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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

South Portland offers help to residents who want to transform their yards into resilient ecosystems

Shawn Jalbert of the plant nursery Native Haunts in Alfred shows off a buttonbush that he sells. Interest in adding more native native plants to yards began to increase during the pandemic, he says.
Caitlin Andrews
Maine Public
Shawn Jalbert of the plant nursery Native Haunts in Alfred shows off a buttonbush that he sells. Interest in adding more native native plants to yards began to increase during the pandemic, he says.

Jane Berry has a vision for how she sees her future self spending time in her South Portland back yard.

"In my mind's eye, I see a lovely little pathway that's raised up high so I can walk through and sit and be be around all the birds," she said. "That's what I'd like."

Berry's backyard has a few dried-out plants along the edges and a grassy middle that turns into a standing puddle when it rains. But she hopes to reinvent it through South Portland's Resilient Yards program, which launched earlier this year. The city chose 100 residents to give advice and training on how to make a backyard more eco-friendly. That could include direction on how to create a more organic lawn, a rain garden, a pollinator garden or a more native landscape.

Attention to how we manage lawns has increased since the advent of "No Mow May," a movement encouraging people to skip a month of mowing to help pollinators find food. But South Portland's sustainability department wants to go further by encouraging people to make their lawns more natural overall.

Your typical uniform green swath of lawn often requires fertilizing, a lot of water and maintenance to maintain, said Julie Rosenbach, the city's sustainability director. Having a more resilient yard could mean adding more native plants and stepping back from using chemicals in your maintenance. This not only helps sustain native species, but help improve the soil health and cuts back on maintenance.

"Resilience, really, for the ecosystem starts with clean, healthy soil," she said.

Berry said she was interested in the program because she has been slowly working on restoring the character of her 100-year-old South Portland home. Having more native plants would bring it back to the way it used to be, she thinks.

"I'd like to just restore it," she said.

Shawn Jalbert, the owner of the Native Haunts nursey in Alfred, has been selling native Maine plants for about 20 years. Most of his business used to come from commercial entities or wetland restoration efforts. But it was not until the coronavirus pandemic began that the general public became interested, he said.

"Maybe had more time to do research and more times to sit down and study and relax and kind of realize the importance of home, now that we were stuck in it for so such long periods of time," he said.

That tracks with an overall increased interest in plant care during the beginning of the pandemic. The American Society for Horticultural Science found sales in plants and landscaping items grew by 8 percent alone from Jan. 2020 to June 2020 compared to the same time frame in 2019.

The majority of Jalbert's plants live outside year-round, as they would in their habitats. They can survive the hot and cold cycles, and if a few die, that's okay.

"It's almost counting on a certain rate of attrition," he said. "So it's okay if a few plants die, because that kind of weeds out the weaker ones."

If you're interested in cultivating your own native yardscape, sourcing is important, said Anna Fialkoff, formerly an ecological programs manager at the nonprofit Wild Seed Project. Finding plants grown from seed is great, but she suggested looking for nurseries that do not use pesticides to maintain their plants, because they can cause damage to insects even after they are taken home.

Also, do not feel like you need to transform your entire lawn all at once, Fialkoff said. Landscaping can take a long time, and even a few small changes can make a yard more resilient.

"It's a long game, especially if you're planting a native tree," she said. "You're planting for future generations."

Corrected: May 16, 2023 at 9:50 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly named Shawn Jalbert's nursey business.
Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.