Voices of the Bay: Bristol’s Lee Ann Freitas

The director of the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center wants you to ditch your rake this fall

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Lee Ann Freitas, director of the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center, has an infectious enthusiasm for ecology. The Bristol resident encourages even the most indifferent gardener through her common sense explanations of horticulture. She has worked in fine and vegetable gardening for over 30 years and has a degree in horticulture from URI. Her graduate studies focused on soil microbiology and ecology. For eight years, Freitas owned and operated Indie Growers, a one-acre urban farm that sold flowers and produce.

CITY ESCAPE: The Botanical Center sits along 45 acres on Pleasure Lake. It is the largest indoor glass house display garden in New England. Fifteen different types of palm trees reach the top of 45-foot-high ceilings. This tranquil refuge is best experienced in the middle of winter. There are chairs, tables, and free WiFi for desk jockeys looking for a change of scenery. Moms bring their little ones for some exploratory play with nature. Connecting people to nature, our mission, gives me my greatest joy. It is not my job to tell you how to connect to nature. It is my job to give you as many opportunities to find your pathway to connect to it.

LET IT BEE: My philosophy is you can have horticulture and still have conservation at the same time. To have a true pollinator garden, you need a mix of native plants to support a population of bees and insects. At the center we push the limit with what people expect to see – such as perfectly cropped roses and deadheaded plants – that is not what we do; we have a mix. I leave two of my four outside beds as is so the seeds feed the birds throughout the season. We keep the leaves to have overwintering wasps next year as well as mason and sweat bees. All of these are so important to our ecosystem.

ENCOURAGE THE FIREFLY: Leave your leaf litter! It can take up to six weeks for a firefly to find a mate. They lay their eggs in the leaves, hiding them in the hollow stems from mason bees. If you leave the leaf litter, you’ll sit in your yard with fireflies and mud dauber wasps rather than mosquitoes!

MOW, DON’T BLOW: Leaf blowing and raking can kill an entire ecosystem. Mowing in the leaves during the fall allows them to decompose in the grass. Or, rake whole leaves into your garden beds. In the spring, put compost on top. My son prefers to put leaves in a metal can, weed whack them into little pieces, and spread them in the beds. If you educate people enough and they understand they are killing an entire ecosystem with actions like leaf blowing and raking, I think they will hopefully make the best decision that works for them.

PLACE OF HEALING: We work with West Bay Collaborative who have folks with different capabilities. There are folks who may walk, look, or speak differently but are very capable. They come to the Botanical Center and tell us what they see is very healing. Who doesn’t heal in this environment?

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