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 office@riwps.org to express your interest in helping us with this exciting adventure.

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.