URI Master Gardeners boost food production, gardening education at Norman Bird Sanctuary garden

URI Master Gardener Amanda Ward (left) and Kaity Ryan, executive director of the Norman Bird Sanctuary, harvest radishes and lettuce at the sanctuary’s garden. (Photo by Todd McLeish)

Staff and volunteers at the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown were struggling to maintain the vegetable gardens next to the sanctuary’s visitor center until Master Gardeners trained by the University of Rhode Island were invited to take it over in 2017. Today, the Good Gardens – as they are called – have been expanded, play an important educational role at the sanctuary’s summer camps, and provide abundant produce to campers and clients at the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center in Newport.

“The Master Gardeners have completely transformed the garden,” said sanctuary Executive Director Kaity Ryan. “They’re an amazing resource to have overseeing this program during our busiest time of the year.”

The revitalization of the Good Gardens began when Newport resident Amanda Ward offered to redesign the gardens after becoming a Master Gardener.

“We took the old garden all the way down to the soil, then built it back up with raised beds, in-ground perennial beds, and a deer and rabbit fence,” said Ward, who leads the four-person team of Master Gardeners that works the site two or three times each week. “Environmental sustainability is part of our host’s mission, so the garden is all organic.”

A year later, the gardeners redesigned the hoop house – a modified greenhouse – to enable them to start plants earlier in the season and continue growing them into the winter. And this year they are testing hugelkultur, a German gardening practice that involves growing plants on a tall mound of decaying logs, branches and garden debris topped with soil.

“It’s our new experiment for the year,” Ward said. “It’s a sustainable gardening method that supplies nutrients and retains moisture as the mound breaks down. Once we get it started, we shouldn’t have to do much to keep it going.”

The main garden features 30 raised beds, two native plant beds and two herb beds, which together grow more than two dozen varieties of vegetables and herbs, from spinach and arugula to peas, carrots, soybeans, squash and bok choy.

“We try to plant a little of everything,” Ward said. “We have a let’s-try-it-and-see-what-happens attitude. If we get positive results, great. If it dies, we pull it out and put something else in.”

It’s Ward’s experimental attitude that keeps her gardening team – Ann Brouillette of Bristol, Janet Sells of Middletown and Karen Wright of Portsmouth – returning week after week.

“I keep coming back because Amanda is fun,” said Wright. “There’s never just one way to do things and be successful, so it’s fun to have the freedom to try new things. And it’s been really successful. We raise a lot of produce, and that’s very enriching.”

Last year, the gardeners donated about 1,100 pounds of produce to the Martin Luther King Center, and despite getting a late start due to the pandemic, they hope to donate even more this year.

The Master Gardeners also designed a story-time corner into the garden to support educational programs for children. Participants in the sanctuary’s summer camps, as well as children from the Martin Luther King Center, visit the garden regularly to read stories about vegetables and spend time planting or harvesting the vegetables they read about.

“We’ve done programs on edible flowers and pollinators and sensory lessons on how different herbs smell and feel,” said Ward. “The kids even make organic pesticide out of garlic, onions, jalapenos, oil and water, and they spray it on the vegetable leaves to keep the aphids and other harmful insects away.”…[Read more]