Category Archives: Landscaping

Featured Plant: Witch Hazel

It’s noon, and it’s 12 degrees, but it’s sunny with no wind… so I went out to the garden to look for signs of spring….crazy, I know. I stepped in a snowbank over my knees but then was able to walk on top of the two or so feet of frozen snow on the ground. I wanted to look at the ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel over by the gazebo. It has skinny little yellow flowers with a light fragrance, and like all the witch hazels, blooms very early. Today I saw just the tiniest bit of yellow peeking out from between the scales of the flower buds. That’s a good sign! From the sidewalk on Upper College Road I looked closely at the ‘Jelena’ witch hazel , another very early bloomer. It is at the same stage as ‘Arnold Promise’, with about a millimeter of orange petal showing. Our third witch hazel is the native Ozark witch hazel, with slightly smaller flowers but much more fragrance. I did not see any sign that it is waking from it’s long winter’s nap just yet.

arnold promise witch hazel

‘Arnold Promise’, Hamamelis x intermedia, March 25, 2014

Hamamelis , the genus of witch hazels, are hardy, low maintenance plants with few pest problems. Whether you think of them as small trees or large shrubs, they are a manageable size at 10 to 15 feet, with some spreading forms nearly as wide. They have smooth, rather plain brown-to-gray bark and heavily textured oval leaves, which turn mostly yellow in fall. And then there’s the reason we love them: spidery, strappy little flowers with long, crinkly petals, all along the branches, when almost nothing else is blooming.

witch hazel jelena

‘Jelena’, Hamamelis x intermedia, February 28, 2011

Hamamelis virginiana, native to eastern North America, blooms around November, and is the plant used for the witch hazel extract you can buy at your local drugstore.

Hamamelis vernalis is native to stream banks of the south-central US. It is the earliest shrub to flower in spring, and its small, yellow-red blooms open  from late February to early April, depending on the weather. It can form dense, multi-stemmed colonies  by sending out suckers. The medium green leaves turn golden yellow in fall. Our Ozark witch hazel is H. vernalis, and when it blooms it smells like springtime!

Hamamelis x intermedia are vigorous hybrid witch hazels, crosses of the Japanese and Chinese species. Blooming from late February to March, their yellow-red petals unfurl on warm days but curl up tightly during chilly nights. The fall foliage is an attractive yellow-orange. Our ‘Arnold Promise’ and ‘Jelena’ are both H. x intermedia. They are sure signs that spring is on it’s way. Take a walk through the Botanical Gardens in the next few weeks (wear your boots) and you’ll find the earliest flowers on the witch hazel, a treat for the winter-weary and anyone ready longer, warmer days.

ozark witch hazel

H. vernalis, February 22, 2012

Not Ready!


first snowWell, a little bit ready for winter, as in: prepared. The gardens are mostly cut back, although the Dahlias still need to be dug up and packed away. There’s plenty of wood in the wood shed. Pulled out my winter coat, hat, and mittens. But ready for a couple more months of cold and dark? No.

leaf in snowsnow on sedumsnow on rosesWhat are you doing to get ready for winter?


Why We Love Rhododendrons

rhododendronAn early explorer of Narragansett Bay, Giovanni da Verrazzano, saw the islands covered with Rhododendrons and was reminded of the Mediterranean Isle of Rhodes… or so goes one of our beloved mythologies of how our little state came to be named Rhode Island. Another story says that Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer for whom Block Island is named, referred to a “red island” in Narragansett Bay, Roodt Eylant in Dutch. Either way, we love Rhododendrons.

rhododendronThere are native Rhododendrons, R. maximum, in the understory of wooded areas all over the state. Tales are told that these groves of Rhododendrons were so big in colonial times that a person could become lost in them! The Ell and Long Pond area in Hopkinton has huge Rhodies which give a hint of this possibility.


Photo by Lauren Weeks

The cultivated Rhododendrons are also very much at home in our maritime climate. They thrive here, for the most part, and are widely planted as ornamentals. Their incredible tropical flowers are a big part of the late spring/early summer landscape, and I love seeing them as we approach the longest days of the year.

rhododendronRhodies come in a wide spectrum of colors. There are probably thousands of different pinks, along with whites of every variety, and purples from light to dark and approaching blue. There are some warm tones, like the deep red ‘Francesca’, and even orange and yellow, which are not often seen around here. Sometimes Rhododendron flower buds are a different color than the open flower. All have a splotch or eye which is sometimes highly contrasting with the flower color and sometimes barely visible.


