Dedicated to the Preservation and Stewardship of Historic
Blackstone Park Conservation District and Boulevard.
“We have a short window in which to get started between the end of grass growing and when the snow flies,” says Bob McMahon, superintendent of the Providence Department of Parks and Recreation. On a gusty day in late October that promises rain, with two landscape architects and five Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC) volunteers he is inspecting Blackstone Boulevard. In between mowing and leaf removal–two demanding seasonal tasks–early fall is a good time to focus on pruning, tree-planting, and path restoration.
Pivoting to the Boulevard from the 45-acre Blackstone Park Conservation District (BPCD) after the recent completion of a large trail restoration project represents triage of a sort. Ideally, both Blackstone parks would enjoy full-time management, but the stewardship partners are stretched thin. Over 100 city parks require the department’s attention and the Conservancy is perennially short of volunteers.
There is one saving grace to moving slowly, however: it offers an opportunity to test innovative solutions in small areas, and then to invest in the ones that work. In heavily used parks where humans and nature hold sway, this is an especially helpful approach to the problem of stormwater management challenging the Blackstone parks. The question is, What can best withstand pounding rain and feet?
Repairing and refreshing gardens – In the South Garden, volunteers point out the damage wreaked on several yews by a truck careening through the bottom end this summer. Next the superintendent checks out the new planting funded by Senator Donna Nesselbush and organized by the BPC that he had approved in plan. Volunteers also show him a mountain laurel and a clethra donated from a supporter’s garden, and he quickly approves a BPC proposal to add several low-bush blueberries in the bare north end of the South garden.
Trees - Deming Sherman, acting treasurer of the BPC and keeper of the new tree list, matches new donors and tree choices with landscape architect Joel Booden, a recently retired department employee who is volunteering today. An eastern redbud is suggested for the tree a young couple might donate to celebrate the birth of their new baby, Alexander. In Taiwan, where they come from, planting a tree on such occasions is a custom.
Pruning – In several places enormous 40-year-old yews in the Boulevard Park extend over sidewalks, interfering with pedestrian movement or safety. To improve visibility, pruning orders are given to landscape architect Ed Sanchez.
Next, the superintendent points out that the statue memorializing young Constance Witherby is being eclipsed by overgrown holly bushes and cedar trees. He asks that the canopy around statue be raised by “limbing up” the trees and that the bushes be pruned to give the popular statue some breathing room and more visibility.
Fixing Paths –The superintendent plans to address the deteriorating center path early next year. He wants to try out a new surface material designed both to stabilize paths and to allow for water absorption in the worst area on the Boulevard, at Lorimer Street.
A novice might wonder why the path can’t be fixed directly, but the landscape architects explain that good drainage must be in place before the path is fixed. Mapping grades are needed first. The possibility of adding a small rain garden to absorb water to the east of the path just north of Irving Avenue is suggested.
The stabilizing material the superintendent wants to test is expensive, and installation is challenging. McMahon says the department will try to get a discount on the material. Apparently, Blithewold Manor has had some installed, so BPC volunteers consider a field trip to inspect it.
Wrapping up the visit, the superintendent says they’ll get going right away on what was discussed today and start with pruning. He asks the landscape architects to get grades and photos of the five or six areas already discussed, which they estimate will take two days. Winter will provide time to plan it out and get suppliers lined up, he adds. Depending on when the spring rains end, a tentative rough schedule might be March to late April. If all goes well, path work can begin six to eight weeks later, sometime in May.
Moses Brown’s AP science class expected their first field trip to Blackstone Park Conservation District in September to be interesting and possibly fun. They didn’t anticipate being doubled over laughing when a boy in waders in water up to his knees in the middle of York Pond casually took one step and was suddenly into water up to his chest–the pond’s full depth.
This slapstick moment was perhaps not the sort of immersion science teacher Tara Tsakraklides had in mind when she decided to let this year’s class directly experience their adoptive park before giving them classroom work. But at the same time it typified the kind of connection with the woodland and ponds beside the Seekonk River she wanted the students to make on that sparkling fall day. Instead of having experts come lecture them at school first, as was done last year, she decided to get them into the Park right away.
“We have a charge that’s been given to us,” says Tsakraklides. Collaborating with the Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC) her students are studying the Park ecology with an emphasis on stormwater and the 380-acre watershed that feeds into York Pond and the river. The students will pass their knowledge on to the public in hopes of inspiring more caretakers of the Park.
Early that morning City Forester Doug Still had led the students out of the Moses Brown campus onto Lloyd Avenue and down the long hill of the watershed, stopping now and then to identify and analyze a tree. The skill of observation is one that the teacher hopes the teenagers will develop during this year.
At the Conservation District, BPC board members described the Park’s beginnings in 1866 and some of the highs and lows of its history. Next, the class inspected the trail restoration project in the center section funded by Rhode Island environmental agencies* and managed by the Parks Department and BPC volunteers.
