Monthly Archives: December 2010

More Snow!

Winter Greetings from the URI Botanical Garden! The blizzard conditions didn’t leave each   twig delicately coated like a silent snow does, but the wind sculpted the tiny flakes into something otherworldly. Drifts past my knees fall away to almost bare ground. It’s hard to tell how much snow actually fell but the rumor is 10.8 inches.

I love how a snowstorm will change the way everything looks overnight.


The Dawn Redwood

dawn redwood trunk

I’ve decided that I will continue to write about the Botanical Garden  until the New Year,  and then “turn inward” to the Conservatory in January. It’s hard to let go of the outside focus. Even though the days are almost as short as they will get, I want to be outside!

So: Here’s one of my favorite plants in the Garden. Metasequoia glyptostroboides, common name Dawn Redwood. When I give a tour of the Botanical Garden, I always point this one out and tell it’s story. The Metasequoia was  known only through fossils prior to 1944. At that time a small group of unidentified trees were found in China, which turned out to be living specimens of the Dawn Redwood. In 1948, after WW II, researchers at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University went to China  and brought back seeds. A few years later seedling trees were distributed to universities and arboreta around the United States. Our own Metasequoia comes from that original group of seedlings!dawn redwood bare

Sixty years or so later, the Dawn Redwood stands at about 100 (?) feet tall. It is a deciduous conifer, which means that it’s needles drop in the fall after turning a warm reddish brown. Tiny cones — about 1 inch long!– and deciduous branchlets also drop.  It grows fast, tolerates wet soil and air pollution, and very rarely is bothered by insects or disease.The Metasequoia thrives in temperate climates and is now widely planted  around the world as an ornamental. Unfortunately it is critically endangered in the wild. In Central China, where the Dawn Redwood originates,there are an estimated 5000 – 6000 trees left. Habitat loss and collection of cones and seedlings are the major causes of endangerment. However, because it is so widely cultivated, it is unlikely to become extinct.

Favorite picture of favorite tree...

Standing at the corner of Upper College Road and East Alumni Ave, the Dawn Redwood marks the entrance to the Botanical Garden. I’ve taken many pictures of it in the past few years. The peeling reddish bark and feathery green needles appeal to me in all kinds of weather and light. The huge trunk is a great backdrop for informal portraits. Snow and ice highlight the fine texture of the branches.  I used a picture of the Metasequoia as the background for my computer desktop — my oldest son accused me with “Always the trees, never the family!” Not true, of course, but the Dawn Redwood remains one of my best- loved trees in the garden.metasequoia twig and needles


brush pile“Feed the soil, not the plants”.

We make LOTS of compost at the Botanical Garden. This is a fairly recent development. The first summer I worked here, the weeds, leaves, etc from the garden were going into the dumpster out back. I was appalled. In there with the garbage, broken glass, cracked plant pots, and misplaced recycling. All that good organic matter going to waste!

The next summer, thanks to the relentless pestering of someone, we had a separate dumpster for the organic matter from the gardens and greenhouses. It came from Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, otherwise known as “The Landfill”.  RIRRC is really big on composting these days, because it helps keep “The Landfill” from filling up. This dumpster went back to Johnston and was…composted? I don’t know what they did with it, but apparently they were separating it somehow from the general waste stream.

In 2008 The URI Master Gardeners Association received a grant from the Champlin Foundations to begin creating a composting facility for the greenhouses and Botanical Gardens. The grant would also cover the purchase of a John Deere bucketloader tractor and a shredding machine attachment. This felt like  a turning point for the Gardens —  sustainability coming into view.

So, all the clippings, weeds, leaves, left over potting soil, and other organic matter from the gardens and greenhouses go onto a concrete pad between two greenhouses. It all gets put through the shredder, which  accelerates the rate of decomposition.  It’s not a perfect system — this summer the pile got very backed up and there was an unsightly mountain of green and brown stuff sitting on the concrete pad for months. But overall it works very well and right now there are three finished piles — about   3 cubic yards each —  and three unfinished piles still cooking. Finished compost gets spread on the  garden beds. It’s actually more than we can use at the moment and we sell it too (bring a five -gallon bucket to fill).

Compost  increases soil fertility and helps balance soil pH . It increases drainage, aeration and water holding capacity of the soil. It also creates a healthy habitat for beneficial microorganisms. All these things keep  plants healthy and help them withstand adverse conditions such as drought, diseases, and pests. Black gold for the garden,made right here.

As the color fades

turkish hazel bark


By now the colors are definitely more muted in the garden.  Some remains —  a few  trees hanging on to their yellow leaves, the calendulas  STILL blooming. Today what really began to stand out as I  prowled the garden with the camera, was texture and shape. (duh). I am so entranced with– intoxicated by– color through spring, summer, and fall, that I forget to look with a more discerning eye for the shapes of things.  The unbelievable variety in the shapes and textures of the leaves that are yet green, and those that are not. The bark —  rough, smooth, furrowed, flaking,peeling, cracking, in many subtle shades of browns and grays.  The difference in the way the top and undersides of the same leaf reflect the light. The difference in form of the trees. Some tall and narrow, some spreading; twiggy or sparse, some with buds for next year standing out against the sky, and some with buds hidden.

rhododendron leaves

Then standing back: the landscape itself. The lack of color  allows me to see the big picture. One of my favorite things about the Botanical Gardens is the stone walls. These were built in the 1940s by the Work Projects Administration during the Depression. They are beautiful and well made. The contrast of the stones with the plants is wonderful and the walls have great texture on their own. They create the “room” of the main garden where the stage is. A little bit of clearing this past year has made some sections more visible. My early spring photos always include the walls because the delicate new foliage and flowers against the rough and enduring stonework is an irresistible image. Now, in this more subtle  season, the walls add texture, shape, and a sense of permanence to the landscape.

WPA plaque