Tag Archive for: seed starters

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. 

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.

Rhode Island Wild Plant Society sponsors pollinator garden at Kelly House Museum

LINCOLN – Walkers and cyclists will have something new to see as they pass by the Kelly House Museum in Lincoln after members of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society planted more than 160 native plants in a new pollinator garden at the site last Friday morning.

RIWPS Fall Plant Sale — And another 600 more native plants in the landscape!

Saturday August 25th was a great day for our public sale at Pawtuxet Village Farmer’s Market in Cranston giving more people opportunity to add native plants to their gardens as cooler weather approaches. And they did come! Not only our members and Cranston area shoppers but also from CT and MA.

Thank you to the volunteers who came to help customers choose plants, set up tables & tents and transported plants and particularly to the Seed Starters East for this sale and outside propagators who are critical to all our sales. The 600 plants sold help to support activities and speakers for RIWPS. Our members look forward to our yearly sales and the wide spring to fall variety of native wildflowers, ferns, shrubs and trees at affordable prices.

We depend heavily on generous volunteers throughout the year to organize these events and invite you to become one of them.Some tasks can be done at home – researching, designing our sale flyers or only require brief time commitment. Other tasks involve working with others year round.

We can use your help whatever your skills or level of knowledge of native plants. In fact volunteering provides opportunities to learn more about the plants and meet other RIWPS members. There are many tasks and we need more people to share the load. Please email plantsales@riwps.org and join an active group of volunteers who work hard to organize these sales. We have already started work on next year’s sale events so contact us to become part of the plant sales group.