2015-07-10 / Front Page

Lawn gardens take root in city

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Sue Henderson (above) tends to the vegetable garden that dominates her front lawn on E Street in South Portland. Pamela Cragin and Scott Duncan (right) pose on their front lawn on Smith Street in South Portland. One of the first in the city to sport a produce garden in place of a traditional lawn, the couple’s garden helped kick off a trend that has been spreading throughout the city in recent years. (Duke Harrington photos) Sue Henderson (above) tends to the vegetable garden that dominates her front lawn on E Street in South Portland. Pamela Cragin and Scott Duncan (right) pose on their front lawn on Smith Street in South Portland. One of the first in the city to sport a produce garden in place of a traditional lawn, the couple’s garden helped kick off a trend that has been spreading throughout the city in recent years. (Duke Harrington photos) SOUTH PORTLAND — A close observer might note that, over the past few years, a certain species has been slowly going extinct in South Portland. But it’s not a type of person, or tree, and certainly not the ducks that command Mill Creek Park.

No, what’s disappearing from the city, particularly on the east end, are front lawns.

Over the past few years, more and more residents have turned up their lawns — usually the front lawn, since it tends to get the most sun — and replaced them entirely with produce gardens. Where once a passer-by on any given Ferry Village street might have seen rows of tightly manicured lawns, today the grass is gone, in many places replaced by a collection of fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.

“I know that it is happening as I see it driving around the city,” City Manager Jim Gailey said. “It’s mostly in the Willard, Ferry Village and Meeting House Hill areas.”

“In the past couple of years, it’s really taken off,” said City Councilor Tom Blake, himself a convert to the practice and particularly proud of his peach tree.

According to Blake, the conversion has happened fairly organically, perhaps led by the same food-to-table, or “locavour” movement that’s swept the state in recent years.

In South Portland, he says, the change has come about mostly by example, as neighbors have copied neighbors.


Joan Herzog poses in her backyard on Edmund S. Muskie Street in South Portland, where a canoe found rotting on a neighbor’s lawn has been pressed into service as an object d’art planter for a group of raspberry bushes. (Duke Harrington photo) Joan Herzog poses in her backyard on Edmund S. Muskie Street in South Portland, where a canoe found rotting on a neighbor’s lawn has been pressed into service as an object d’art planter for a group of raspberry bushes. (Duke Harrington photo) “There are some streets, where it seems every other house has a garden in place of a lawn,” he said.

Led by back-to-earth interests by millennials — as a group actually bigger than the baby boom generations — the decline in family farms in Maine has not just slowed, it’s actually reversed.

According to John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, farmers under the age of 35 have increased by 40 percent. Nationally, that increase is 1.5 percent, he said.

That trend has been mirrored in South Portland, albeit spearheaded here by a group at least a generation or two older than those buying, or leasing farmland across the state. And that trend is about far more than mere garden tainment. Much as during the World War II era, when backyard farmers grew more than 40 percent of what their families ate in so-called Victory Gardens, the new generation of urban gardeners are also interested in permaculture produce.

“There’s nothing like the taste of a tomato picked fresh from your own garden,” said Wynne Wirth, of Vincent Street. “It’s gotten so I can’t even eat one bought from a store. They all taste like a refrigerator to me.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is possible to reap a large yield from a city garden. From the few raspberry bushes planted beside her home, Wirth is able to pick about 35 quarts of berries per year, which she freezes for later use.

“My kids are able to have raspberries in their school lunch every day during the winter,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Well, maybe not every day. They do get kind of sick of them.”

Nearby, on Edmund S. Muskie Street, Joan Herzog grows her raspberries inside an old wooden canoe she spotted on a neighbor’s lawn. That, like much of her landscaping, including a set of 1927 fire ladders cobbled together as a trellis, has been procured on the cheap, from neighbors and on Craigslist. In both the backyard, and the front, the lawn is gone, replaced by berries and veggies, including 27 tomato plants.

“I’ll be doing a lot of canning and freezing,” she said, about what she calls her biggest “physical and mental activity,” a way to connect with nature and to better control what goes into her body.

“It is a way to grow your own food, help the earth, to make a positive impact, and to pass on to the next generation, too,” she said, noting that neighborhood children are often fascinated by her lawn garden, which has now overflowed into the School Street playground, where she helps instruct local youth in the art of growing their own food.

“It’s really fun to share with neighbors and friends,” she said. “And it’s really fun to see the trend take off. Go to any coffee shop and you can start up a conversation on gardening.”

Both Wirth and Herzog agree that, in South Portland especially, once home to the shipyards credited with helping to win the Second World War, it is important to start with a soils test. Herzog’s lawn had too much lead in the dirt ,she said, necessitating a truckload of topsoil.

But otherwise, it’s all about experimentation.

“You can grow almost anything,” Wirth said.

Lawn gardens in South Portland come in all sizes, from the small patch Sue Henderson tends at her home on E Street, to the expanse on Smith Street raised by Pamela Cragin and her husband Scott Dolan, which, like the gardens of Wirth and Herzog, has completely replaced the lawn, front and back.

“We don’t have a lot,” said Henderson, “but we get some string beans, and broccoli, and more than enough zucchini and more cucumbers than I can eat. But I don’t do it to help with the grocery bill. I just do it for the joy of it.”

Cragin, meanwhile, may be the trendsetter of the group. All of the others report gardening as children, having returned to the practice as adults. But Cragin says she and her husband had no prior experience when, as Portland apartment dwellers, they decided to try their hand at gardening about eight years ago.

“The first front-yard garden we knew of in the area, my husband and I put in on my sister’s home up on Ocean View Avenue, while we were living in an apartment in Portland,” she recalled. “We were learning, but I was a science teacher and into the natural world in a big way.”

After building a home on Smith Street, Cragin and Dolan chose to forego a lawn in place of a garden, which, she admits, came as something of a shock to some neighbors. At least at first. Many have since begun gardens their own.

“The first garden on Ocean View especially, people used to stop and stare. They were just amazed. They’d say, ‘Wow, I’d like to do that, but I just don’t know what my neighbors would think.”

“The trend is unbelievable to me,” she said, beaming. “People want to drive less — the closest supermarket is the one in your own front yard — they want to mow less, they respect biodiversity in their yards, they want a greater connection in the city to the seasons. I think it’s great.”

Best of all, Cragin says, urban gardening is a snap, past that initial soils test.

“It’s not that hard to do,” said Cragin. “Anyone can do it. And really, everyone should.”

Return to top