What do moving grasses, the play of light and the odor of mint and thyme have to do with easing stress? A lot, says Thomas Benjamin.
And what might be the role of the same plants in addressing an operating budget, controlling stormwater runoff and the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic?
Again, Benjamin, a landscape architect with the Regenerative Design Group of Greenfield, Mass., says a lot.
On the hottest day of the year thus far, Benjamin took a contingent of EPA, Coastal Resources Management Council, Department of Environmental Management and URI officials on a tour of the Kent Hospital campus last Thursday morning. One would have imagined everyone would be anxious to get to the air-conditioned hospital auditorium for Benjamin’s closing remarks. That wasn’t the case, and as attendees discovered not only can sustainable landscapes provide a “sense of place” and benefit the environment while reducing maintenance costs, they can also be cool and inviting, even when muggy temperatures are in the 90s.
The Breast Center rain garden was actually comfortable – inviting – as an impassioned Benjamin talked about plant root systems, drainage and impervious walkways.
He said the center entrance, or for that matter the hospital itself, can be a stressful place when patients and families enter to learn a diagnosis or treatment.
He pointed to tall switch and feather weed grasses.
“That swaying can hopefully give that feeling that peace abides here,” he said. It is more than that. The garden’s plants haven been chosen so that there is a succession of blooms. “It’s designed to give the most eye candy for as long as possible.”
Yet, this is not a garden where potted plants are being introduced, only to be dug up and replaced as soon as they are out of bloom. The roots of the switch grasses are deep and act like sponges to runoff water. Other plants have been introduced to give the garden diversity but, after being given a start, are left on their own.
Benjamin stepped back from the walkway and climbed a small embankment that is anchored by a mature oak
“We’re now getting into the ‘woodies,’” he said, pointing out a shrub called red spray winterberry. He says the native plant can take shade or sun and provides a bright red display in the fall. Chipmunks have moved in, birds are plentiful and there’s a constant chorus from the shrubbery and trees.
A narrow strip between the walkway and road did not offer such a friendly environment.
Here, the sun beat down with no relief. During heavy rain, water pours into the area from the street and the walk and, in the winter, this is where piles of snow laced with salt accumulate.
Benjamin has introduced a number of plants capable of taking the punishment, such as Russian sage and native golden rod, to absorb storm runoff and, at the same time, be low maintenance.
That’s an important consideration. Kent has only one full-time groundskeeper, Al Coelho, who oversees the 40-acre campus. Coelho, who joined the tour, is enthusiastic by the development of sustainable landscaping, although he doesn’t see himself spending any less time on maintenance.
When the plants were introduced to what Benjamin called a “bioswale” between the road and walk, they were given fertilizer and the care needed to ensure survival. Once established, however, the area was pretty much left alone because continuing to fertilize would only create healthy weeds.
Benjamin, who is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) expert, was retained by Kent in its effort started in 2003 to maximize stormwater filtration and ecological and aesthetic appeal of the hospital’s green spaces. He is involved in developing a master landscape plan, to guide the transition of remaining conventionally landscaped parts of the campus to more sustainable landscaping. The plan should be final this year and will be implemented over the next five years with the goal that all landscaped areas meet the guidelines for sustainability.
Benjamin said pesticides are used minimally, if at all. That’s been taken care of naturally. But it hasn’t been entirely a matter of letting Mother Nature take over.
With woods on three sides, the hospital gets its share of visiting deer that can make quick work of plantings. Plants at the Plaza of Honor that backs up to the woods have been carefully selected for not being appetizing to deer.