Back Cove garden in Portland sets a chem-free standard

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PORTLAND — On about 2 1/2 acres of land between Back Cove and Interstate 295, a garden full of flowers, shrubs and trees is gradually taking shape.

But the project is more than about adding beauty to the heavily used Back Cove Trail. It’s proof that healthy landscaping can be achieved without using harmful chemicals and fertilizers.

The garden, where construction began four years ago, is expected to be completed next summer. It will include panels describing the plants and flowers, so visitors can replicate what they like.

The project is a demonstration site for a statewide effort to encourage eco-friendly landscaping. The state Department of Pesticides and Disease Control calls it the Yardscaping program, while the Friends of Casco Bay call it Bayscaping.

But the goals of the two are the same: reduce the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

Gary Fish, manager of the DPDC’s Pesticides Program, said that, while the Yardscaping program has been around for about 10 years, interest in the program has recently increased dramatically.

“In the last two years it has really taken off,” he said. “We have found there is a lot of demand. Being green itself has become more fashionable.”

Fish said there are about 2,000 different native and non-native plantings on the Back Cove demonstration site, which offers landscaping ideas for people regardless of whether they live in dense urban areas or open rural towns.

In addition to labeling plants and installing the interpretive panels, the group will also plant different varieties of grass that fare particularly well in Maine’s variable climate.

A longer-term goal of the department, Fish said, is to establish a special certification program for landscapers who have been trained in eco-friendly landscaping practices.

“We’re attacking this from a lot of different angles,” he said.

Meanwhile, FOCB Associate Director Mary Cerullo said she is seeing a similar rise in interest in the non-profit’s Bayscaping program, which publicizes the negative effects of fertilizers and pesticide runoff on Portland Harbor.

The group is armed with data from storm-water samples taken at the height of rainstorms from Portland to the Brunswick, which show traces of toxic lawn chemicals in each coastal community.

The group is now preparing to use sediment sampling to see how many of those chemicals become absorbed by the ocean bottom, which could reveal the chemicals’ effects on ocean life, particularly the development of shellfish.

Cerullo said she and another FOCB member conduct 20 to 30 neighborhood socials, where they distribute information about eco-friendly landscaping tips and answer questions.

For example, the group suggests mowing lawns 3 inches high get rid of crabgrass. It says homeowners should never fertilize their lawns until they have first conducted a soil test. And if necessary, fertilizer should only be applied in the fall.

Even organic fertilizers can cause problems, Cerullo said. Motorists heading to South Portland only need to look toward the shoreline of Turner Island to see the effect of excess nitrogen in the runoff: at low tide, the mudflats are covered with green algae.

There is evidence that interest in chem-free landscaping is increasing. Cumberland resident Paul Tukey has been conducting workshops on chem-free landscaping centered around the film, “A Chemical Reaction.”

Tukey, a professional landscaper, developed an acute sensitivity to chemicals he applied to properties throughout greater Portland and has become an advocate for chem-free landscaping. A recent workshop in South Portland drew more than 50, Cerullo said.

Meanwhile, groups in Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth have been meeting to consider recommending banning the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on town property.

Cerullo said the neighborhood socials are a great way to create pockets of change within a community. All it takes is one person to initiate it, she said.

“Often that peer pressure and support helps a neighborhood adjust,” Cerullo said. “It’s hard being the only one with dandelions.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or

Sidebar Elements

Mary Cerullo, associate director of the Friends of Casco Bay, points out landscaping along Portland’s Back Cove that doesn’t require heavy maintenance or chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

A flower planted in Portland’s Back Cove Yardscaping exhibition, meant to set an example for people who want to avoid using harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides.