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Transition to Sustainability at Kent Hospital, Warwick, Rhode Island

by Nick Novick

Beginning about ten years ago, a significant portion of the landscape around Kent Hospital has been transformed from the common template of mostly maintenance-intensive lawn and beds of shrubs and annuals to a more sustainable model comprising stormwater retention, mostly native plants, and designs that are more self-sustaining.

Potentilla blooms in the rain garden in late spring.

Around 2003, the Hospital began a period of building expansion. This coincided with recently enacted government regulations governing stormwater management. The combination provided an opportunity for the Hospital to fulfill their facility needs while also meeting the requirements for managing stormwater to reduce pollution.

From Traditional to Sustainable

The Hospital decided to pursue a course which met these needs and mandates by developing a more sustainable landscape model that not only incorporated the necessary stormwater accommodations, but also eliminated much of the traditional maintenance inherent in the standard landscape model. Much of the traditional mulching, irrigation, pesticide treatment, pruning, etc. could be eliminated—with considerable savings in resources, including money—while also providing environmental benefits.

Landscape architect Tom Benjamin was initially retained to design the landscape areas connected to an addition to the Woman’s Imaging Center and improvements to the Emergency Department area. LEED accredited and experienced in stormwater management techniques, Tom incorporated on-site retention areas (rain gardens) that would collect runoff from roofs of the new building as well as from surrounding hard-paved areas in order to meet new state requirements.

Near the entrance canopy to Breast Health Center, the landscape emulates local coastal area plant communities while creating a soft, welcoming entrance space.

Keyed to elements of the building design, these planting designs comprise primarily native plants chosen to emulate the existing, local, coastal plant communities and also to provide aesthetic appeal and functional utility. Some nonnatives were included for functional, design, or aesthetic considerations.

The range of plants included canopy trees to provide shade; smaller, flowering trees and shrubs for edging; and low-growing grasses and wildflowers with season-long bloom to act as a weed-resistant ground cover. In addition to flower bloom, seasonal interest is also provided by spent seed heads, berries on woody plants, and tall grasses that remain standing into the fall and winter.

Seasonal interest continues into fall; Sugar Maple underplanted with Northern Sea Oats.

Other aspects of the early landscape renovations included a bio-retention swale along a road frontage and new plantings along roadways and in parking lot islands utilizing native and salt-tolerant grasses and shrubs.

Continuing with a Master Plan

Pleased with the benefits of this early work, Hospital management expanded the scope of the sustainable landscaping approach and committed to further design work with Tom to create a comprehensive Campus Landscape Master Plan that would continue and expand this model across the entire property. Planting for the next phase began around 2007, at which point Groundscapes Express, owned by John Engwer, was brought in to provide site-work services including soil amendment and plant installation.

Tough salt- and drought-resistant plants including Blue Hill Sage and Heavy Metal Switchgrass planted near road and entrance sign.

Projects in this phase of work included a healing Serenity Garden associated with a new Infusion Center that appropriated an existing warehouse structure. Views from the building open onto the garden space which includes a fountain to provide a soothing ambiance. Dense groundcover plants included fragrant herbs and medicinal species. Some parking space was removed to accommodate the garden, and rather than excavate the existing base and import soil as in commonly specified, the existing gravel base was amended with compost. Chosen for these particular conditions, plants thrived in this mix of paving base and compost.

The Plaza of Honor was added in 2010. This feature honors community members and donors to the Hospital and includes three large flag poles and a wall of memorial bricks. A 1,000-square-foot bio-retention area planted with native forbs and grasses collects and pretreats the entire 12,000-square-foot plaza area and surrounding walkways.

Landscape maintenance in peripheral areas was modified to encourage strengthening existing stands of Little Bluestem.

No permanent irrigation was installed in any of these newly developed and planted areas. Temporary irrigation consisted of hand watering using a water truck for only the first year after planting. Once established, the drought-plants chosen for the drier areas of the site are able to tolerate extended periods of low soil moisture.

Sustainable Savings

As plants grew, matured, and spread in the years following installation, it was possible to divide them and to dig new seedlings, all of which were transplanted to new areas, essentially using the site as a nursery. In addition to providing design continuity throughout the site by repetition of species, this technique afforded considerable economic savings by eliminating additional plant purchases.

Further savings were realized by predominately using plug material for the grasses and forbs. Grown in trays of 38 or 50, these deep plugs grow quickly after planting. Not only are the plants less expensive to purchase than potted material, but less labor time is involved in transporting, staging, and planting.

"Hell strips" - narrow tracts trapped between paving areas - are typically relegated to turf, which always struggles from the heat accumulated by the mass of the paving. A mix of drought-tolerant plants offers a more sustainable solution.

Cost savings in landscape maintenance for the Hospital over the past five years is estimated at between $20,000 and $40,000. Reduction or elimination of lawn areas and conventional beds of exotic species means no mowing, and little or no watering, fertilizing, or pesticide application. Low-maintenance, perennial groundcover plants cover about two acres of the approximately five acres of the converted landscape area.

In order to facilitate the ongoing health and success of the plantings, maintenance procedures for the newly installed areas are detailed in the Master Plan, and John Engwer has consulted with Hospital maintenance staff on the techniques involved.

In 2011, a generous donation from the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation allowed for a large purchase of bulbs to enhance the area around the Breast Health Center.

Mid-summer blooms in the rain garden greet people at entrance to Breast Center.

In 2012, Kent Hospital received an Environmental Merit Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for leadership in connecting community wellness with environmental health through its sustainable landscape program.

Species used on the site:

  • Trees: Sugar and Red Maple, Eastern Redbud, Yellowwood, and Valley Forge Elm
  • Shrubs: Beach Plum, Bayberry, Winterberry, Potentilla Fruiticosa, Shrubby St. Johnswort
  • Grasses: Switchgrass, Little Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed, Deschampsia, Pennisetum
  • Forbs: Blue Hill, Sage Catmint, Green and Gold, Purple Coneflower, Wild Geranium

Thanks to Tom Benjamin and to Groundscapes Express who provided information and photos for this article. More information on the project can be found at Tom’s website:
Groundscapes can be reached through the website:

About the Author

Nick Novick, owner of Small Planet Landscaping and former member of ELA Board of Directors, often collaborates with John Engwer of Groundscapes Express on a variety of projects. He may be reached at