Paradigm of Change

By Anne Raver

This article first appeared in our WildfloraRI Fall 2021

One hot, humid day in September 2020, the team of volunteers at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown were awaiting a backhoe to dig the swales for the demonstration gardens they were building around the rustic cabin that serves as the refuge’s contact center. The backhoe never showed up, so they took up their shovels and moved the dirt by hand.  “With masks on, it was brutal,” recalled Mark Cordle, a RIWPS member and URI Master Gardener, who co-leads the project with Nick Ernst, USFWS wildlife biologist. Nick manages Trustom as well as the four other refuges within the RI National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The volunteers laid down corrugated cardboard, soaked it, then shaped the mounds of soil — 15 cubic yards delivered from nearby Highland Farms. Janis Nepshinsky, who manages visitor services and outreach for the complex, purchased the weed-free soil and contributed earthmoving equipment. “Then we planted about 250 plants of 30 species in two days,” said Mark.

Group touring the restoration sites at Trustom Pond (photo ARaver)

A year later, a group of us from RIWPS were walking around the garden. Bumblebees nuzzled the yellow sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and white boneset thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) still blooming in the rain garden. The garden now features close to 40 native species, including the sassafras and witch hazel already there and a beautiful old shadbush transplanted from nearby. Most of the plants were grown from seed collected from Kettle Pond.

That September afternoon, Dave Vissoe, who helped create this garden, leaned over a wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum) eaten down to a nub by deer and nodded toward the white wood asters (Eurybia divaricata) next to the shadbush (Amelanchier sp.). “We’re hoping the wood asters will spread into the woods,” he said, gesturing to the trees to the north. But deer love asters of all kinds, so the team sprays them regularly with nontoxic repellents. On the other hand, broadleaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) and the goldenrods are unpalatable to deer, so these were flourishing.

The plants are labeled, so as I watched a bumblebee on a goldenrod, I could identify the species — wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) — and remember how its tiny yellow flowers cluster in the leaf axils of the arching stems. I also studied how rocks were laid in a lined trench beneath the downspout that directs water off the cabin roof into the swales of the rain garden, where cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus), and other moisture-loving species were planted.

Dave had learned a bit about collecting seeds and propagating native plants from Hope Leeson, when she ran Rhody Native, an initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. He picked up the art of winter sowing from Peggy Buttenbaum, who has taught us how to turn plastic containers into mini-greenhouses. By the fall of 2018 the gardens at Kettle Pond were producing a bonanza of seeds — so volunteers collected them for winter sowing.  “We laid out a tarp in one of the classrooms, so we didn’t get potting soil everywhere,” said Dave. The volunteers poked holes in the plastic containers, planted the seeds, and took them home to sprout outdoors.  They then re-potted the thousands of resulting seedlings in Dave’s backyard and set them in an old dog pen no longer used his Jack Russells.  “We grew 500 to 1,000 plants the first year,” said Dave. “This year, we had a bumper crop of 5,000 plants.”

As the Kettle Pond gardens flourished, Dave set his sights on Trustom Pond, submitting a proposal to the URI Master Gardener program, which funded the project in March 2020. “Trustom is a special place to me,” Dave said. “When I was a kid, my parents and I would go to Moonstone Beach to swim and crab in Trustom Pond.” His parents ashes are scattered here. After launching the project, Dave and other early leaders stepped aside.

Mark and Nick are expanding the project into the grasslands behind the contact station. “Our mission is really to create awareness of the benefits of planting native species for habitat restoration,” said Mark. “The demo garden is a classroom where you can see all the species with labels. But it’s unnatural.” It’s also a gateway for 60,000 annual visitors, half of them birders. “There needs to be a paradigm change in our yards and landscapes,” said Nick. “These manicured lawns and nonnative shrubs are ecological deserts. But a lot of people think native plants are messy. The goal of the demo garden is to show folks how great it looks.”

Visitors might remember a few labelled plants – then recognize that same native species in one of four restoration sites along the trails. “People can see these plants spreading out in the natural environment,” said Nick, who paused by the tall grasses turning shades of purple, mahogany and orange.  He showed us how to tell the difference between big bluestem, whose flowering stalk resembles a turkey foot, and Indian grass, which is more of a feather. “Indian grass is rare in Rhode Island,” he said. “But most of the seed came from the Midwest.”

He explained why a seed isn’t just a seed: “The plants in New England have evolved for thousands of years with local growing conditions,” said Nick. “So if you use seed from the Midwest, the plants might not grow as well here, they might have differences in bloom times that might affect their pollinators.”

Restoring native species (photo MCordle)

In 1995 USFWS seeded the 15-acre field we were standing in with warm-season grasses intended to provide habitat for ground-nesting birds. However, “there are no songbirds nesting here, because it’s so dense,” said Nick. “It’s not really meeting our objectives.” It’s also too small an area for many bird species to reproduce. So Nick is shifting the goal here to creating  a diversity of native plant species that are larval hosts and nectar sources for insects, including moths and more than 38 species of native bees.

But where to get enough local genotype plants is the challenge. “We were getting plants from Hope Lesson, but the Rhode Island Natural History Survey is no longer doing Rhody Native,” Nick said. “The Master Gardener partnership has really filled that hole, by collecting seed from local plants and putting them back on the refuges. Early last year, Mark and Nick chose four restoration sites with different topography and soil and light conditions. Then, the crew of volunteers and USFWS interns started clearing the invasives. A Bobcat Skid Steer grinding up a tangle of multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle hit a wall, literally.

The low stone wall was a remnant of the farm that once belonged to Ann Kenyon Morse, a sheep breeder and keen horsewoman who also flew fighter planes as a WASP during World War II. In 1974, she donated 365 acres of land to USFWS, which was the start of the 787-acre Trustom Pond Refuge.

As the team pulled out grapevine and honeysuckle, they found black cherry and shadbush. Clethra, spirea, and swamp azaleas were blooming in the wetlands. One morning, Nick spotted a hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, sipping nectar from a swamp azalea flower. They were puzzled by a large treelike shrub with mottled bark on the edge of the swamp. “I thought it was a viburnum at first,” said Mark, who snapped a few pictures for PictureThis. “It was a poison sumac. With a trunk 18” in diameter.”Its old limbs were leaning out from the edge of the boggy woods toward the sun, its leaves turning apricot-red.

The crew started planting in mid-August and worked through September, putting in about 5,000 plants sourced from Kettle Pond. Nick contributed 2,000 more, from Planter’s Choice Nursery in Connecticut. “I tried to get a variety of species the MG’s didn’t have, so they could use them for future seeds,” said Nick. “But I also got some of the same species, to increase genetic diversity. We don’t want to collect seeds from the same garden over and over.”

Nick and Dave had recently toured one of the Connecticut farms that are growing native plants for the Ecotype Project. Botanists collect seed from wild plants in ecoregion 59; organic farmers then grow out the seeds in ‘Founder Plots’; tens of thousands of seeds are then harvested from the plots and sent to nurseries. That basic model is exciting to restoration ecologists. “Maybe East Farm or organic farmers in Rhode Island could grow Founder Plots,” said Nick. I would love to see infrastructure in the Northeast to produce seeds in volume like they do in the Midwest.”

At some point, “if we wanted to transform the field at Trustom, we could plow up strips, then do no-till or broadcast seeds.” And this time the seed would be from this ecoregion, not the middle of the country.In the meantime, he and Mark will be interested to see how well the native species in the restoration areas establish. “Considering the bluestem and the thatch, it’s unlikely that they would without any kind of disturbance,” he said. “Maybe a prescribed burn or light tilling of soil would open up an avenue for those plants to spread.” But just having them flower and set seed in the restoration sites will increase the seed bank of local genotypes.

Mark took a break near a site where yellow thistle (Cirsium horridulum), rare to Rhode Island, was flourishing.  “To me, it’s like restoring an old historic house,” he said. “Only we’re restoring the plants that have been here for thousands of years.”

 

A Sense of Place: Kettle Pond

by Marnie Lacouture

This article first appeared in our publication WildfloraRI, Fall 2021

Dave Vissoe sharing his knowledge (photo PLacouture)

The native plant garden at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown had a serendipitous beginning. In 2016, Janis Nepshinsky, Visitor Services Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, received a $5,000 grant to establish a native plant garden for pollinators.

The center, built in 2005, offers information on all five of the state’s National Wildlife Refuges — Trustom Pond, Sachuest Point, Ninigret, John H. Chafee, and Block Island – and also serves as a central office for the complex. It is located on the forested upland of the Ninigret refuge, north of Route 1. The Rhode Island glacier, which created the Charlestown terminal moraine approximately 20,000 years ago, left many kettle holes and ponds as the ice retreated. The name Kettle Pond refers to them.

For years, Janis had imagined creating a “sense of place,” by transforming the grassy area outside the center into a demonstration garden full of native plants and their pollinators, to show how biodiversity is necessary for the earth and its inhabitants. It would embody ‘mosoquotaash,’ a Narragansett word meaning ‘we are all connected.’

One slow day at the center, she noticed that Dave Vissoe, who was volunteering at the front desk, was poring over notes and books spread out on the table. “He said he was studying for a Master Gardener class,” recalled Janis. “I had just gotten this grant, and I thought, ‘Boy, have I got the garden for you!’” That is how Janis’s dream gained a project leader and became a reality.

Dave, who grew up in the south end of Hartford, CT, remembers his French grandfather as a gentle soul who was a serious gardener. As a young boy, Dave helped water in his grandfather’s greenhouse where the damp, earthy smell drew him to love gardening. He admits that he was not an earnest student and calls himself a “late, late, late bloomer.” Entering college right after high school, he soon dropped out to join the army, then returned after completing his service. It was at North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, that he met Bev Mickey, his future wife. After graduating, Dave landed a job teaching high school biology and chemistry in Bennington, VT; Dave commuted to work while Bev finished her senior year. We can thank Bev for not liking the Vermont winters.

The couple moved to Rhode Island in 1970 where they both taught at Davisville Middle School in North Kingstown until 1977 when Dave was hired by Silver Burdett, a textbook publisher. There he used his science background and honed his management skills, living in Rhode Island as a national consultant until taking other positions that necessitated a move to New Jersey, where he and Bev raised their family. In 2013 Dave and a friend began to remodel the house that had belonged to his parents in Green Hill, a coastal community in South Kingstown. He and Bev moved back to the Ocean State and live there today.

Dave enjoys people and has a gift for bringing them together. He is quick to credit the accomplishments of others while modest about his own. Mary O’Connor, a Master Gardener as well as a Rhode Island Wild Plant Society board member, joined the Kettle Pond project shortly after it began and was instrumental in getting Dave to join the RIWPS board. She said his energy and passion are contagious, so he’s a pleasure to work with, a sentiment repeated by all the volunteers I spoke to. He is joyful and upbeat, and I always smile after a conversation with Dave, whether it is about his visiting grandson or a favorite plant.

In 2014 Dave’s appreciation of nature had drawn him to volunteer at both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Trustom Pond refuge and the Kettle Pond Visitor Center. He became a Master Gardener in 2017 and dove immediately into the native plant garden project at Kettle Pond with Sharon Bridge, a veteran Master Gardener, as his coleader. Melissa Hughes and Darlene Trott each served for a time as coleader until 2019 when Erin Beuka, a Master Gardener who had recently moved to Rhode Island from New Jersey, took over. Dave describes her as a “powerhouse”, and Erin calls Dave a “dynamo.’ Erin is now maintaining the data bases originally created by Melissa from plot maps drawn on graph paper to track plant inventories and information. According to Dave, having this data has taken the garden to a higher level.

Native species grace the parking lot (photo DVissoe)

Dave’s many accomplishments have earned him The 2021 Rosanne Sherry Distinguished Educator Award from Master Gardeners.

Graham Gardner, a landscape designer and longtime RIWPS member, created a master plan for the garden consisting of several plots in various shapes and sizes before moving to Colorado. The plan was ultimately implemented by landscape designer Tysh McGrail, who had worked on many projects with him, promoting the use of native plants.

Volunteers prepared the beds, first removing invasive plants as well as poison ivy and maple saplings, then suppressing weeds with six layers of newspaper. Since the gardens were being planted over a septic system, they brought in weed-free loam to build up the soil. They pruned several overgrown winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) that were growing along the building. They studied the prevailing wind, soil pH, and sun exposure to help match specific plants to the best spot. They laid out the curved plots with garden hoses and dug the edges deeply for neatness and to keep grass from growing into the paths. They layered the plants according to their height and bloom times.

