSW, which began three years later in 1994, has been at least four different locations. Memories are fuzzy, but all remembered Betty Salomon and Betsy Keiffer, the duo that began SSW and led it for its first ten years. (Betty was also a founding member and the first Vice President of RIWPS). The two began SSW to appeal to volunteers who did not want to drive to Portsmouth or who worked during the week and preferred to meet on Saturday mornings. Cathy recalled how Betty and Betsy would drive around RI looking for wild plants on the roadsides to collect seed because they loved to experiment with growing plants. 

URI professors and RIWPS members William Eddleman and Brian Maynard (RIWPS’ current Treasurer) and Propagation Chair Brian Core helped situate SSW at their first greenhouse at URI’s East Farm. In its early years SSW met almost year-round, and over the winter members placed the plants outside to mimic their natural growing conditions. 

After its first decade, SSW lost its home as URI grew and needed its East Farm greenhouse. “Instead of driving around looking for seeds they were driving around in search of greenhouses,” Cathy said. After a short-lived stay at a commercial nursery, SSW ended up back at URI, this time in a greenhouse run by the Agronomy Department. URI’s Richard Casagrande, Rebecca Brown and Carl Sawyer (a RIWPS lifetime-service award recipient) helped to get SSW up and running in their third location. But as URI’s needs grew, SSW again had to relocate, this time to their current location—a huge greenhouse atop a high, windy hill at the home of a member and former commercial grower, Mary Pezza. 

By this time Karen Asher (a former RIWPS President) was leading SSW. She recalled the moment she was converted to native plant gardening. She had moved from an apartment in New York City, where she had no gardens, to a home in Rhode Island. “I had no clue what to do with the yard. So, I went to a RIWPS-sponsored talk by Judy Ireland, the landscape architect who designed the award-winning RIWPS displays at the annual RI Flower and Garden Show for many years, and I thought what she was saying made so much sense. Her talk grabbed me and I never looked back!” 

But how did Karen find Mary Pezza and a new home for SSW? “It just so happened that I was wandering around in the woods, botanizing, on a property that just happened to be next to hers. I saw this path that led across a bridge, and I wondered where it went. I knew I was on private property, but I was just so curious I couldn’t stop myself!” SSW is lucky she pursued the path because it led to a gorgeous property with two empty greenhouses! 

As a local Town Councilwoman, Karen knew a lot of people, and eventually she was introduced to the owner of the greenhouses, Mary Pezza. “She is charming, lovely and wonderful.” With a handshake, SSW had a new home. Karen emphasized, “Around here shaking hands means something.”  Helen Drew described Mary and the location. “Mary is extremely generous. We have a safe greenhouse, a shed for supplies, water, and a fenced-in outdoor space. She even lets us use the pots left over from her nursery business.” 

Helen Drew, with her clear blue eyes and long white hair, has been the leader of SSW since 2012. She is quick to point out that it is not a hierarchical group but rather a team where responsibilities such as keeping track of inventory and placing orders are handled by different members. Pat and Cathy agreed fondly that Helen is a diplomat and skilled administrator who holds the group together. 

Helen described the current operation: The SSW team runs the spring plant sale, currently held on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. For the last two years it’s been held in Saunderstown at Casey Farm’s Annual Spring Sale. The group also grows plants for RIWPS’ June sale. They gather during the winter to make plant lists and find sources and then by March begin twice-a-week work sessions that run from March to early June. Work sessions are scheduled for Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Helen said, “RIWPS has done a good job of attracting younger people who work during the week, so we’ve added a Saturday work day.” As she looked around the table she laughed, “Let’s face it, we are not getting any younger!” Then she commented on how her hair had turned from gray to white. 

Helen continued, “We had a lot of new people sign up to volunteer just before the pandemic, so we are hoping for a good turnout this year.” The work consists of potting up plants donated by volunteers who dig plants from their property as well as plugs the group buys from commercial growers. Still other volunteers grow plants from seed in their yards. A greenhouse schedule ensures that a volunteer heads to the greenhouse each day to tend and water the plants. 

Helen reflected on the evolution of the May sale over the last ten years. “It was very modest in the beginning. We had a space at the URI Master Gardeners’ Sale and would set up our tables under trees raining down apple blossom petals. In the early years we would take anything that people donated, native or not, and we advertised it as a perennial sale. Over the years it has grown into something much larger and now comprises about 1,000 plants, all native.” 

After ten years of leading SSW Helen is retiring, turning the reins over to the very able and enthusiastic Gayle Anderson. 