Photo by Lauren Weeks


Photo by Lauren Weeks

Shallow-rooted, Rhodies like moist soil but not “wet feet”. They like a little bit of shade, being an understory plant. They will grow in full shade but flower more with some sun. They prefer acid soil, with good organic matter, and don’t like to dry out. They are mostly evergreen, with leathery long deep green leaves (although this varies from one species to another). Like other evergreens, they are susceptible to “winter kill” leaf damage when the ground is frozen. Planting in an area protected from strong winter winds helps prevent this.


Photo by Lauren Weeks

Being well adapted to our climate (zone 6-6A), many Rhodies grow fast. And what many home gardeners don’t realize is that they can be cut back hard. How hard? Down to little stumps! I love to tell bore students with the story of how my first job at East Farm was to cut down the Rhododendrons along the fence leading to the gate. I was horrified but they came back better than ever. So if they are covering the first floor windows of your house, don’t be afraid to cut back, AFTER they flower.

rhododendronThere are thousands of Rhododendron species around the world, native to environments  from the tropics to the Himalayas. There are a multitude of hybrids and cultivars, especially if you count Azaleas, which are Rhododendrons (that’s another post). Most likely there is one you can grow at your house! The best way to find the right Rhododendron for your climate would be to visit your local nursery or greenhouse.


Photo by Lauren Weeks





May Time

There are very few blog entries for May in the archives. There is so much to do it makes my head spin, but the garden is positively enchanting at this time of year! Here’s a look at what is happening right now:

ericaceous garden

Azaleas and Rhododendrons blooming together.

Ruth May Azalea

‘Ruth May’ Azalea –interesting color…

Geisha azalea

‘Geisha’ Azalea, one of my favorites, just because.

Davidia involucrata

The flowers of the Dove Tree / Davidia involucrata.


Bright red new growth on Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’.

Calycanthus floridus

Woody flowers of Carolina Allspice / Calycanthus floridus.

May 22 2014 059

Cold-hardy banana (Musa basjoo) survived the winter!


Also looking good after a very tough winter: Opuntia humifusa, the Eastern Prickly Pear, native to RI.

shady side

Shade garden…Solomon’s Seal and more coming up through a carpet of Sweet Woodruff / Galium odoratum.

Catching Up

plants in greenhouseWe started early Friday morning, loading plants into the stake body truck borrowed from Agronomy (as well as two pickups). Off to East Farm! (it’s only a mile.)

plants in greenhouseLauren on truckIt rained a little (of course). Two large loads in the stake body and two loads in each pick up, then we set it all up and went home. Saturday started bright and early again, with a hundred or more people lined up before the gate opened at 9 am! We talked plants nonstop all day and sold most of them. Brought the leftovers back in one pickup and now we are catching up in the Botanical Garden for Commencement this weekend!

virginia bluebellsazalea

At the End of the Year

For the last blog of the year here are a few favorite pictures from 2013. Some of them are of beautiful things and some of them just make me smile, like the picture of all the seedlings coming up for the plant sale.  Happy New Year!

Jan 24 2013 012

January 24th 2013, frost patterns on the glass inside the Conservatory. Temperature outside was -3 F.

blizzard 2013

February 8th, 2013, the Blizzard left about 18 inches (?) of snow in South County and damaged many, many trees

hamamelis/witch hazel

March , signs of spring!

seedlings in greenhouse

April, seedlings for plant sale.

solomon seal


May is glorious!

June, midsummer, green.

June, midsummer, green.

July, full of colors.

July, full of colors.



August 8 2013-012

sedum 'Autumn Joy'


PLS 351

October–fall is the best time to plant!

dahlia tubers

November, putting away the dahlias for the winter.




Oh, December.  Walking around the Garden with my camera, I see brown, and brown. The light at this time of day, late afternoon, is just lovely, but not much is inspiring me to take pictures…

stewartia japonicaThe Stewartia bark stands out, with it’s peeling layers.

stone wallThe stone walls with moss.

picea orientalis 'skylands'A bit of color here on the Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’. I don’t particularly like yellow variegation  –looks sickly!– but it definitely catches the eye in this brown landscape.

nemopanthus mucronatusAnd a bit here too with the berries on Nemopanthus mucronatus (soon to be Ilex mucronatus).

When it snows, I’ll get the camera out. Fresh snow makes me think black and white, shadows, texture. Bright sun and sky, bright snow, dark trees. The contrast of evergreens and red berries, the outlines highlighted by frost. I’m not really ready for it, still savoring the wonderful Thanksgiving week I had. Maybe by Solstice I’ll be dreaming of a white Christmas, camera in hand. What catches your eye at this time of year?

Good Help Is….