Dave assembled an enthusiastic team for the first planting, which occurred over three days in mid-June of 2017. Nick Ernst, the FWS wildlife biologist for the refuge complex was there along with Janis, Tysh, several volunteers from Master Gardeners, April Alix and her summer intern Michael Bonilla from the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, and members of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society — twenty or so volunteers in all. Lorén Spears, a citizen of the Narragansett nation and executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, who had shared her knowledge of native plants and their uses by indigenous people, was also there on planting day. Although she was dressed for a later engagement, she couldn’t resist getting her hands dirty. Most of the plants, grown from locally sourced seeds, were obtained from Rhody Native, a RINHS project begun by botanist Hope Leeson. The rest came from a wholesale native plant nursery on Long Island.

A second planting was installed in October of 2017. The garden grew and the plants filled in as work continued in 2018 and 2019. In March of 2020, however, Covid restrictions meant that the garden would be tending itself until well into June, when volunteers returned to work practicing social distancing and wearing face masks. Dave continued to educate the public with video and Zoom presentations. Because he realized that the garden would be a source of comfort for many, he created safe guidelines for volunteers to work in small groups to keep the gardens weeded. The volunteers also installed a rain garden to the left of the visitor center entrance with a $2000 grant from RIWPS, although $750 was unused and returned.

An “adopt a plot” idea has been implemented recently in the hopes that maintenance will be manageable. Volunteers also can “adopt a plant,” learning all they can about it while tracking its growth in the garden. This information has been used to create a treasure hunt for school groups and as resource material for teachers, the general public, master and advanced gardeners, and garden clubs.

Butterfly milkweed seed pods (photo DVissoe)

In September, on one of the last days of summer, I visited the garden and was greeted by a tall clump of Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), the seed heads glowing in the afternoon sun. Goldenrods and asters were in their glory, abuzz with pollinators, and the fuel needed by the monarch butterflies for their long migratory trip was plentiful. The goldenrods included seaside (Solidago sempervirens), gray (S. nemoralis), wreath (S. caesia) and licorice (S. odora). There was an array of asters: wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum), calico (S. lateriflorum) heart-leaved (S. cordifolium), New England (S. novae-angliae), and white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata). The pods of the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) were beginning to open, showing the white fluff of seeds inside, and the seed heads of the towering ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) were ripening. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a warm-season grass, was maturing to a lovely amber color. Several native vines, including trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), common ground nut (Apios americana), and summer grape (Vitis aestivalis) were climbing the posts of a handsome curved arbor built by Rudi’s Rangers, a local volunteer group. Nearby, tree stumps were positioned in a semi-circle, as seating for an outdoor classroom.

As I wandered the paths, the dedication and work of so many was evident. Although the garden is still evolving, it had grown into one that demonstrates the importance of native plants to pollinators and other wildlife, as well as their beauty.

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.

Be Careful of What You Wish For – A retrospective for years of meadow-keeping

This article by Garry Plunkett originally appeared in the RIPWS publication, WildFloraRI, Spring 2019.  Photos by Garry and Virginia Plunkett

The word “meadow” brings to mind fields of open grassland, dappled with wildflowers bending to the wind in rolling waves across the horizon. Those inviting images frequented gardening publications twenty-five years ago, about the time I was figuring out my meadow. I was all in, transfixed by a patch of grass that hearkened back to the bluestem prairies of my native Oklahoma.

I actually did not create my meadow. Our two-acre house lot was part of a hay meadow in a subdivision that broke up one of the last working “Providence Plantations.” Winnisimet Farm had the classic look of what was once a common scene across New England—fields of grasses divided by a grid of fieldstone walls. Those hayfield grasses were typically a mix of Old World, “cool-season” species originally brought to America by settlers for livestock fodder. It was known as English hay. Today, those species are still prominent in open fields and pasturelands, including bluegrass, orchard grass, perennial rye, velvet grass, timothy, and meadow fescue. They were on the house lot and still grow in my meadow today. The house was surrounded with conventional suburban landscaping, but I kept a back acre of hay meadow next to a stone wall as a bit of nostalgia from the old farm.

A couple of years had passed when I first noticed changes, new colors sprinkled among the blanket of green. Henry David Thoreau was the first to coin a term for what was unfolding— natural succession. Thoreau recorded a predictable progression of plants he saw appearing in fallow fields around his Concord home. Broad-leaf plants came first, then brambles and deciduous thickets. Ultimately, if left untended long enough, succession will produce New England’s climax community, a temperate forest.