The composition of both the May sale at Casey Farm’s Spring Sale and the June sale at URI’s East Farm is now limited to species native to Rhode Island or to the larger area of Ecoregion 59 (Northeastern Coastal Zone) of which RI is a part. The May sale focuses on spring ephemerals and early bloomers but has also expanded to include shrubs and some of the later-blooming perennials

I could see the bottom of my tea cup in the dimming light as the sun set. I thought of the damp roads I had crossed over on and knew it was time to get back before ice formed. Though I knew there were so many other people and parts of the SSW story to be learned, I at least had a snapshot to share. The past grounds us for the future and inspires us as we try to follow in the footsteps of the talented and committed volunteers at our two Seed Starters groups. I also left wondering at what point my own hair might turn from gray to white. After tea with these women, I will wear it with pride. 

Healing Gardens

This article by Summer Gonsalves  first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Fall 2021

Framing the garden (photo SGonsalves)

In the heart of Westerly, 150 acres of farmable land intermingles with a rare white cedar swamp. This is home to the Narragansett Tribal Farm. A short walk from the main entrance leads to the tribal apiary and pollinator garden, covering one-fifth of an acre. Though still in its early stages, the ground is prepared to be planted with sunflowers, milkweed, bee balm, hyssop, oregano, tickseed and other native plants in the spring.

As a member of the Narragansett Tribe, I was raised to honor the Earth for all the gifts and beauty she gives. The tribal farm is more than a space to grow crops and to garden; it offers auke sonkunaunk, or land to grow, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.

To serve my desire to maintain health and the land, I earned a bachelor’s degree in health studies from the University of Rhode Island and a master’s degree in public health at Brown University. Now, I am back at URI working towards a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in writing. I also work at Brown as co-leader of the Superfund Research Program’s Community Engagement Core, which allows me to work directly with communities, including the tribe, impacted by environmental contamination.

My childhood days with the Tribe shaped my love of the land. Every August, the tribe hosted its Annual Crandall Powwow, welcoming visitors from all over the East Coast, who came to drum, sing, dance, and take in the whole experience. Here we ran in the fields as children, free and spirited. The drumbeat poured into the soil and cleansed the air of the junkyard just beyond the bushes. For more than 60 years, Irving Crandall, the last direct descendant of the family that purchased the land from the Narragansetts in the 1600s and named it Crandall Farm, maintained a working junkyard adjacent to where the powwow took place. Just beyond the tree line where we danced to the beat of the drum, hundreds of scrap cars, tires, appliances, and junk lay strewn about.

As a teenager, Irving was almost like a family member. My paternal grandparents, Robin and Jean Spears, welcomed him to many meals at their home, and in exchange he allowed them to plant a vegetable garden on his farm. The 40 by 120-foot garden allowed me and my 24 cousins the chance to revisit the farm, where we climbed trees, picked wild grapes and apples, and tended the vegetables, flowers, and herbs. In the evenings, we would climb atop a scrap trailer and watch the sunset over the cedar swamp.

My love of honeybees began when my grandfather, Robin, acquired a hive, and tucked it high on a hill in his yard. It quickly evolved to over a dozen hives. As a child there was no greater treat than to see a frame of capped honey sitting on his kitchen counter.

Through these memories and moments, mixing my love of plants and bees came naturally. In the spring of 2019 and 2020, with permission from the Tribe, I established four hives on the farm.

In the fall of 2020, the Tribe approved the creation of a pollinator garden on the farm. Having seen the dire impact a few months of COVID-19 had on the tribal community, and the world, the notion of health and well-being was a focal point of my life. Having grown up in the outdoors, lockdown had a severe impact on my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. So, I decided to design the pollinator garden around the four directions, with each direction dedicated to a different realm of health.

I chose a spot that offered a tranquil feeling. Tribal members donated funds for a split rail fence. That same fall, Elizabeth Malloy, Co-Director of TerraCorps RI, which works with other organizations to support land conservation, sustainable farming, community justice, and food resilience, offered to collaborate. Liz oversees service-learning work, mentoring individuals from various organizations, including Aquidneck Land Table, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, and Southside Community Land Trust. Together, we gathered about 15 volunteers who cleared brush and invasive plants, cleaned the high tunnel hoop houses, and installed the fencing around the pollinator garden.

It took an intense eight hours on a chilly overcast day to build the cedar pergola that is the centerpiece of the garden. Bundled in coats and gloves, we took turns reading directions, using drills and rubber mallets to assemble the parts. Just as we set the pergola in place, a hard rain pounded the farm.

I was happy to receive the RIWPS grant early this year, as the money has funded the purchase of project materials, including signs, compost, trellises, gravel for the walkway, and butterfly boxes. A small bit has been saved to purchase plants in the spring. Melissa Guillet, URI Master Gardener and Director of 15 Minute Field Trips, designed the garden and its planting schematic, based on my rough sketch on a torn scrap of paper.

In the spring, a soil analysis indicated that our garden soil had a pH of 5.7, and was very low in calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. Melissa’s scaled planting schematic included the species and number of plants fitting my design idea. Southside Community Land Trust’s Community Growers Coordinator, Andrew Cook, was a mentor to the project, assisting with a soil remediation plan and planting timeline. Planting would go on hold while we improved the soil.