I was thumbing through a copy of “The New Organic Grower” by Eliot Coleman the other day. (This little book, which was published in 1989, is worth a read, just for attitude!) What caught my eye was: “A good employee who is familiar with your operation is worth three who are not.” Obviously this is true, and it is one of the  challenges of working in an educational setting. Students come and go! I have often wished I could just hire a particular student to work with me as a regular employee, but that’s not how it is. They work part time, in between classes. They take time off during exams (first week of May–how inconvenient!). They find jobs “at home” and move away. They graduate!

This year, I have been really fortunate to have great students working with me, and plenty of help. I have three volunteers, and three student employees. A few of them worked with me last year and that is where the work that goes into training a new employee really pays off –when they stay and become the one who is “familiar with your operation”. So, let me introduce them and their answers to the question “What do you like about working in the Gardens/Greenhouse?”

laurenLauren is a senior from South Kingstown, RI, studying Studio Art with a double minor in Horticulture and Italian (!). She was an intern at the Phipps Conservatory last summer, came back to URI in September offering to volunteer at the Gardens, and was quickly offered a student employee position. Lauren said, “I like working at the greenhouse because it is very rewarding and I learn things every time I’m here.” She is a fearless slayer of insects.

AdamAdam is a junior from Cumberland, RI, studying Horticulture. He came to the Greenhouse looking for a job, any job, decided he liked it, and stayed. Adam said, “I like working at the Garden, because, along with providing work that is rewarding, it gives me a place to “escape” to. Devoid of the typical hustle and bustle sensibilities, it lets me be myself and work with very interesting people who I thoroughly enjoy and respect.” If you see Adam, ask him what’s on the ipod.

denniseDennise is a senior from Pawtucket, RI, studying Animal Science, pre-Vet. She is a dedicated volunteer who also volunteers with the Biocontrol program here at the greenhouse. Dennise said, “For all the years I’ve spent at URI, the Garden has served as an escape from the madness that surrounds college life. It reminds me to sit still and be patient because, not unlike the foliage surrounding those weathered but sturdy benches, growth takes time. Every seed planted holds a promise of a new beginning, if given the proper care. This is why it is an honor for me to be a part of a process that reminds me to continue to grow despite rough weather. In the classroom, we are constantly urged to “wake up and smell the coffee”, but I’ve found it far more rewarding to “stop and smell the flowers”.”  In addition to animals and plants, Dennise loves music and plays the piano.

benBen is a sophomore from South Kingstown, RI, studying Landscape Architecture. He spent last summer working 60-70 hours a week for a high end landscaping company near Albany, NY. Ben said, “I like learning about the care and maintenance of plants in the greenhouse setting. It gives me a lot of real world experience that I don’t find in the classroom.” He is planning to start his own landscape construction business.

samanthaSamantha is a junior from Washington, DC, studying Environmental Science. She began volunteering last year and came back again in September to continue. Samantha said, “Volunteering at the Greenhouse is a great way to learn more about plants and how to complete tasks like propagating and pruning. It is also a way for me to decompress and take a break from my stressful week.” Samantha came to Rhode Island hoping for more snowy, wintery winters than in Washington.

As I was beginning this post, another volunteer, Emily, told me that she wouldn’t be able to come in any more until next semester. I know, school comes first, that’s why you are here! So a special thanks to all of you who help us keep the Gardens and Greenhouses looking good and running smoothly.

We’d Rather be Outside

Yesterday, Dr. Brian Maynard’s Landscape Management and Arboriculture class had a great day of hands-on experience.  The students planted six very large flowering shrubs in the Botanical Gardens. The area had been shady before removing some trees to let more sunlight into the greenhouses (“Here Comes Sunshine“). We dug out the shade-loving plants to go elsewhere and were left with an open, mostly sunny space.

empty garden bed

Empty (weedy) garden bed along fire lane looking west toward Pharmacy building.

large shrubs dug and burlapped

Looking east with holes dug and plants waiting.

Seven really large shrubs — a few Viburnums, an Ilex verticillata, and an unusual plant called Cyrilla racemiflora were brought up to the Botanical Gardens from East Farm.  URI’s L&G helped with a bit of prep and then the fun began.

PLS 306 class

“On your mark”…Dr. Maynard explaining the logistics of moving plants weighing hundreds of pounds.


“Get set”…




After the class had planted and watered in the shrubs, they continued: half the students raked up the area, and half helped me dig peonies out of another garden. Then the peonies were planted near the outer (sunnier) edges of the bed along with Siberian irises.  When everything was watered in and cleaned up, they were kind enough to pose for a group picture.


PLS 306, October 2013

I was impressed by their hard work and how everyone pitched in — no standing around! I am really looking forward to seeing this beautiful new area bloom in the spring. Thanks, everyone.