Rhode Island is starting to go wild over native plants

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When Martha and Dick Fisher recently visited their grandchildren in upstate New York, they brought something precious with them that they simply couldn’t leave behind in Rhode Island: a tray of Clethra alnifolia.

The Little Compton couple admit it’s a little weird traveling with seedlings of a rhizome shrub, especially when they weren’t planning on leaving them in the Adirondacks, but they noted that the tiny plants n Were not ready to be left alone.

A tour of their beautiful 2-acre property on Austin Lane reveals the importance native plants play in their lives. Peppers of all sizes decorate the property, from mature clusters in their backyard to potted entries heading to this Saturday’s Sogkonate Garden Club plant sale and the June 4 Rhode Island Wild Plant Society sale.

In addition to Clethra alnifolia, their property, which includes a greenhouse, is home to other native shrubs, plants and trees, including arrowwood, cardinal flower and jack-in-the-desk – “I love this plant,” said Dick; “It’s a fun plant” – and a variety of fruits and vegetables. There are few non-native species and cultivars, and the only lawn consists of paths leading to various gardens and a play area for grandchildren.

Even though they recently rode more than 300 miles on a sweet pepper platter, Dick said it was “a mistake that it’s hard to go native”.

When they moved in a dozen years ago, the property, which was part of a former dairy farm, was basically grass, multifloral rose and oriental bittersweet. All native species were buried below, with little space to thrive or even survive. Invasive species, such as multiflora rose and oriental bittersweet, take over when creating space when developed or agricultural areas are abandoned. They quickly spread.

Anglers’ affection for native plants also extends to other backyards and those who care for them. Since the snake worms made their way into their garden, Dick has repotted all the sweet pepper plants and other shrubs he plans to give to the two upcoming plant sales into containers with soil free of the Asian invasive. He keeps these containers on pallets raised off the ground.

Also called jumping worms, the casts produced by these aggressive worms are very grainy and loose, so if anything tries to grow into their waste products, the roots have a hard time getting a foothold and struggle to survive. Snake worms can also be a problem in forests, as they eat the top layer of soil and dead leaves, called the duff layer, where plant seeds germinate.

Before the Fishers moved from Colorado to Rhode Island in 2007 to be closer to their grandchildren, they joined the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society. While living in Colorado near Steamboat Springs, they ran Ramshorn Native Plants, growing and selling native plants organically, when they weren’t working full time.

They quickly learned that seed propagation in an environment at 7,500 feet above sea level is very different from that along the coast. They also learned that the Ocean State still hasn’t embraced organic native plants like Colorado did in the early 1990s, and that many Rhode Islanders prefer ornamental plants and lawns. They were also saddened to find that Rhode Island, unlike Colorado, lacks native plants that grow wild.

For the past 12 years, the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society has helped anglers hone their skills in growing and donating species native to the state and southern New England. The retired couple helped the organization embrace the idea of ​​using organic methods to grow local species.

“People ask why organic,” Martha said. “I tell them that planting chemical-laden marigolds in the middle of a vegetable patch will leach those toxins into the vegetables they’re going to eat.”

Sally Johnson’s garden is mostly filled with native plants, but the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society member calls her gardens “native” because she enjoys growing non-native plants and cultivars.

wild departure

The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society’s first newsletter, a fall/winter 1987-88 edition, was published on both sides of a single sheet of tan paper, illustrated with line drawings of blueberries on the front and of witch hazel on the back. It was distributed to 150 members. A short article by Lisa Gould answered the question “Why become a native?” »

It’s a question that representatives of the North Kingstown-based non-profit organization, including fishermen, have answered for the past 35 years. It is not easy to explain to conditioned people that lawns and exotic ornamental plants are good and dandelions are bad, that native plants are easier and cheaper to maintain and better for environmental well-being and human.

Gould, founding member and first president of the organization, and the handful of others—Doris Anthony, Marnie Lacouture, Nancy Magendantz, Martha Marshall, Betty Salomon, and Johnny Stone—who created the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society (RIWPS) n Were not looking to establish a club where its members discussed their gardens and sipped cocktails, but an entity with a strong conservation component. One, like the Sogkonate Garden Club, which gets its hands dirty.

The RIWPS is “dedicated to the preservation and protection of Rhode Island’s native plants and their habitats,” according to the organization’s website. This mission is carried out by volunteer members who provide opportunities to study and appreciate native plants, to encourage and offer guidance in their cultivation and use, to educate the public on their ecological and aesthetic values and support land conservation and practices that foster their natural communities.

Native plants support pollinators and provide wildlife with food and shelter. They play an important role in maintaining ecosystem function and diversity.

The National Audubon Society says restoring habitat for native plants is essential to preserving biodiversity. He notes that over the past century, urbanization has taken untouched, ecologically productive land and fragmented and transformed it with lawns and exotic ornamental plants. The United States has lost 150 million acres of habitat and farmland to urban sprawl, and the nation’s modern obsession with manicured “perfect” lawns has alone created a carpet monoculture green across the country that covers more than 40 million acres. .”

“By creating a garden of native plants, each patch of habitat becomes part of a collective effort to nurture and keep the landscape alive for birds and other animals,” according to the National Audubon Society.

The RIWPS has been spreading this message locally for three decades. It began to slowly take hold. The organization’s latest newsletter, the Spring 2022 edition, is a 20-page glossy magazine with color photos. Membership has grown to 655. And the annual RIWPS Plant Sale has become a must-attend event for many.

This year’s sale, scheduled for June 4 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Botanical Garden at the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension Center at 3 West Alumni Ave. in Kingston, will feature some 4,000 plants of 150 different species of shrubs, including about 80 donated by anglers, and trees, grasses, ferns and perennials.

They are organically grown and come from native species growing in Ecoregion 59, which includes all of Rhode Island, most of Connecticut and Massachusetts, and sections of New York, New Hampshire, and Maine.

“Plant species in an ecoregion have co-evolved with insects and other local animals, under similar environmental conditions, for thousands of years, so their genetics are best suited for your gardens,” according to the RIWPS.

The Fishers and Sally Johnson, a member of the RIWPS for 12 years, believe the organization’s message is starting to take hold.

In fact, Johnson, who founded his own garden design company three years ago after a career with the Rhode Island government, said it was getting hard to find some native species, such as the highbush cranberry. , berry berry, inkberry and sweetgale.

“I hope this is a short-term issue as nurseries are starting to realize that more and more people want to tear up their lawns, get away from ornamentals and native plants,” she said. .

Like the fishermen, when Johnson and her husband, Curtis Betts, moved into their home on Beach Point Drive in East Providence, which adjoins Bullock Cove, there was a shortage of native plants on the long-neglected property. Phragmites were ripped out – and still are – and a lot of sidewalks were ripped out.

Now, a dozen years later, the property is largely teeming with native plants, such as asters, mountain mint, lupins and shadbush, which Johnson says produce “delicious fruit.” – although Johnson admitted she was not a purist and had planted some non-natives and cultivars. She said the 10,000 square foot property, which includes two rain gardens, is home to about 300 species of plants, shrubs and trees.

However, there is not a single patch of lawn.

Information on the history of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society was taken from The Beginning: Extracts from the History of RIWPS, 1987-1997 by Mary E. Finger.


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