My backyard succession brought squadrons of goldenrod, milkweed, evening primrose, St. John’s wort, buttercup, stitchwort—something new every season. This was happening about the time meadows were a popular topic in gardening circles. RIWPS was passing out “No Mow” stickers at the spring flower show and offering “meadows in a flat” at plant sales. The meadow bubble eventually burst, but I kept my meadow and have also stewarded large conservation grasslands. Both experiences provided reality checks for what can work in a grassland, and what does not.

Most people would not get a meadow gift-wrapped as I did, but must either abandon weekly mowing of a lawn, or start from scratch and plant a seed mix. Yes, one can simply stop mowing an area of lawn and voila! a meadow is born. Turf grasses are like forage grasses, cool-season species that, if left uncut, will grow vigorously in the spring and into early summer. They can grow to about three feet, flower in May, and go to seed in June.

A pure, cool-season grass meadow can certainly be visually appealing with its changing hues and textures in varying light, wind, and moisture conditions. But it does run out of gas in summer, turn brown, and go dormant. The meadow then begins to look scraggly—the perfect time for mowing. The vegetative structure is light and dry, so a garden tractor is adequate for mowing at a slow speed with the mower deck at maximum height. Extra reverse-direction mowing will produce a light, straw-like fluff that disappears after a couple weeks. The cut field will green up later and grow to about a foot high, but without re-flowering. An additional mowing in early spring, as the grass begins to grow, is useful for weed control as it exposes encroaching woodies and invasive plants that typically emerge early.

An alternative to the lawn-to-meadow conversion is the complete do-over: plowing up the sod, preparing the soil, and planting a meadow seed mix. This method permits one to choose actual meadow grass species and to mix in flower seed at the outset, but it is an arduous task . Methodical soil preparation to kill weed roots and seeds in the soil bank is very important. Done properly, with a seed mix specifically chosen for our bioregion, it can produce spectacular results—for a year or two. But alas, succession inevitably begins to change the meadow.

Some volunteer plants are desirable, such as goldenrod and milkweed,as they colonize into attractive patches. (Dare I say two-foot high dandelions will add bright yellows?) Others are not desirable, like common tansy and knapweed, both aggressive aliens that outcompete natives and reduce diversity. The key is early identification of the undesirables, and early removal.This is a rigorous process, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “forget it,” as in don’t even think of trying. Long-term success is possible with diligent soil preparation and a good seed mix from reputable sources. Then, expect dynamic changes. Better yet, celebrate them! I planted an area with a seed mix twenty years ago, and it was great fun watching the successes, failures, and surprises as the planted patch blended into the surrounding area with its own unique character.

It’s reasonable to wonder about the validity of establishing a meadow in New England. Our native grasslands are generally wetlands—salt marshes and “fresh meadows” (riparian flood plains, fens, and reedy marshes). All are threatened communities in need of protection but are not practical for individual landscapes. So, is something that is hardly a natural plant community, is a chore to establish, and needy to maintain worth the effort?

It is. So, let me count the ways:

  1. If they replace turf, meadows can host many native pollinators and reduce the pollution associated with lawns.
  2. They can be an attractive transition between a lawn and a woodland.
  3. They can function as a mini- ecotone, increasing backyard biodiversity (Who else has twinkling fireflies on warm summer nights?).
  4. They preserve a bit of New England pastoral history.
  5. Properly maintained, they can be a beautiful native wildflower display.

(It should be added that large conservation grasslands are critically important habitat for threatened ground-nesting bird species.)

Managing succession by methodically allowing a meadow to evolve into an “old field” will add beauty and environmental value. Volunteers will appear, adding colors, textures, and spatial patterns. Evening primrose, cinquefoil, cow vetch, Queen Anne’s lace, red clover, yarrow, chicory, and fall asters were welcome in my meadow— lots of flowers free of charge! Selectively controlling volunteer wildflowers to favor native species and desired locations refines the natural process. Planting additional natives that can survive competition from grasses will add further visual interest.

