Land Use

Gardeners Sow Property with Chemical-Free Soil


Gardening at Blithewold is a year-round undertaking. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

BRISTOL, R.I. — Winter is here. The days are short, the trees are bare and morning dew is now frost. Most Rhode Island gardeners have planted their garlic, covered their beds and moved inside to hibernate. Not so at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum. Here, three gardeners and one groundskeeper, employed by the nonprofit organization that manages the property, are hard at work maintaining the horticultural beauty of a community treasure.

Blithewold, Old English for “happy woodland,” has been committed to the art of gardening since the property was bought by Augustus Van Wickle and his wife, Bessie, in 1895. Bessie envisioned “an estate in which new beauties are constantly revealed and the perfect accord between Architecture and Grounds is ever apparent.” Originally 70 acres of waterfront property, today’s Blithewold encompasses 33 acres of meticulously planned and managed gardens and grounds.

Some 35,000 people visit Blithewold and its gardens annually, and many of them don’t realize that all of the property’s gardens are managed organically. The gardens and grounds have been worked for more than a century, so the soil is very productive, according to Gail Read, the property’s garden manager. She said she and her staff are responsible for being good stewards, which means avoiding chemical fertilizers that damage soil.

“Chemicals are like giving a plant a Las Vegas buffet instead of a Weight Watchers diet,” Read said. She noted that chemicals make plants bloated with soft tissue, which pests attack and thrive on. Naturally cared for plants don’t have the same problem, she said.

Read and her team substitute compost, rock phosphate and fish emulsions for chemical fertilizers, and she doesn’t consider their environmentally friendly methods a disadvantage — but they do affect what plants they grow. They don’t plant potatoes in the vegetable garden, for example, because the plants are overwhelmed by pests if not sprayed with insecticide.

In the Rose Garden, disease-resistant roses are favored over their higher maintenance counterparts. “If we struggle with a plant, we don’t use it anymore,” Read said.

For Betsy Ekholm, a horticulturalist at both Blithewold and Schartner Farms in Exeter, sacrificing the good bugs to get rid of the bad isn’t worth it. “We love our bugs,” she said.

Japanese beetles cause the most havoc for the gardeners at Blithewold, but Read said they are hand-picked off the plants and don’t cause enough damage to make her change her methods. “To me, it’s just learning to live with something that isn’t perfect,” she said.

Many exotic plants, siuch as those above, are stored in the greenhouse during the winter.The gardening season at Blithewold begins while the weather is still cold — 5,000 seedlings and cuttings are planted and nurtured in the recently enlarged, on-site greenhouse. These, along with exotic potted plants, also stored in the greenhouse during the winter, are moved outdoors to one of the many gardens on the property during spring, Read said.

Each garden is diverse, and often includes perennial, annual, exotic and native plants. The Rose Garden, for example, includes a variety of companion plants that attract pollinators.

“Avoiding a monoculture and having diversity is always the best way to go,” Read said.

The gardens’ soil is improved with compost made on-site from garden debris and grass clippings. The compost releases nutrients slowly, resulting in steady conditions for plants to grow. Shredded leaves are used as a mulch to help keep weeds down and moisture in.

The gardens are weeded and raked regularly, to keep them tidy and remove diseased plants and foliage. Each week about 18 volunteers help with such tasks. “We couldn’t do it without them,” Read said.

The diversity within each garden results in flowers blooming from April through October, and keeps both brides — Blithewold has become a popular wedding venue — and the property’s four honeybee colonies happy. The hives are in close proximity to the Pollinator Garden, which is specifically designed to attract bees and other local pollinators. This garden is so popular with bees, that it has become unpopular with the public, for fear of being stung, according to Read.

Kristin Green, interpretive horticulturalist at Blithewold, said that despite its reputation, the garden isn’t dangerous. The bees, she said, generally don’t sting as long as they are not provoked. Against popular demand, the Pollinator Garden will be expanded next year, Read said.

By the time summer campers arrive at Blithewold’s Camp Sequoia, the vegetable garden is thriving. Traditional plants such as lettuce, cabbage, eggplants, tomatoes, asparagus and squash share the soil with unexpected varieties such as peanut plants and banana trees.

The campers, mostly between 5 and 10 years old, learn about the vegetable garden and are sent home with bags of fresh produce. Read said campers often surprise her by eating some of the vegetables such as broccoli — universally understood to be the enemy of elementary school-aged children — right off the stalk.

Blithewold grows some 2,400 pounds of vegetables annually; about half is given to staff, volunteers and campers, and the remainder is donated to the town’s food pantry.

As the weather cools, the gardeners at Blithewold prepare for winter. The beds are put to rest and covered with shredded leaves, while the potted exotic plants, unfit for the New England winter, are returned to the greenhouse. Shortly thereafter, next year’s crop of plants is sown in the greenhouse. During a recent visit to the property by ecoRI News, seedling production was already beginning.

Blithewold’s gardeners see their gardens as an opportunity to educate visitors about horticulture. About 25 percent of the programming at Blithewold is related to gardening. In November, for example, Blithewold hosted a workshop about dividing, overwintering and replanting dahlia tubers.

Green, the interpretive horticulturalist, is on staff to explain to the public what is happening in the gardens. She creates signage, answers visitors’ questions and writes a weekly blog. In a recent post she wrote about preparing gardens for winter and the benefit to birds and bugs of leaving plant stalks standing in gardens during winter.

“We leave a lot of the plants standing through winter as an offering to the birds and bugs. Over the last few weeks we have all gotten a big kick out of watching goldfinch, house finch, tufted titmouse (titmice?) and cardinals feast on the seedheads in the pollinator garden,” she wrote.

According to Karen Binder, Blithewold Inc.’s executive director, the nonprofit that manages the property, sustainability was incorporated into the two-year master plan. The plan called for additional insulation on the mansion’s third floor and an expanded greenhouse built with double-paned windows and radiant heat. The new wing of the greenhouse is estimated to be twice as efficient as the older section. A permeable surface is being considered in the parking area.

The property’s gardeners are looking forward to new projects already underway. A field, off the beaten path, is being converted to a meadow that will benefit wildlife and reduce the need for mowing. A new event pavilion will include a green roof to reduce runoff into the nearby bay, and showcase how green roofs can be tastefully incorporated on a historic site.

Behind much of the glitz and glam of the Blithewold experience, are a few gardeners with their hands in the chemical-free dirt. Remember to thank them during your next visit.


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