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Invasive Plant Management Trainings

On Friday, October 20th, 2023, fifty professionals from across the industry entered the majestic Barn at Weeden Farm, the home of South Kingstown Land Trust off Matunuck Beach Road. Among the attendees were twenty five RINLA member staff people and apprentices, excited to partake in this year’s Invasive Plant Management Training, facilitated by the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension’s educator extraordinaire, Kate Venturini Hardesty. Attendees had the choice of two optional tracks, one for personal enrichment and the other for professional certification. Accompanied by a host of resources provided by Kate, trainees participated in a full day of presentations and workshops delivered by a selection of speakers with unique experiences working directly with the removal of invasive plants. 

Tom Groves, Senior Botanist with BSC Group and enthusiastic educator behind @plants.are.people.too, was present to emphasize the importance of using only native plants in the landscape, in order to maintain the natural variety of any given ecosystem. He encouraged the use of apps to identify exciting finds on one’s daily walkabouts and offered seasoned advice on effective techniques to remove persistent and domineering plants that are crowding out native flora. Suggestions included utilizing RIGIS and LiDAR technologies for capturing consistent field data to assist with planning landscapes, and solocator for measuring and recording change over time. He championed utilizing digital herbariums and iNaturalist as resources to expand one’s plant knowledge and contribute one’s own findings. 

Michael Bald, owner of Got Weeds?, presented on chemical free approaches to invasives removal. A lifelong Vermonter, he got his start working for the White River Partnership as a Volunteer Coordinator, followed by the US Tree Service, focusing his efforts on sustainability and even serving as a wildland firefighter. As a dedicated educator with unique sensibility, he demonstrated the importance of engaging the community on local projects, promoting awareness and instilling a sense of universal land stewardship. As a systems thinker, he advocated for professionals to weigh the end goal as heavily as the steps taken to achieve it. He was particularly keen in suggesting the practice of utilizing what was naturally available in the landscape and creatively recycling waste material from work sites. Even more impressive was a two-page walkthrough on how to think about and maintain safety on the trails!

Bruce Wenning, Horticulturist at The Country Club and member of the Board of Directors for the Ecological Landscaping Alliance, also teaches at Arlington Community Education in Massachusetts. Gracing us by not only taking time out of his tightly booked schedule but by making us laugh, Bruce was a welcome presenter in the mix. A wealth of knowledge on equipment, he covered everything he could in the time allotted. His suggestions? Felco and Corona hand pruners. Folding saws with replacement blades. Mechanical woody plant pullers from and soil knives from forestry suppliers. Weeding hoes and 3-pronged claw mattocks. Mowers: gas-powered pole pruners, box mowers and brush. And, having organized several volunteer invasive plant removal projects with youth, he also suggests not expecting them to return for the following year!

That brings us to Jackie Magnan, for a complete breath of fresh air! If you haven’t heard of goatscaping, then please check out The Sanctuary of Hope, a nonprofit run by Jackie and her partner Wayne Pitman. Goatscaping is the practice of organizing herds of goats to strategically eat through overgrown landscapes, cutting down on the time it would take human crews to clear the growth. While goats do have a few allergies and aversions to some plants, the majority of invasive plant material is an open buffet for them, and a gang of seventeen goats can clear a field of Japanese Knotweed in an afternoon. The landscape needing to be mowed down does not need to be level either, or even close to the ground. Goats are perfect climbers, and actually prefer areas that are hard to reach for humans, including craggy mountain sides and cliffs with overhangs. Jackie was keen to mention that goats are naturally mischievous animals and for this reason she and her team must supervise the packs of goats throughout their workdays. If you check out the links to her website, you’ll see how her humans and goats travel together, Magic School Bus style. 

Of course the training would not have been complete without some words of wisdom from the facilitator herself, Kate Venturini Hardesty. She made sure to hit home the importance of biodiversity in the plant world, encouraging everyone in the room to pay special attention to plant density and layering when managing a landscape. She wanted everyone to be mindful of seasonality, shapes, bloom times and nectar, while making planting considerations, and to consider what might change in years to come and plan accordingly.

Leah Feldman and Amy Silva from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council were also present and delivered an introduction into the policies that their organization is tasked with enforcing. They also stuck around as the attendees broke into two classes, one a workshop facilitated by the pair, the other a discovery walkabout through the landtrust with Tom Groves. Those who stayed were interested in qualifying as Certified Invasive Managers within the state of Rhode Island and needed more training on working within coastal zones. Participants were then required to pass a take home test before obtaining their certifications.