There can be no specific road map or species list for doing meadows because much depends on site conditions—soil, moisture, surrounding area vegetation, and land history, to name a few. I would, however, offer these general recommendations:

  • Hand-pull undesirables early and often to control invasives and manage desirable volunteers (most easily done when soil is rain- saturated and soft).
  • Favor late-season bloomers to accommodate mid-season grass mowing—asters, Joe-Pye weed, ironweed, black-eyed Susans.
  • Locate flowers around meadow edges or in islands to facilitate mowing.
  • Avoid fall mowing, as it removes highly desirable winter cover, food for over-wintering birds, and attractive winter textures and colors.
  • Dig deep, wide oversized holes when planting potted perennials— competition in a meadow is fiercer than in a flowerbed.
  • When strolling in your meadow, bring gloves—there’s always something to pull!

Finally, add the coup de grâce of a beautiful, environmentally impactful meadow: warm-season grasses. They are everything that cool-season grasses are not—native, drought-resistant, and exuberant in late summer, plus they have an amazing ability to retain structure and attractive tawny colors over the winter. (They also are excellent for conservation grasslands, because they are bunch grasses that have better structure for grassland nesting birds compared to rhizomatous spreading cool-season grasses.)

Warm-season grasses include switchgrass, broomsedge bluestem, Indian grass, big and little bluestem. They dominated the vast prairies of the Midwest, and some are found in New England, often where soils are nutrient-poor and dry. In my experience switchgrass and big bluestem are the best species for planting where there is strong competition from established cool- season grasses. But all warm-season grasses do well in well-drained, nutrient-poor soils, such as upper edges of salt marshes, roadsides, and South County’s glacial moraine.

Tackling a meadow in a bioregion where nature really would prefer a forest just might fall into the “if-it’s- easy-it-ain’t-worth-doing” category. Indeed, meadows are not for wimps. But they are rewarding for those willing to make the long-term investment in hands-on, up-close-and-personal stewardship. John Burroughs is credited with the saying, “To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” Caring for my meadow has drawn me down a meadow path practically every day for 30 years, and I continue to learn new things about it and about the natural world outside my back door.

Native or Cultivar? Does It Make a Difference?

Wildlife-friendly gardens and pollinator gardens are becoming more and more popular, driving a demand for native plants. And the horticultural industry is responding with a huge selection of “redesigned” native plants, cultivars of the native species.

Spring sightings

Spring is an exciting time to be in woodlands because a lot is happening on the forest floor – in plain sight! That’s when the herbaceous layer gets unimpeded, warming sunlight, and when I can’t wait to get into my woods every morning to see “what’s up” – fiddleheads uncurling, spring flowers emerging, mystery plants appearing, planted species surviving, and old-faithfuls spreading.

Native Plant Certainty Amid Uncertainty

-by Judy Ireland

Nature’s calendar has no “Stay-at-Home” rules. That’s our saving grace! In mid March, at the outflow of our “pond,” our reliable marsh-marigold caught our eye from our cozy kitchen sitting area. Its yellow flowers are always our first colorful reassurance that Spring has arrived…skunk-cabbage not withstanding!

A few days afterwards, in our native woodland, the first bloodroot was a joy to discover! Then I knew to look for the other places it always appears in developing clumps. What a treasure hunt!

Venturing out from our imposed “isolation” a few days later, our walk was rewarded by finding that our twinleaf had almost appeared overnight and was “in bud!” Many years we miss the bloom completely. It comes and goes in the breath of a spring breeze. We will watch it carefully this year.

Peeking out, beside the twinleaf, and many places through the woodland, are Virginia bluebells. Bluebells are one of my favorites and they are nearing full bloom. I will always remember as a child coming across a large patch in a New York State swamp. The blue is unforgettably vibrant!

Virginia bluebells

We purchased our plants as roots from a mail order source a number of years ago. I will never forget opening the box and finding a “tangle” of ……? Unsure of how to “plant” them, I divided them into small units and planted them in groups in semi-shaded, somewhat damp areas. Today they abound under shrubs and beside the pond. When springtime is cool, they last quite a while, and their stems of pink/blue bells waving in whispering breezes warm my native plant lover’s heart!

— Judy Ireland

Editor’s note: Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris) and shunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) are native to RI; Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are native to the lower 48 states of the USA, but are not considered RI natives. RIWPS has sold Virginia bluebells at its annual meeting for years.