The work was healing, too. (photo SGonsalves)

With help from the tribal farm workers, Steven Smith, Lee Fry, Ralph Stanton, Kaheki Northup, and Lonny Brown Jr, we purchased and installed crushed stone for walkways and six inches of compost in each section of the garden. Ralph delivered load after load of stone and compost from Richmond Sand and Gravel. Steve manned the tractor, digging and moving soil. Lee, Lonny, and Kaheki shoveled and raked, laughed and sweated as they spread the gravel and soil. I had my hands in every aspect of work, fussing over site lines and laying pavers for the bee boxes to sit on, spending hours each day under the warm sun, watching a dream come to life. With the compost laid, the six of us spread clover seed while listening to music on the radio and talking about individual plans for the upcoming weekend. All this laughter and hard work helped me channel my energy into my own health while making sure that the guys had plenty to eat and drink as they worked in the hot sun.

In April 2021, TerraCorps returned with a new group of volunteers, along with students from Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These students worked with farm staff to assemble plastic trellises to separate the beehives from the walkways and flowering plants so that a wall of plants keeps people from getting too close to the bee boxes. I planted butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) and took pictures of many of the visiting bees and butterflies including a tagged monarch and several bumblebee moths. However, I recently learned that butterfly bushes are not native and are harmful to monarchs. Monarchs lay their eggs on the leaves, which caterpillars are not able to eat, leading to their death. So now we will replace this nonnative species with another species that supports not only honeybees, but also native insects.

As spring turned to summer this year, two small gardens of naturally growing clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) have bloomed and will nurture monarch butterflies and other wild species. (Soon signage will welcome visitors and provide information about the garden, explaining its importance for pollinators and people, and thanking supporters.)

While the garden was made to honor our health and house the bees, it has been a space for me to grieve and heal. Seventeen months ago, my father, Macheece Spears Sr., died unexpectedly. For the last several months, I have worked to honor his memory by donating to organizations around the world, including funds for planting a tree in Sri Lanka (Save Simacik) to purchasing access to water for a family in Sudan (Water for Sudan). And I poured my heart and soul into making the pollinator garden. When I was sad, my tears watered the soil; when I was angry, I dug deeper; and when I was happy, the sun radiated off my back and the butterflies floated around me. Through this energy I choose to dedicate the pergola and the space beneath it to my father.

My dad was a stone mason. The Spears family is known for stone masonry throughout New England and the country, though most notably in Rhode Island. To honor my father in this space, I installed a concrete paver patio, laying each stone individually and fussing over them being level and near perfect. I spoke to each stone with a memory of moments I spent with my father: walking in the woods, observing luna moths or praying mantises, or sitting in silence watching the sun set.

For me, this space will welcome folks from all walks of life, and when I stand here alone and watch the sunset, I know my dad is standing beside me, and this is where I heal.

Reseeding Rhode Island

This article by Anne Raver first appeared in our publication, WildfloraRI, Spring 2022

Sifting Seed (photo S.Alexandra)

As native plant enthusiasts, we have long been aware of how important native plants are to creating ecologically sound habitats, ones that will support the local bugs, bees, and butterflies, the beasts and birds that depend on them, and even the microbes and fungi dwelling in the soil below them. Now, we are coming to realize that we need truly local plant species—that is, ecotypes that have coevolved with the local fauna and are genetically suited to meet the unique needs of all the occupants of a particular habitat.

Recognizing this need, the RIWPS board unanimously approved the ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative in early February—an ambitious five-year plan for increasing the availability of seeds and plants grown from locally sourced native seeds collected from Rhode Island and other parts of Ecoregion 59.

(Ecoregion 59 includes all of Rhode Island; most of Connecticut and Massachusetts; and sections of Long Island, NY, New Hampshire, and coastal Maine. It is one of 105 ecoregions mapped on the continental United States by the Environmental Protection Agency to designate areas that share largely similar environmental conditions and plant genetics.)

“Over time, we hope the project will create an abundance of seeds so we don’t have to rely on seeds from other ecoregions,” said Peter Lacouture, RIWPS President. Trustees Dave Vissoe and Sue Theriault hammered out the proposal with trustees Brian Maynard, a URI professor of plant sciences, Peggy Buttenbaum, Dick Fisher, Sally Johnson, and Mary O’Connor

“Seed Starters has long felt the need to propagate more from locally sourced seeds, but our seed sources were limited,” said Buttenbaum. “We’ve purchased some seeds from New England  sources and even some from midwestern suppliers in order to provide a diverse selection of native plants at our sales.”

The Forerunner: Rhody Native

‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ builds on the work of Hope Leeson, the botanist who coordinated ‘Rhody Native.’ Rhody Native was launched in 2009 by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. It was part of a $673,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act designed to help revive the economy. The real estate crash of 2008 had left many landscapers out of work; meanwhile, the Forest Service needed to get rid of the invasive species taking over its forestlands.

