City Arborist Jeff Tarling has gotten some interesting questions about the black tarps that cover most of the grassy median in the middle of Franklin Street in Portland.

Some people want to know if it’s a giant slip-and-slide. Others assume it has something to do with the snow that is sometimes piled there in winter. Tarling is happy to answer such questions, but he is far more excited to talk about what will replace the tarp come spring: a meadow with wildflowers and native grasses.

The tarps are just a temporary step. They were placed there in October as a way to prepare for new plantings without having to use pesticides to weaken or kill the grass.

The urban meadow in the Franklin Street median between Cumberland Avenue and Congress Street isn’t the city’s first effort to reintroduce colorful, natural open spaces, but it is likely the first one that many Portland residents and visitors will see on a daily basis.

“It’s probably the most visible spot in Portland,” Tarling said. “We thought this space in the middle of Portland deserves to have a natural feel to it.”

Urban meadows are becoming increasingly popular across the country. In Tennessee, there are 3,807 miles of blooming flowers along highways and roadways. In Delaware, highways are lined with wildflowers, and the Georgia Department of Transportation now plants only native flowers along its highways.

In Portland, the meadows serve a dual purpose of reducing operating expenses for upkeep and creating habitat for bees, birds and butterflies. The city already has created pocket urban meadows at Deering Oaks, the Eastern Prom, Fort Gorges, Ludlow Pond, North Street, PATHS, Payson Park, Riverton Trolley Park and Labyrinth, and the Western Prom. The meadows are mowed once each year in November.

To prepare the Franklin Street median, the city put the tarps down in early October and removed crab apple trees that weren’t doing well, Tarling said.

Butterfly milkweed will be among the wildflowers in the Franklin Street median. This one bloomed last summer in a meadow on Portland’s Western Promenade. Photo courtesy of Jeff Tarling

Next spring, the city will plant wildflowers and native grasses. It will continue to mow around the edges of the median and pick up trash, but will otherwise let the grasses and flowers grow naturally.

Portland’s initiative is part of a growing movement across the country to provide pollinator habitat and restore native plants in open areas along roads and highways. In 2016, the Federal Highway Administration recognized that highways could be critical habitat corridors, prompting many states – including Maine – to embrace the approach.

The Maine Department of Transportation and Wild Seed Project collaborated in 2018 to create a guide, “Maine Native Plants for Roadside Restoration,” to help communities learn how to plant and manage native grasses and flowers.

Annie Wadleigh, lead organizer of the Portland Pollinator Partnership, welcomes the Franklin Street meadow project. The group was founded in 2014 to protect and advocate for pollinator habitat and native species by encouraging sustainable practices and education, while discouraging the use of synthetic pesticides.

The Portland Pollinator Partnership also supports having more “low mow” areas, Wadleigh said. The group partnered with the city to plant two demonstration pollinator gardens, one on the Back Cove Trail behind Trader Joe’s and the other at the end of Carroll Street on the Western Prom.

This bee balm flowered last summer in a meadow on Portland’s Western Promenade. Photo courtesy of Jeff Tarling

“Some people may find the ‘wild look’ off-putting at first, but when you learn about the benefits and become educated about the true costs of chemical-infused, non-native gardening they often come to understand the value of ‘going native,'” Wadleigh said. “It’s transformative. Once you come to appreciate this aesthetic, there’s really no going back – you’ll never look at the old gardening and landscaping methods the same way again.”

Franklin Street is a two-way, four-lane artery that runs between Interstate 295 and Commercial Street.  It was built as part of the urban renewal movement in the 1960s and entire neighborhoods, housing mostly immigrant families, were destroyed to create a major thoroughfare to move traffic into and out of the city. At one point, the wide grassy median was slated to become a tunnel to carry traffic underneath Congress Street and Cumberland Avenue.

The wildflower meadow is moving forward even as Portland officials have talked about eventually eliminating Franklin Street’s  grassy median and narrowing the roadway, a change that could help reconnect the downtown to the East End neighborhoods and create new land for housing or commercial development. That long-term vision has not been funded or scheduled by the City Council.


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