In addition to rebuilding trails that erosion had carved as deeply as two feet in places, the trail project involves planting to keep soil in place when storms come. Unfortunately, this work requires temporary snow fencing to protect tender plants. Board member Margaret Brookner pointed out grasses and wildflowers that have regenerated thanks to protection provided by split rail fences installed by BPC and Appalachian Mountain Club volunteers several years ago and indicated areas scoured clean of plants and topsoil by punishing rains that plants would soon fill in.
In the South section across Angell Street, Still described how Norway maples imported for city streets were pushing out the more valuable native trees out of the woodland, thereby damaging the entire web of life that depends on them. The Parks Department is gradually removing Norway maple saplings in an attempt to give natives a chance to regain their strength. Moving too quickly, Still explained, could simply boost the survival of the faster-spreading, faster-growing invasives.
In afternoon visits to York Pond and Hockey Pond, the class collected samples of water and duckweed, then hiked up the almost dry ravine where the park had begun nearly 150 years ago, a legacy of the Moses Brown family. Discovering an occasional treasure along the way—a locked box, a wallet–they ventured into the tunnel under Butler Avenue for a way before turning back. They decided they had had a full day.
Some children growing up get to spend time in natural settings, to explore, have adventures, and reap the many benefits that spending time outdoors can bring. Increasingly, however, many do not. It is this “nature deficit,” with all its implications for human health and for the future of natural spaces that the BPC is trying to dent.
*Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC),
Visit the south garden below Irving Avenue, newly refurbished thanks to a grant from RI Senator Donna Nesselbush and work by BPC volunteers. And enjoy all the gardens recently weeded by volunteers and mulched with donations from BPC supporters.
A Note of Thanks, to Sally Godfrey, a local gardener helping out with the Forest Health Works habitat planting on Angell Street.
After a busy spring and summer focusing on the woods, the Blackstone Parks Conservancy is pivoting back to the Boulevard in anticipation of the snow and ice that bedevil the center path much loved by runners and walkers. In August and September especially, the gardens needed tending; the South garden required removing weeds and bedraggled plants and installing new ones, a project made possible by a $1,500 grant from RI Senator Donna Nesselbush.
Fortunately for both parks, several volunteers, some new, stepped forward just when they were most needed. A call for help for the crabgrass-beset Trolley Shelter garden drew three experienced gardeners: Pam Lietar, Cynthia Bertozzi, and Peg McGowan.
Seasoned volunteers who have served the parks for many years, Don Cordner and Margaret Brookner, came to the rescue both in the Blackstone Park Conservation District and on the Boulevard at a time when several other volunteers of long standing were sidelined by illness. Don and Margaret were crucial to the successful completion of the spring section of the Trails Project sponsored by Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council. They are also overseeing the fall planting begun in September.
Nancy Nowak, Anna Browder, and Mary Dennis, continued to look after the Forest Health Works Project on Angell Street. In this small planting, as in the larger conservation district, the emphasis is on native plants, which, in contrast to invasive species, are an asset to the environment.
Invasive plant species continue to be a major target of Conservancy activities, and for this we also depend on volunteers. Carrie Drake and Elena Riverstone collaborated in organizing and leading volunteers from the following groups this summer: EastSide Marketplace; Moses Brown high school students; and UNIFI – a natural foods….;
Immanuel United Church of Christ; Johnson & Wales Residence Advisors. A recent individual volunteer, Sam Bell, has begun helping out as well.
If your name belongs on this list and has been overlooked, please let us know. Also, if you have a little time to help in the planning and management side of running the Conservancy, please get in touch with us at the website above. There is always room on the Boulevard, Park, and Education committees. One or two new board members willing to attend eleven brief monthly meetings would also be welcome.
On a sparkling Saturday in late September, a Save the Bay boat gave eager passengers rides up the Seekonk River for the second year running. Suzanne Paton of US Fish and Wildlife pointed out some of the river’s many fish and birds, including an osprey, a bald eagle, great blue herons, and a kingfisher. As if on cue, the fish were surfacing and gulls and cormorants were going after them.
Jointly sponsored by the Blackstone Parks conservancy, Save the Bay, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the event drew about 80 people, many of them children. It was a chance to see the river and bordering woodlands from a vantage point normally glimpsed only by rowers.
Mushrooms were scarce, but people who wanted to learn about them were abundant on the August 16th Blackstone Parks Conservancy sponsored Mushroom Trail Walk. The traditional cap and stalk mushrooms’ preference for moist, dark places is well known. In a summer full of sun and little rain, they don’t produce fruit, which is the part we see and call a mushroom.
But the trail walk group was undeterred upon hearing that only two mushrooms had been seen in the entire center section of the conservation district the day before. Despite gloomy reports, we set off hoping to find some mushrooms ton which we could apply our new information on how to identify mushrooms. Due to the bright eyes and enthusiasm of the children, we were able to examine seven mushrooms in all. (By way of contrast, throughout the whole of August 2011, a bumper year for mushrooms, I photographed 44 different types of mushrooms in the same location as the one we walked this year.)