“The idea …was to train landscapers to recognize and remove invasive plants and give them an extra line of business to make them more secure in the future,” said David Gregg, the executive director of RINHS. The Forest Service found, however, that once the invasives were removed, “there weren’t any native nurseries and garden centers.”

Over the years, Hope Leeson taught volunteers how to identify and collect seeds of wild species and the nuances of their propagation. Rhody Native supplied plants to restoration projects and public gardens, including the native plant garden at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown. Before the Rhody Native project came to an end in 2020, Leeson and her volunteers had collected seeds of about 120 species of native perennials, grasses and sedges, shrubs, trees, and vines from which they grew thousands of plugs and plants at RINHS facilities at URI’s East Farm in South Kingstown. Leeson said, “We were trying to focus on species common to different habitats, so that people doing coastal or wetland restoration, or working with drought conditions, or creating some kind of pollinator garden would have the right plants.”


The ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ Initiative

To set up the ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative, the RIWPS board signed a $25,000 contract with Shannon Kingsley, a young ethnobotanist, who will organize the seed collection process this spring. “She will determine how and where seeds will be collected, obtain permits from landowners, help us narrow down the number of species we will work with, then harvest the seeds in a timely fashion,” said Vissoe. The process will adhere to the Bureau of Land Management’s ‘Seeds of Success’ protocols, set up to protect wild plant populations while enhancing genetic diversity.  Along with the original $25,000 funding, the board approved an additional $2,000 for expenses, including the cost of a GPS tracker and supplies for cleaning and growing the seed into plugs.

Buttenbaum emphasized the importance of education in this new project. “When the botanist goes into the field, she will be accompanied by volunteers who will be learning as they work.” Leeson, who now teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, has begun to share her experience and data, including locations for collection sites, with Kingsley and the Reseeding RI team. RIWPS member Beth Dickson, who has a doctorate in botany and collects seeds of rare plants as a volunteer for the Native Plant Trust and plants for the Brown University Herbarium, has also offered to meet with Kingsley and help with the project.

Reseeding Rhode Island is modeled after The Ecotype Project for Pollinator Health, set up in 2019 by The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (CTNOFA). It was created in response to insect populations plummeting from loss of habitat as well as to meet the need for local ecotypic native plants. Funded with two consecutive $75,000 USDA Specialty Crop Block Grants over four years, this project’s ‘specialty’ crops are native species that provide food and habitat for pollinators. Planted on organic farms, these plants, grown from wild-collected seed, have vastly improved food crop production.

The Ecotype Project relies on trained field botanists to sustainably collect the seed from wild plant populations. SOS collection protocols require finding a population of at least 50 plants to ensure a diverse gene pool in the seeds. “When we collect, we want a wide representation of all the genes in that population,” said Goerdie Elkins, lead seed collector for The Ecotype Project team speaking for a You Tube video.“We don’t collect from a few plants but across the whole spectrum of plants, all the while not over-collecting, sometimes taking seed from 5 percent and never more than 20 percent of the plants.”

Volunteers then clean and grow the seeds into plugs, and organic farmers plant the plugs on ‘founder plots.’ Each plot is planted with about 200 plugs of a single species, and each farmer plants at least three plots – one with a spring-blooming species, another with a summer-bloomer, and a third with a fall bloomer – to feed pollinators throughout the growing season.

These founder plots produce thousands of F1 generation seeds—the first generation harvested from plants grown from wild seed. The farmers can sell the seeds directly or to a farmer-led seed collective, Eco59. The seed can then be sold to gardeners, conservationists, and nurseries that are looking to grow locally sourced native plants.

“I think we’re on the F4 generation now at Kettle Pond,” said Vissoe, who co- leads that project [now under the auspices of U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Master Gardener Program] with Master Gardener Erin Beuka. “But some of those original plants don’t necessarily make it through the years. So, we’re constantly reinvigorating the garden with new plants of the same species … adding plugs from the wild.” These gardens and restoration areas produce thousands of ecotype seed, which can then be propagated. “The Kettle Pond native plant garden produces about 6,000 new plants a year,” said Vissoe. He envisions possible variations on The Ecotype Project model for Reseeding Rhode Island. He has talked about growing founder plots with some organic farmers and farmers who use sustainable methods on their land. Other possible sites could include URI’s East Farm, the Crandall Narragansett Tribal Farm in Westerly, land trusts, and private lands.

The key is finding a location with enough distance from related species or cultivars to avoid potential cross- pollinating and thus contaminating the straight species. The plots also need to be free of pesticides, including any pesticides that might blow in from adjacent fields or orchards.

Steven Alm, an entomologist at URI, would like to find a site for a founder’s plot at East Farm. “But we have apple trees here, which are sprayed, so we have to find areas we’re not spraying,” said Dr. Alm, who would love to see more habitat for native bees. “Of the 11 species of bumble bees that we know were here from historical records, we have found only six of them. That’s a huge pollination loss.”