The two-day course did not end there. For the second part of our Invasives Management training, RINLA partnered with the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NBNERR) to offer a day in the field putting newly learned theory into action. Nineteen professionals, made up of business owners, apprentices, and RINLA staff, joined Jon Mitchell, Stewardship Coordinator, and Caitlin Chafee, Reserve Manager, for NBNERR on Prudence Island for a full day of invasives removal across select hotspots.

I’d like to take a moment to recognize those who participated in this segment of the training, because – as you will hear shortly – this was no cake walk. Joining Christie, Jordan, Caitlin, Jon and me on Saturday, October 21, 2023 were:

Chad Johnson, owner of GreenerEase

Peron Davis, owner of Design By Vision Landscaping 

Hannah Reali, Arturo Rodriguez Carrillo and Sonja Lemoi of Wild & Scenic

Julia Surdam of Golden Root Gardening

Jace Becker and Morgan Alexander of Stanley Tree

Brian McLay of Katherine Field & Associates

Trevor Tetlow of Robin Hollow and Greenview Farm

Annalee DiDonato, Amber Smith-Simmons and Reed Tharas of Aquidneck Landworks

Corinne Charpentier and Chris Pickering of Fleurs

Ryan Maguire of Dana Designs

If you don’t already know, Prudence Island is one of four islands in Narragansett Bay and certainly the largest of them. While it is inhabited by only a couple hundred individuals, the majority of the island consists of wild forest and coastal habitats. The deer population is notable, as are the rising populations of various species of tick. It is strongly advised you suit up with some form of repellant and to pull your socks over the bottoms of your pants, cover any exposed skin and wear layers to keep the bloodsuckers off of you. You can find more helpful information and guidance here.

Much of its territory being untouched by human civilization, Prudence Island lends itself well to the study of nature and for experiments in conservation. The Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a partnership program established between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has made its home here. Featuring 4,453 acres of terrestrial and submerged land on Prudence, Patience Hope and Dyer islands, the Reserve’s mission is to preserve, protect, and restore coastal and estuarine ecosystems of Narragansett Bay through long-term research, education and training. Its headquarters and visitor center are located on the south end of Prudence Island.

This is where we met up with Jon and Caitlin, who make up a team of ten professionals working to enact NBNERR’s mission. Our goal for the day was to work with them to learn about how invasive plant species have dominated certain areas of the island, sometimes completely crowding out native flora that once thrived there. Tasked with identifying both native and invasives in the land, our team’s mission was to assist Jon and Caitlin with the strategic removal of problematic species, meanwhile helping to inform a long term plan to allow native species to reclaim the land.

Of course, the day was long and arduous. Across seven hours of relentless downpour, our crews piled into vans and visited two different sites on Prudence Island, witnessing vast overgrowth of autumn olive, black swallowwort, bittersweet, non-native barberry, tree of heaven and more. Identifying the telltale signs of the autumn olive bush, from its crowns of grayish green leaves to its silvery and scaly underleaf, not to mention its clusters of either speckly silver or red berries, we cut them down to stumps which we then dabbed with herbicide to stunt regrowth. The sea of bushes were also entangled with wiry black swallowwort vines, which we also hacked down. Filling three truckloads of felled debris, we unloaded them back at headquarters to be disposed of.

The final site was a public park overlooking the marshes to the northwestern side of the island. Where a garden of specimen trees sat, a forest of bittersweet loomed from behind, with thick stems (some as fat as three inches) reminiscent of a jungle. Making quick work to dismember the swallowwort, by cutting the stem from the root with two parallel cuts, leaving plenty of space in between to deter reconnection, our crews navigated the overgrowth with precision. While hunting for the remnants of the native plants that once flourished at the site, we were presented with an overabundance of the non-native invaders, including Japanese barberry and tree of heaven.

The work that day was as demanding as it was educational. Under Jon and Caitlin’s leadership, the expertise of our crewmembers elevated the level of work being completed, as well as the conversations during lunch break. We received an overview of the history of the Narragansett Islands, coupled with a vision for the future regarding environmental stewardship. The future of the islands’ ecosystems depends heavily on the intervention of professionals like ourselves and Jon Mitchell and Caitlin Chafee. With global warming threatening the advancing of salt water, marshes are looking at being demolished, which would greatly reduce biodiversity across all affected areas. With invasive species already thriving and monopolizing their environments, rising temperatures and seawater will make it even harder for native plants to survive. It’s because of these concerns that the NBNERR and RINLA will continue to collaborate on possible interventions and creative solutions to maintain our precious ecosystems. Stay tuned for follow up excursions!

Written by Mason Billings

Photographs by Chad Johnson, Jordan Miller and Mason Billings