Portland public garden promotes low-impact planting techniques

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PORTLAND — A new public garden, almost a decade in the making, is meant to enhance the cityscape and inform its gardeners.

City and state leaders hosted the formal opening of the Yardscaping Gardens at Back Cove last week.

The gardens, which having been quietly growing since 2006, stretch 2.5 acres between the water and Interstate 295, near the Back Cove soccer fields. They provide a burst of color and dense floral variety along one of the city’s most popular walking paths.

The grounds flash with purple and yellow flowers, leaves that span the spectrum from deep crimson to crisp spring yellow, and green pine branches.  

The gardens contain more than 2,000 types of trees, shrubs, and perennials, most of which rarely need to be watered, city arborist Jeff Tarling said.

Most are native to the area, with a few other hardy species from elsewhere mixed in. They were chosen, in part, for their range of flowering buds and texture, Tarling said.

Some may be easily overlooked elsewhere, a gardener’s sleeper surprise, said Tarling, citing sweetfern as an example. Actually a deciduous shrub which sometimes grows in places like ditches or rock quarries, sweetfern has a crocodile-tail shape that is both pleasing and primordial.

But the gardens are also meant to be educational, and were designed to inspire gardeners and property owners to make their lawns and flower beds less resource-needy, Paul Schlein, the Maine Board of Pesticide Control’s public education specialist, said in an email.

“These gardens are different because they are designed as a sustainable landscape that minimizes the need for fertilizers, weed and insect controls and water,” Schlein said.

Though the city’s donation of land gave the project a home, the driving force behind the project is a state program run by the Board of Pesticide Control called Yardscaping, which began in 1999.

The Yardscaping program, a collaboration of state, municipal and other organizations, is a response to rapid increase in residential pesticide use in Maine, and a general concern for cautious resource use.

Pesticide use by lawn- and tree-care companies at private homes amounted to 800,000 pounds in 1995, according to data provided by Schlein. By 2007, the total was over 6 million pounds spread annually.

Monitoring “has been done in conjunction with the Friends of Casco Bay and by the BPC on its own that shows the presence of several lawn-care pesticides in the waters of Casco Bay and other areas of Maine,” Schlein said. “Some have been found at levels that may be affecting aquatic invertebrates and the food chain in those systems.

“Our partners have also seen effects on our lakes and bays from fertilizer nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus which can cause algae blooms,” he said.

After half a decade of work, almost exclusively by volunteers, the Back Cove garden is close to its permanent state. But there will always be upkeep to do, Tarling said.

The Yardscaping program has already erected informational signs about the garden, its plants and their resource-preserving power, Schlein said. Next, they plan to produce an online tour of the garden to help interested planters identify plants – most of which will be available at local plant nurseries – for their own homes and lawns.

That virtual tour and more information about the project can be found on the Yardscaping website.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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A cyclist rides through the YardScaping Gardens at Back Cove in Portland, a landscaping project designed as an example of trees, shrubs, and flowers that Maine gardeners can plant to reduce their use of fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation water.

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