Pollination loss was a key motivator for CTNOFA’s Executive Director, Dina Brewster, who planted the first seven founder plots for The Ecotype Project at The Hickories, her organic farm in Ridgefield, CT. “We have lost 74 percent of our insect abundance since 1976,” she said. Now, she says, those plots of native plants are “vibrating with pollinators and bees.” And so are her crops. “Those bugs are making juicier tomatoes, working alongside me.”

The Ecotype Project is currently growing 17 different plant species on 11 properties (nine farms, one land trust and one nursery); the number of species will increase to 25 this year, said Sefra Alexandra, the project coordinator. And thus far, she estimates, “there are upwards of nine million seeds coming out of the native seed supply chain we have established.”

Alexandra, who spoke at RIWPS’s annual meeting in March, is a Fellow for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which oversees the worldwide seed banking network. She holds a master’s degree in agroecological education from Cornell University, and her “BOATanical Expeditions” paddle New England’s rivers, planting local ecotypes along riparian corridors and raising funds for The Ecotype Project.

Alexandra emphasized the importance of genetic material that is ecoregional: “When we take the genetics from another place, typically seeds and plants from large nurseries in the Midwest, it shifts the bloom time and all these adaptations that have been going on since time immemorial. “You see the nuances of speciation even within five feet of collecting seeds. So from New England to Minnesota, even within the same species, there are massive inherent differences.”

Finding grants is crucial to the development of the ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative. Vissoe recently met with Ghyllian Conley and Max Weinstein, soil conservationists at the state office of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), in Warwick. “They suggested funding that would go directly to the farmers growing the founder plots,” said Vissoe. “They’re excited about this being a great pollinator source for the farmers.”

The ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative intends to collect seed of 21 local species in 2022. Volunteers would process the seeds and grow plugs for 21 founder plots. Vissoe is exploring the possibility of working with URI to grow plugs from wild-collected seed, as well as retooling the old greenhouse once used by Rhody Native at East Farm.

An exact species list has yet to be made. Trustee Sally Johnson, an early proponent of developing sources for locally grown seed, has suggested that RIWPS grow species different from those being grown by The Ecotype Project, “If we collected a different set of 20 or so species and each group recorded the same kind of data, we could create a collective database,” Johnson said.

As Reseeding Rhode Island moves forward, it will be building on the knowledge gleaned by its predecessor. Rhody Native was an ambitious project, and an expensive one. “Hope harvested 120 different species, because we wanted to see what was there and what there was a market for, what was easy to propagate versus hard to propagate,” said Gregg.

The Ecotype Project, in contrast, started out focusing on a handful of familiar species within Ecoregion59. “We started with species we knew were readily available to nursery trade,” said Elkins, the operations director of Highstead, a conservation foundation with 200 acres in Reading, CT. “Plants that are available to homeowners and ones that they’re familiar with that also benefit pollinators. We didn’t want to get obscure plants nobody had heard of.”

Initially, Leeson set out to collect seed of a particular species in three distinct ecoregions in Rhode Island—Northwest, the East Bay and the South Coast—so that the propagated plugs and plants could then be planted back in the same area (even more local than Ecoregion59). “But it was so time-consuming to go to each area, to keep the collections separate and organized,” said Leeson. It was also a challenge training volunteers.

“Hope knew exactly what she was looking for, the right seed when it was ripe, but volunteers would get the wrong seed sometimes, or it wouldn’t be ripe,” said Gregg. Some wild species themselves are a challenge. “You can go out to collect little bluestem and get a pile of it in no time, but turtlehead ripens only one seed at a time,” slowing collection down.

Gregg estimates the annual cost of Rhody Native was about $100,000, which paid for Leeson’s salary and benefits, a part-time propagator, and expenses for labor and supplies. The return, Leeson estimates, was about $30,000. After its first federal grant ran out in 2012, RINHS kept Rhody Native going with additional grants and paid local nurseries to grow plants for large projects. “But once the money ran out for contract growing, no commercial grower was interested in taking it on,” said Gregg.

“Hope was ahead of her time,” said Vissoe. But it’s a different time now, informed by lessons learned from Rhody Native and a growing body of data and experience from The Ecotype Project. In a recent email to Vissoe, Leeson wrote, “I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel, knowing that the seeds have been sown and others are there to propagate them and carry on the work.”


Update June 27, 2022

Since the article was written, the Reseeding RI Steering Committee has identified a targeted and alternative species list for this project. RIWPS Botanist Shannon Kingsley has begun to identify the location of populations of these species in the wild and is seeking permission to gather seeds at these locations.  Much appreciation to the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife,  RI DEM and Hope Leeson for their help and support with this endeavor! 

