Growing pains

Growing pains

URI Master Gardeners, from left, Linda Bausserman, Sherry Dzamba, Anne Faulkner and Susan Rezendes pose at the Slater Mill gardens in Pawtucket. Pictured in the foreground is the herb garden. (Photo courtesy of Todd McLeish)
Master Gardeners search for solutions to hungry animal visitors at Slater Mill

PAWTUCKET – As a group of gardeners tends to their plants on the campus of the historic Slater Mill in downtown Pawtucket, they’re also learning how to cohabitate with some hungry animals who have been consistently snacking on their hard work.

First the woodchucks moved in, followed by the rabbits, who nibble on the heirloom vegetables and cotton plants that a group of University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners maintain on the historic property.

“We have to coexist with nature,” said URI Master Gardener Sherry Dzamba last Saturday during a tour of the garden.

The original woodchuck they named Dylan, after poet Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” since they found him hanging out under the milkweed in the garden, explained URI Master Gardener Anne Faulkner, co-leader of the project at Slater Mill along with Dzamba.

They suspect there’s now more than one woodchuck living on site and that perhaps the original Dylan is no longer alive, while the bunnies, they said, nest under a shed next to the Sylvanus Brown House. While the animals don’t bother Dzamba because they leave her herb garden alone, Faulkner is more frustrated with them for eating her plants.

Dzamba, of Providence, explained that the herbs are varieties that would have been introduced by Native Americans to the colonists and they work as natural pest deterrents.

Dylan likes to munch on the milkweed and tansy, said Faulkner, a former Pawtucket resident. The rabbits have been eating the heirloom vegetables and marigolds. She said she tried using an animal repellent but after one or two weeks, it didn’t seem to make a difference. “I’m very discouraged,” she said.

A team of volunteers tends to the garden twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

In 2015, the Master Gardeners were invited to care for the gardens, which hadn’t been tended to for several years. Initially Beverly Burgess and Linda McDaniel were responsible for the garden and planted heirloom vegetables. Faulkner and Dzamba took over in 2018, and their current group has added a variety of plants that represent the textile industry: white, brown and green cotton, flax for making linen, and numerous flowers and plants that would have been used to make dyes.

In 2018, Faulkner said, they didn’t have any animals hanging around so the garden was big and full of plants. Dylan first appeared in 2019 while the rabbits moved in last year, she said. Dzamba said she believes the groundhog used to live in a drain hole at the end of the parking lot but when some construction took place, he lost his habitat and moved into the garden bank, noting there are about six to seven holes he’s created in the bank.

Visitors often stop by and ask where the groundhog is, so people have seen him wandering about the garden, Dzamba said. She and Faulkner said they suspect people may be feeding the animal.

“Everybody who comes by says they’re seeing more rabbits,” Faulkner added. “There’s a population boom for some reason.”

The two women said they’re currently figuring out how to best protect the plants from the animals and are taking note of what they aren’t eating so they can plant more of those. They’re also moving away from planting vegetables to focusing more on dyes and herbs, they said. The woodchucks and rabbits don’t seem to like the dye plants, and visitors seem more interested in learning about cotton and flax than turnips, Faulkner said.

“We’re working on it,” she said. “We don’t know the answer yet.”

As one solution, Dzamba noted, they’re growing tobacco plants around a bed of cotton plants to serve as a deterrent to the animals. Tobacco, she added, fits in with the historic nature of the garden as it was an important herbal plant for the colonists who enjoyed their snuff.

Both Dzamba and Faulkner said that despite the vermin problem, they do enjoy their time working on the garden. “It’s a peaceful place to spend time,” Dzamba said. “It’s a nice place to garden in the middle of all the concrete of the city.”

Other volunteers include Susan Rezendes, of Pawtucket, and Linda Bausserman, of Greenville, who said they joined the project in part to learn more about the dye, fiber and medicinal plants at the site and to share that knowledge with visitors. “I wanted to see how people lived hundreds of years ago and see how we might incorporate those practices today,” said Rezendes. “I also like getting my hands in the soil. It allows me to connect with nature.”

The National Park Service took over the Slater Mill campus earlier this year, and the Master Gardeners said they are hopeful that conversations with the rangers and interpreters will lead to new ideas about how the garden can be incorporated into the site’s educational programming and public tours.

“The National Park Service is excited to work with community stewards such as the URI Master Gardeners at Old Slater Mill to protect this priceless historic resource and teach our visitors about Pawtucket’s amazing history,” said Andrew Schnetzer, a ranger at the park.

The Slater Mill garden is one of more than two dozen community garden projects that URI Master Gardeners tend to and use to educate people about environmentally sound gardening practices and to provide food for those in need, states a press release from URI.

The Master Gardeners will host soil testing and have a kiosk set up to answer questions at Slater Mill on Saturdays, Aug. 14, Sept. 11, and Oct. 9, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

URI Master Gardener Sherry Dzamba shows off one of six or seven holes their resident groundhog visitor has made in the garden bank at Slater Mill. (Breeze photo by Melanie Thibeault)