Thanks to all who attended for their interest and enthusiasm.
Elena Riverstone, BPC Volunteer
Down on River Road by the Seekonk River, children’s voices filled the air at Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC) Saturday events. Above on weekdays, workmen operating heavy machinery and wielding shovels finished the long-awaited repair and upgrade of trails in record time. BPC volunteers overseeing the events below and the project above worked long hours. And that was just June in the Blackstone Park Conservation District.
In July the ever-popular Trolley Shelter concert series began. Work on the overgrown South Garden at the foot of the Boulevard started with a grant from state Senator Donna Nesselbush. It is the latest of many years of enhancements by the Boulevard Committee led by Gale Aronson.
Stewardship and Children
As co-stewards with the Providence Parks Department of both the semi-wild park overlooking the Seekonk and the groomed Blackstone Boulevard Park, for years the BPC has focused mainly on physical care of these historic places. Maintenance of the two parks is both challenging and absorbing because of their fragile soils and heavy use by thousands of visitors.
Winning major grants from state environmental agencies made it possible this year not only to gain a meaningful foothold in the erosion-prone Conservation District, but also to finally bring education into this volunteer organization’s mission. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a natural fit.
The transformation began several years ago with Rhode Island Audubon Society- Providence After School Alliance classes in Blackstone Park with Nathan Bishop Middle School students taught by April Alix. The love these 12-14-year-olds showed for the park and their desire to protect it clearly demonstrated the Conservation District’s suitability as a place for children both to escape city pressures and to learn about nature–a place to play and learn at the same time.
Fortunately for the Conservancy, an early childhood specialist, Rick Richards, stepped forward in 2012 to chair the BPC’s new Education Committee and others experienced in early child development quickly joined him. They spent months mining the rich history and biology of the Park, organizing a trove of information for trail walks and for signs that could be accessed by smart phones, ever mindful of the need to train future stewards of this precious land. They reached out to people in spheres ranging from Indian lore to music to bird banding.
The committee’s months of work led to events last summer and this one that drew numbers of excited children and parents not seen in the Park for many years. The enthusiasm of the committee members is contagious.
Trail Upgrades and a New Entrance
While the Education Committee was establishing the Conservation District as the “GO TO place for kids,” the Park Committee and the Parks Department were shepherding to completion trail improvement plans that had been years in the making. Generous grants from Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and its Coastal Resources Management Council along with assistance from dedicated staff members in both agencies have now produced safer and more enjoyable center-section trails and a much enhanced entrance at Parkside and Angell streets.
Judging from the comments of many visitors, some of whom had been anxious over the prospect of change, most people have enjoyed the improved trails and the native plants installed in eroded areas to help keep soil in place. It all fits our vision of Healthy Urban Green Space for All.
Like many frequent visitors to Blackstone Park, Edie marvels at the expanse of nature at the edge of the city and overlooking the Seekonk River.
As reported in this column in March, “To Spray or Not To Spray,” winter moths were expected to expand along the Seekonk River and in Blackstone Park this year, but no one knew how serious the infestation would be. Now we know—it’s serious.
In early May tiny bright green caterpillars softly plopping onto the heads and shoulders of volunteers working in the Blackstone Park Conservation District signaled a major attack on Providence trees by the winter moth. Barely a centimeter long though they can reach an inch, and no thicker than thin string, the caterpillars appeared harmless, but they were not. Perforated spring leaves in the trees above testified to their appetites.
First eating buds from the inside out, then swinging from tree to tree on long silken threads to take more bites, the caterpillars made short work of many leaves before they vanished into the next phase of their cycle as pupae in the ground. In Providence the woodlands of Blackstone Park and Neutaconkanut Hill and nearby street trees were hit hardest, probably tempting the moths with “all that food” in one place, said City Forester Doug Still. A neighbor on Paterson Street found his oak trees stripped bare. The pest was an equal opportunity destroyer, going after the normally untouchable Norway maples, the invasive trees that cause so much harm to other flora.
With few exceptions, the Boulevard was spared this year but for a weeping cherry that was defoliated. Trees in this predicament will normally send out a second set of leaves.
Nothing can be done about the moths this season, says Still, but next winter it will be possible for homeowners to spray individual trees though even the most harmless known sprays can kill bees. Spraying the woodlands however, will not be possible.
The eventual hope for woodland trees, aside from birds or the arrival of another natural predator, may be the parasitic fly cyzenis albicans, which wasfirst introduced to Rhode Island at Goddard Park in 2011 by the University of Rhode Island (URI). More flies were released in Bristol and Jamestown in 2013, and in Cumberland, Kingstown and Jamestown in 2014.
Botanist Heather Faubert, research assistant in the Department of Plant Sciences at URI, who is managing winter moth bio-control in Rhode Island, speculates that the fly, which is present in Seekonk, may eventually spread to Providence. The success of this method of control in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts without unwanted collateral damage is encouraging, but takes time.