Also, We anticipate ample and varied opportunities for volunteers at each stage of the project as it gets fully underway.  Contact to express your interest in helping us with this exciting adventure.

native plant sales

A History of the Plant Sale

By Sue Theriault

This article first appeared in our publications WildfloraRI, Fall 2021

Sandra Thompson (photo ARaver)

The loss of our dear colleague and long-time plant sale coordinator Sandra Thompson prompted me to reflect on the evolution of RIWPS’ plant sale through the years. Sandra was passionate about the propagation and sale of native plants and has left her mark on both Seed Starters East and what has become known as the “Best Native Plant Sale in Rhode Island.” With her loss, it feels like Seed Starters East and the plant sale are beginning a new chapter.

But to look ahead, it helps to first look back. And who better to help do this than board member Dorothy Swift, a founding member of both RIWPS and Seed Starters East. Dorothy was the first program chair when the organization began in 1987, and soon after Lisa Gould, the society’s first president, accepted an invitation by the URI Cooperative Extension to host an information booth at their Spring and Fall Festivals. They saw it as a chance to promote the fledgling organization, to hand out information on native plants, and to sell a few plants that RIWPS’ volunteers shared from their gardens — some plants were native to RI, some native to other places, and some cultivated perennials. Thus, the plant sale was born!

Early on, Dorothy had an idea for a seed propagation program. Dorothy was no stranger to propagation; she had grown rhododendrons through tissue culture and cuttings with Mike Medeiros at Plane View Nursery. But she wanted to try seeds and hoped some members would also be interested. In 1991, she and Joan Pilson, then program chair, held their first propagation meeting, which attracted about 14 people. “We planted cardinal flower seeds. When we met two weeks later and saw they had germinated, we were hooked!” Seed Starters East was born.

Dorothy Swift (photo ARaver)

“In the early years it was a struggle — we were a bit like the blind leading the blind,” Dorothy said. Only about three to five volunteers would show up for each work session. “Often the seeds would get too cold, too dry or too wet to sprout.”

Since those early days the annual sale has grown beyond a few plants at an information booth. RIWPS moved its sale to a larger space on the URI campus and became independent of the Cooperative Extension festivals. Over the years its inventory has grown to a few thousand plants, some grown by Seed Starters East and West, some dug, some grown from cuttings, some grown by volunteers, and some purchased from commercial nurseries.

When URI began construction on its new Coastal Building, the sale moved to URI’s East Farm. The larger space allowed RIWPS to supplement its inventory of perennials with native shrubs and small trees. “We got ever more organized as we created sections for shade and sun plants, groundcovers, grasses, shrubs and trees.” An ‘Ask the Experts’ table was set up where a few knowledgeable members answered questions and offered tips to the attendees.

By 2013, Sandra Thompson had taken over as plant sale chair of “The Best Native Plant Sale in RI.” (Certainly, no other RI organization couldbeat the variety and quantity of native plants that RIWPS offered!) To increase inventory even further, Sandra emphasized digging, because, as Dorothy put it, “if you have a wild plant at all you probably have plenty of it!” Sandra organized digs, on private land with the owner’s permission, and sheltered the newly potted plants in her driveway until the sale. Sandra had a knack for sharing her passion and knowledge with new volunteers. I, myself, was fortunate enough to work with her for a year at Seed Starters East and to accompany her on a dig. I remember nervously handling the shovel under her watchful to dig and, as a novice, I hoped I was doing it properly.

The early struggles of growing plants from seed have given way to even more successful approaches. RIWPS volunteer Peggy Buttenbaum tweaked the winter sowing method used by the growing group of volunteers. Seedlings that emerge in the spring are potted up and usually grown on for another year before being sold.

Today’s inventory reflects RIWPS’ evolution from the days of offering an eclectic mix of plants from all over the world to selling only those native to the eastern US and primarily to Rhode Island. The group is also using seed sourced locally as much as possible to capture the local ecotypes. Each plant label indicates if a plant is native to RI with the initials RIN or native to New England with NEN or native to eastern North America with ENA.

Why include non-Rhode Island natives? “A good example of a non-native we include is the flame azalea, whose range is a little farther south, because its bloom is yellow through orange to red,” says Dorothy. “All the rhododendrons native to RI (the rosebay, pinxterbloom, early, and swamp azaleas) are white, pink or purple.” The same is true for wildflowers. The color orange is rare in the native RI palette, except for a few species like butterfly weed. Including information on a plant’s origin on labels was one of the many contributions made by Linda McDaniel, who followed Sandra as plant sale chair. Linda led the plant sale through two ‘normal’ years and then two pandemic years and continues to be one of the leaders of Seed Starters East.

As Sandra was her mentor, Linda has been mine as I take on the role of plant sale chair. We worked together on the June 2021 online sale and

Sue Theriault (photo PLacouture)

built on the work done by so many in the previous year to get the sale on line. About 170 RIWPS members made purchases in June for total revenues of around $22,000. The fall sale at the end of August at the Pawtuxet Farmers Market — our first in-person sale in two years —brought in more than $9,000 in sales.

