by Marnie Lacouture
This article first appeared in our publication WildfloraRI, Fall 2021
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.
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.
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.