Planted medians are one of those “nice things” people always seem to be referring to in snarky social media posts. They bring visual relief to people near them and inspire traffic calming. We all know this.
But where there’s soil, there’s also a place for weed seeds to fall, and those seeds grow into plants that need to be removed, unless you want them to take over from the plants that were originally intended.
There’s one median I know intimately, located just south of Energy Park Drive on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul. It’s 160 feet long and 10 feet wide. It was created in 2015 when the street was rebuilt as part of the city’s initiative to complete the Grand Round, and the local District Council’s Environment Committee got a grant from the U of M’s Good Neighbor Fund to fill it with native plants instead of concrete.
It was originally planted with little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), and daffodil bulbs (for spring interest). Yay for neighborhood initiatives that make our streets better!
But after the initial planting, it’s time for maintenance, which — as John Oliver tells us — is never sexy. St. Paul Public Works watered the median a few times in the first season with its watering truck, I think. I know they (or maybe the Parks Department) cut the plants down in the fall at least one year (2018) — which seemed inappropriate timing, since native grasses are better left up for winter interest, waiting to be cut or burned very early in the spring. No one cut the plants at all this past fall or spring, though.
I got involved in 2016 or 2017 when I saw some weeds popping up and asked the person who had gotten the grant what plants were supposed to be there. The limited plant palette definitely made it easier to know what to remove. Since then, I’ve been weeding it periodically, though it’s a lot of space for one person to take on and it’s a Sisyphean task because the weeds, of course, keep coming back from the “seed bank.” This year, I’m afraid, it really got out of hand.
All through the median, there’s quack grass, barnyard grass, weed-trees (mostly elms and maples), green foxtail, weedy lettuces, butter-and-eggs or toadflax, enough nutsedge to grow nuts, thistles, and curly dock. There’s also common milkweed (Aclepias syriaca), which you might think would be okay to keep since it’s monarch butterfly food, but it takes over completely and outcompetes the other native plants that were intended to be there.
While I work at removing all of that without also uprooting the intended plants, I think about the cars, SUVs, and trucks whizzing past. A median in a 30 mph street is a bit of an inhuman space, even though this is a street with bike lanes and sidewalks. There’s no shade and no water anywhere nearby. Tools have to be hauled in from quite a distance, and the piles of weeds I pull have to be hauled back out the same amount.
There’s very little verbal exchange with passersby, either, which is quite different from gardening on a boulevard or in a front yard. A few bicyclists wave, a few pedestrians say hi. One day, a man on foot said, “Now that’s a thankless job!” I realized after he’d left that he wasn’t actually thanking me.
Not long after he had passed by, a woman in a white SUV stopped along the far side of the median from where I was working, her window already rolled down. With an apologetic look on her face, she informed me that I was hard to see and should be more careful, that I was very small and “blended in” (in my yellow T-shirt).
Let me set the record straight for her and anyone else driving past: While I was not wearing a fluorescent safety vest and I had not set out orange cones, there were multiple large flat boxes piled with plants in the street next to the curbs on both sides of the median. I was NOT standing in the street. Usually, I was standing or squatting on the curb, sometimes inside the planted area of the median — at worst, once in a while, I was walking right along the concrete gutter pan of the median. I am 5’6″ tall.
Not that a driver couldn’t hit me in any of those places (believe me, I am aware of it every second, much more than any of the drivers!), but if one did, they would be so very, very at fault, and it would be such an indication of everything that is wrong with how too many people drive on our streets.
Raymond is a county road that should be signed at 25 or 20 mph, if we cared about pedestrian, bicyclist, or driver safety. If a person drives the street at 30 and they’re paying attention, I think they should have no trouble seeing a person squatting on the median edge, but for sure they would have no trouble at 25 mph or especially at 20.
As St. Paul and Minneapolis head into our new 20 and 25 mph speed limits on city-owned streets, let’s not forget the county- and state-owned streets that should also have their speed limits lowered, especially because they are often the ones with more residents than the lower speed, “residential” streets.
And let’s remember that having nice things, like planted medians and rain gardens on public land, takes work — either through taxpayer-supported public workers or community volunteers. The weeds keep coming.