But the sales are not just about raising funds for RIWPS, they are also about education. I overheard Linda, as she stood behind a table filled with milkweed offerings, explain that the plant is the sole food source for the monarch caterpillar, but that the adult butterfly can obtain nectar from a variety of plants. It’s these personal interactions that make in-person sales so valuable. I look forward to 2022 being a year where we are back to our open-to-all, in-person sales in May, June, and August.

When I asked Dorothy how she saw the future of the plant sales her response focused on propagation. “I’d like to see us growing some of the more difficult plants from seed, like the native blazing star, Canada lily, and maybe even fringed gentian. And to increase our use of locally sourced seeds.”

I congratulate her — and all of us — on the group’s 30th anniversary. She offers us a bridge to the past as we move into the future, with people like Sandra Thompson in our hearts.

Cardinal Flower: Keeping it in Your Garden

—This article by Dorothy Swift first appeared in our publication WildfloraRI, Fall 2021

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a favorite wildflower. But, in order to have it flourish on your own land, you must do some planning before you plant and care for it.

Here are some tips for maintaining cardinal flower in the Rhode Island region, based on my own trial and errors. Some of this experience was acquired since my earlier article about cardinal flower and its ability to attract hummingbirds (Wildflora, Spring 2015).

photo GGardner

Most reference materials state that cardinal flower prefers wet areas in partial shade. This is true for the southern United States. The part about moisture is true for plants that self-seed in the wild, and must compete with other species in order to proliferate. You will commonly find wild cardinal flower in ditches and other moist places. However, in cultivation, I have found that sunny areas with normal good soil and drainage are just fine for plant growth and flowering.

Aim for some clear sky above to provide good light, though there can be some shade from distant trees or dwellings. Plants placed in a shaded area, where bottle gentian thrives, bloomed little and have died off. If it is dry in summer, plants should be watered, along with the other garden plants. They do not need a swamp, bog, ditch or shade to grow well on your own small property.

Another point in reference materials is that cardinal flower is a short-lived perennial. And that is where I made my recent errors. I had observed that my plants increased in the number of flowering stalks and in their height each year for about eight or nine years. I mistakenly thought that they would keep on growing year to year, so I deadheaded plants to avoid too many new seedlings. I figured I had enough plants. However, the following spring of 2020, the cardinal flowers did not re-sprout. And I did not have seedlings coming up, due to deadheading plants the previous year. My hummingbird magnet had disappeared!

Starting from scratch again, I found about four seedlings in the lawn and transplanted them to garden beds. I also bought plants from the August 2020 RIWPS online sale and then some more in June 2021. To maintain these beautiful flowers, I’m going to leave seed on some plants to produce new seedlings. I’ll encourage some self-sown seedlings every year, in order to have a population of plants of various sizes and ages that will persist from year to year.

So, to summarize: full sun is fine, plant in good garden soil and irrigate as needed in summer; leave some seed on plants to produce some new seedlings each year; encourage lots of plants, and be happy when seedlings surprise you in new locations around your garden. Learn to recognize young seedlings, so that you can transplant them to other locations if you wish. In late summer the hummingbirds can’t keep away.


Just a Thought on Invasives

Living in Charlestown along Foster Cove, it can be overwhelming to know what from what, and I have discovered that I have lots of each! I have seen my neighbors hire landscapers to clear out “invasives” but they end up just clear-cutting everything. The invasives roar back saying “thanks for the trim!”

Growing Native Plants from Seed

This article by Dorothy Swift originally appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2018.

Why grow wild plants from seed?

Grow­ing plants from seed provides more plants for your property than buying larger, more costly plants from a com­mercial or nonprofit source. Certainly, either Lobelia cardinalis or Penstemon digitalis is lovely as a single plant, but most people want multiple cardinal flow­ers or groups of penstemon throughout a planted area.

When you grow plants from seed, you may be able to obtain seed of local origin for a species. Using locally-sourced seed is a sound ecologi­cal approach for establishing wild plants on your property and for including spe­cies that are not readily available com­mercially or are prohibitively expensive.

Finally, there is the challenge of doing something that might be difficult and the satisfaction of acquiring knowledge and experience in the propagation of native plants.

For a home gardener, how might this be different from growing vegetables and flowers from commercial seeds? Generally, commercially available vegetable and flower seeds germinate readily, whether you sow them in the ground, start them earlier under arti­ficial lights, or use natural light from a window. Many of these plants are annuals or are tender perennials treated as annuals horticulturally. Only a few native species respond with immedi­ate germination, as popular commercial vegetable and flower garden seeds do.

