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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.”