Home » A Grassroots movement in South Portland is a model for the Bay

A Grassroots movement in South Portland is a model for the Bay

City of South Portland’s 100 Resilient Yards program is helping residents protect Casco Bay by growing sustainable yards and gardens.

If you drive around South Portland these days, you may have noticed yard signs that read “100 Resilient Yards, Revitalizing South Portland One Yard At A Time.”

The residents and businesses who are proudly posting these signs took part in a forward-looking program that provided hands-on assistance to build healthy soils that protect Casco Bay. City of South Portland staff, experts, and volunteers helped those in the program grow resilient landscapes, including vegetable gardens, rain gardens, native plantings and pollinator gardens, and organic lawns.

The City of South Portland restricted the use of pesticides in 2016 and limited the use of synthetic fertilizers in 2020. To help residents comply with these ordinances, Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s Sustainability Director, conducted outreach and education throughout the pandemic. By 2021, recognizing that everyone was weary of workshops and Zoom meetings, Julie struck on a “grassroots” plan to bring best practices in yard care directly to neighborhoods.

The 100 Resilient Yards program was born.

When South Portland opened applications last spring, 430 people applied for the 100 slots. After site visits in May and June by organic landscaping professionals, 100 yards were selected. 89 people ultimately completed the pilot project.

Julie Rosenbach was delighted with the enthusiasm from the community. “People want to transition their yards to healthy, organic landscapes. They just need help getting started. With this program, we were able to help in spades.”

Friends of Casco Bay Executive Director Will Everitt is pleased that a lot of those yards belong to Friends of the Bay. After all, it was Friends of Casco Bay’s BayScaping campaign, launched 20 years ago, that began to persuade residents and community leaders to rethink their use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Each participant in South Portland’s 100 Resilient Yards program received help to create a Bay-friendly landscape. Julie assembled teams of landscaping and gardening advisors and recruited two dozen volunteers to help homeowners. The recipients got material resources such as raised beds, seeds or starter plants, mulch, compost, native plants — and even apple trees on 26 sites. It was truly a hands-on effort. Julie recalls how she and volunteers hauled 456 bags of mulch to nearly 50 sites around the City.

Emily Rothman, a Friends of Casco Bay member who lives in Ferry Village, requested a vegetable garden. She met with a technical advisor who helped her mark out a suitable site. “While we were out, they delivered a raised bed and filled it with soil!” Emily used a coupon provided by 100 Resilient Yards to pick out young plants at a farm in Cape Elizabeth. Her five-year-old helps harvest their chard, kale, and lettuce. Her two-year-old loves to play in the soil in a corner of the garden reserved for digging.

Emily says, “I learned about things I should and shouldn’t do so close to the ocean. I love it when people come by and ask questions about the garden. It helps us feel like we are doing our part and that we have an investment in the South Portland community.”

Elizabeth Ross Holstrom, another Friend of the Bay, opted to put in a native flower garden. “As a 30-year resident of South Portland, who recently downsized to a small house with no backyard garden, I was thrilled to be selected for the South Portland 100 Resilient Yards initiative.”

Her backyard was completely gravel before the beds were installed. “I worked with several team members, from the initial photos and soil testing, and plan for a native flower bed. Mine was one of the last gardens because of the prep work needed before planting could be done. Lia Farnham and Brett at Sophia Garden Design were both super helpful in keeping things on track. It turned out lovely. I am excited to see everything come up next spring. With the plants they selected, the entire bed will be colorful, multi-tiered, and self-contained. The trimmings each fall will serve as mulch for the winter.”

“The City of South Portland’s 100 Resilient Yards program has gone beyond education to help residents grow green lawns and gardens that help keep Casco Bay blue,” says Will. “We hope other towns around the Bay look at this as a model for how municipal officials, master gardeners, residents, and businesses can all work together to build soil health and protect our coastal waters from nitrogen pollution and toxic lawncare chemicals.”

Julie Rosenbach notes, “Indeed, I’ve already had interest from other communities who would like to replicate the program.”

The roots of South Portland’s effort are directly linked to the work Friends of Casco Bay has done over the years. Our stormwater and water quality sampling demonstrated that lawncare pesticides and fertilizers threaten the health of the Bay. Pesticides are toxic by design. The excess nitrogen from fertilizers could trigger nuisance algal blooms and deplete oxygen levels in the water, degrading the health of our coastal waters.

Over the years, through our BayScaping efforts, Friends of Casco Bay encouraged residents to grow lawns without using harmful chemicals. By sharing our data on pesticides and nitrogen sampling, educating city councilors about the risks of lawn chemicals, and serving on citizen task forces, we helped municipalities, including South Portland, adopt ordinances to limit lawn chemicals.

Partners on the 100 Resilient Yards project include Friends of Casco Bay, Maine Audubon, Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District, Osborne Organics, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Wild Seed Project, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and Garbage to Garden.

You can read more about 100 Resilient Yards by clicking here. You can find tips on chemical free lawns on Friends of Casco Bay’s website.

Many thanks to Mary Cerullo for writing this article for Friends of Casco Bay and to the City of South Portland for providing photos.