Most native species require a cold period before the seed will germinate. This is often referred to as “cold stratification,” a technique that exposes seeds to moist, cold conditions for a period of time. (The seeds must be in a moist medium, such as a seed-growing mix. Dry storage of seed in the refrigerator does not meet the need for cold, moist stratification.) A few species have even stricter requirements, such as a warm period followed by a cold period followed by a warm period. It can take up to a year or longer for some seeds to germinate. You must be prepared for a longer investment of time and nurturing when growing most native species from seeds.

How do you learn the best method for starting a native species from seed? There are several ready sources. For 30 years, every WildfloraRI issue has had a Cultivation Note which includes information about the best habitat for a species, how to propagate and grow the plant, and in most cases, how to grow the species from seed.

Our favorite source of advice in Seed Starters East is Willam Cullina’s book, Growing and Propagating Wildflow­ers. Cullina worked in the propagation and nursery operation at New England Wild Flower Society for many years and writes about his personal experi­ence propagating numerous native species. He explains their requirements for germination and provides advice on techniques to save time with some of the slower species. Though out of print, used copies of Cullina’s book are available from online services, such as Alibris.

Doing an online search can also be useful. Use the species name and “seed propagation” to find information, par­ticularly from various other native plant and conservation organizations. Your results will include a lot of sources, but for most species the first two listed are adequate.

If you have difficulty finding informa­tion on a species, you may want to use the work of Norman C. Deno, Seed Germination Theory and Practice, 2nd edition. Deno’s work concentrates entirely on germination, not on how to grow plants further. His presentation of information can be a bit difficult to understand, but the work encompasses hundreds of plant species. The entire work can be found online.

What are some of the basics of wild plants from seed?

1. After you collect and clean or pur­chase seed, refrigerate it if you are not going to sow it right away. I put envelopes of dried seed on a shelf of my refrigerator door for storage. Alternatively, put seed into small bottles or vials, together with a desiccant. (You can save the little packets of desiccants from commercial products, such as large bottles of pills). Do not store seed at room temperature

2. When you are starting out, use a seed starting mix rather than a general potting mix. Some plants germinate readily and grow vigorously, so potting mix can be suitable, but in general, a fine-textured mix formulated for starting seed works best. I use a mix from Gardener’s Supply Company. It is expensive but is free of weed seeds and contaminating microorganisms. Published instructions for some plants, such as lily species, may recommend milled sphagnum moss, which is also very finely textured. Al­ternatively, you can purchase sphagnum moss and rub it through a fine sieve or between your fingers to get fine particles. Also, carefully clean any used pots or containers to avoid bringing fungus pests to your seed-starting. You can run your pots or seed boxes through a dishwasher to remove disease organisms.

3. Carefully moisten the seed-starting mix. This is more critical for seed-starting than for transplanting. Proper wetting of the mix may require less water than you might think is correct. Moist, but not too much, is the key. To control moistening more easily, prepare a small volume of mix at a time. Then fill the seed-starting container, and settle the mix by rapping it against a hard surface.

4. Learn whether the seed should be covered or uncovered by the seed­ing mix. Several kinds of seeds, such as Lobelia cardinalis and Rhododendron species are small and need light, so spread them onto the surface of the mix. Avoid sowing the seeds heavily. You do not want the baby plants coming up like a lawn. For seeds that need to be covered, the depth should be approximately the diameter of the seed. Label the container with the species name and the date. Mist the container with water.

5. Maintain moisture after sowing. Enclose the seed container in a Ziploc bag or a takeout food container with a tight semi-transparent cover, especially if seeds are indoors under lights. If you rely on window lighting, never place the container of sown seed where direct sun shines on it. Check periodically that the container is still moist, and mist if neces­sary.

Many seeds, as mentioned, need a cold period after sowing. Put the container into your refrigerator or outdoors with protection from rodents. Outside, place plastic-covered containers under shrubs for shade, or cover larger seed flats with rigid metal hardware cloth or screening. Alternatively, you can use a cold place, such as an enclosed unheated breezeway, the stairs of a bulkhead entrance to a basement, or a cold frame. Light is not required during this cold period.

6. When germination begins, remove any plastic covering, and keep the mix moist by using a mist bottle or by setting the container in water so that moisture is absorbed from the bottom. If you must water from above, use a small watering can with a small-diameter spout that can dispense water very gently.

7. Do not transplant seedlings until they have a pair of true leaves, which emerge after the cotyledons or seed leaves. When transplanting, hold a seedling by a leaf to prevent damage to the stem. Seedlings don’t do well with too much space, so transplant several into a pot, or plant seedlings in rows in a takeout food container.

These suggestions should help you get started in growing native plants. Seed Starters East has sold seeds of several species this year. We selected ones that are likely to succeed if you fol­low simple directions. For species that need no special treatment, try Lobelia cardinalis, Penstemon digitalis, and Aquilegia canadensis. The milkweed species, Asclepias tuberosa and Ascle­pias incarnata are easy species but need a cold period.

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