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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

URI Master Gardeners spruce up Trustom Pond NWS

They install native plant garden, restore habitat

Tony LaRoche

URI Master Gardeners and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff restore habitat at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Mark Cordle)

A team of University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners is transforming the visitor contact station garden at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge into a native plant demonstration garden and helping refuge staff restore habitat in the refuge’s meadow to be more beneficial to native wildlife.

Led by Master Gardener Mark Cordle, the project is an outgrowth of a similar effort at the nearby Kettle Pond Visitor’s Center (in Charlestown), where Master Gardeners have worked for four years to create and maintain an extensive native plant garden.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the partnership between the refuge complex and the Master Gardener program,” said Nick Ernst, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is collaborating with the Master Gardeners on the projects. 

“The demonstration gardens they created are a wonderful way to showcase the beauty of native plants for use in home landscaping, as well as communicating the vital role they play supporting an assortment of beneficial insects and pollinators.”

Working twice a week in the warmer months since last September, as many as 10 Master Gardeners have teamed to renovate and redesign the Trustom garden by removing non-native species and planting native species such as mountain mint, bee balm, cardinal flower, goldenrod, joe-pye weed and wood aster. A two-level rain garden serves as an infiltration system for excess water runoff, where deep-rooted plants such as ironweed, boneset and milkweed now grow.

“The purpose of the garden is to educate,” said Cordle. “About 60,000 people visit the refuge every year. We’re creating awareness about the benefits of native plants to attract native insects, native birds and other wildlife so people can learn what they can do in their own gardens. It’s essentially an outdoor classroom.”

Formal tours of the garden were offered this month for members of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society and for other Master Gardeners. In addition, garden volunteers often share their knowledge informally with visitors seeking to learn more.

“Another benefit of this project is that the Master Gardeners are now propagating seed collected from the gardens and providing us with over 30 species of locally adapted plants to diversify and restore wildlife habitat on the refuges,” said Ernst.

The habitat restoration element of the project began this summer, with three sites selected around the refuge’s large meadow as test plots. Frequent work days are continuing through the fall to remove invasive species such as autumn olive, oriental bittersweet and black swallowwort and replace them with native plants and shrubs. About 2,000 native plants have been planted so far, with more planned as the season progresses.

“It’s an experiment out there,” admitted Cordle. “People have tried to create natural meadows in their backyard for years. It’s an art and a science, and we don’t know how successful we’ll be. The goal is that the native plants reach an equilibrium with the other plants already out there. Hopefully they’ll reseed themselves and thrive so we don’t have to continue to maintain them. It’s all about educating the public about the importance of natural ecosystems as compared to the invasive plants that we see too many of.”

The Master Gardeners will apply what they learn from the first year of work to three or four more sites next year. Maintenance of the demonstration garden will continue as well.

“It’s a beautiful laboratory that compares the impact of invasive and aggressive plants to the restored natives,” Cordle said. “Ultimately, it’s all about educating the public while meeting some of the refuge’s habitat restoration goals.”

The Trustom Pond and Kettle Pond gardens are among more than two dozen community garden projects that URI Master Gardeners tend to educate citizens about environmentally-sound gardening practices and to provide food for those in need. To learn more about the URI Master Gardener program, visit