North Carolina’s Department of Transportation maintains more than 300,000 acres of roadside plantings and produces beautiful displays under some of the toughest conditions imaginable. Lise Jenkins learns about the department’s plans to expand their popular roadside wildflower program to support NC’s #1 industry — agriculture. By partnering with private industry, the program will grow to include plants that provide both forage and habitat for pollinators.
- The Bayer corporation is the first partner to work with NC’s Department of Transportation to establish forage and habitat for bees as part of their Feed A Bee campaign.
- NC Department of Transportation plans to expand this program statewide as more private funding groups get involved.
- Plants DOT uses in their roadside beds:
- Botanical names
- Common names
- Help expand the pollinator program across the state
- New and Observer September 8th article on the project
JENKINS: North Carolina gardeners enjoy a long growing season but, we face some big challenges. I’ve heard people say if you can garden successfully here you’ve truly got some good gardening skills. If that’s true, Don Lee must head up one of the best groups of gardeners in the state. Don is an environmental engineer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. His group is responsible for managing more than 300,000 acres along our highways. Their job is to create safe and attractive roadside boarders under some of the toughest conditions a gardener could face. Probably the most recognizable result of their hard work is our state roadside wildflower program. I met Don at an exit ramp off I-40 and learned more about something I see every week.
LEE: The wildflower program is approximately 30 years old. Initially it was started by Governor Martin and Ms Dottie Marin in 1985. We’ve got a 25-to-30-year history of providing nice vistas and welcoming visitors to NC in support of our tourism industry. It’s probably the most popular program in the NCDOT history. We get letters and calls from people coming to visit from all over the world, they are absolutely amazed that someone in NC would care enough to look after the roadsides to welcome people and industry and support tourism here in NC.
JENKINS: Roadside plantings are designed to provide visual impact for a long time. But with some changes, those plantings can also support North Carolina’s 78 billion dollar agriculture economy. The DOT is working to change their planting designs to provide forage and habitat for pollinators. But finding plants that can provide the year-round nectar and pollen bees need, survive harsh roadside conditions, and delight motorists is a challenge. That’s why the DOT has forged a partnership with North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture.
LEE: We’ve been working with Steve Troxler’s group as an agency partner. They are doing some research on their research farms to figure out what’s good for farmers and landowners to plant. So we’re working together on that research and certainly those seed plants that would work well on private lands, we’re interested in planting them on the highway.
JENKINS: Plants that perform well means that area doesn’t have to be mowed. That cost savings is a nice benefit. But the research and design changes add cost to the existing program. The DOT has started working with private industry to help cover the additional cost.
LEE: Well the wildflower program is traditionally funded by personalized license plates. I’d like to say, thank you, to everyone who supports us by purchasing a personalized license plate and supporting the fund. That has been the tradition for 25-30 years to financially support the wildflower program. But in launching the pollinator program we are seeking private sponsors to help us with that program across the state. The pollinator program will be operated in tandem with the NC wildflower program. We’ll be going very specific and strategic with nectar plants that benefit the pollinators. They may not be quite as showy as our traditional wildflower program, but as funding partners become available, we will be able to explore more options. We’ve got one partner currently, but we are going to be seeking other partners in the near future to expand this pollinator effort across NC by using public lands, which we have a lot of, to establish pollinators to help our agriculture industry.
JENKINS: Don explained the first steps they’ve taken with this new program.
LEE: Through the funding our first funding partner, made available for us we established hybrid sunflowers across NC. This is the first part of the program. The bee activity is phenomenal. Really unbelievable with these large flowering hybrid sunflowers. The second part of that with the Bayer funding will be planting Canola in the fall which has significant amount of bee activity in the spring and summer. But as additional partners come online we’ll be shifting towards strategic perennial program that would be established very similar to the wildflower program but it will be a seed mix of high-value nectar plants.
JENKINS: We were standing along a bed of zinnias. Don introduced me to a member of his team that helps make spaces like this happen. I asked him to tell me more about what we were seeing.
CLEMMER: Good morning, I’m Kevin Clemmer with the NC Dept of Transportation within the Roadside Environmental Unit based out of Raleigh. We are looking at a beautiful bed of zinnias. It’s a mixed bed of zinnias. It’s striped in nature to add a lot of character and design, other than just the flower bloom itself. We put a lot of creativity into our beds nowadays. Just using different mixtures and striping them. We’re looking at an actual bed of zinnias this morning. It’s striped with a lavender and purple zinnia and the other stripe is perhaps an orange and yellow mix. And it just brings out a lot of the distinct colors in the flowers and at the same time, gives you a dimension that we’re not used to looking at in a massive roadside planting.
JENKINS: I didn’t see any weeds in this bed of zinnias. As I took a few steps into the bed, I realized I was standing on rock-hard soil that had chunks of concrete poking through. It was a hot day and the wind was really coming off the road as cars whizzed by. Kevin and his crew had created a spectacular bed of zinnias in some of the worst gardening conditions I had seen. I asked Kevin if they typically start with a site in rough shape.
CLEMMER: When a road is built, obviously they take all the topsoil away. And the most important part of growing anything is the topsoil. But in most cases in designing a road and building a road, they take that away because the road and drainage is the most important aspect of the road design. In most cases we come back in and we have to deal with the subsoil. Which is very clayey (depending on where you are at in the state). But in most cases we come in and take a soil report, get that analyzed, and then come in with the proper nutrients and lime to get that bed active and actively growing over the next couple of years. It takes us some time. But in most cases we do deal with the lack of topsoil which makes it very hard to have these beautiful flowers.
JENKINS: I asked how they keep these beds colorful for so many months and Don explained.
LEE: Well it’s a little bit complicated. The annuals we plant in the fall or spring. Then we actually approach it like double cropping, just like farmers would with wheat and soybeans. These beds will be planted again for a fall bloom, so we get two blooms a season out of them. Some of them are perennials. Obviously we want to sustain them for longer periods of time. As we get into the more high-value pollinator plantings we hope to get years and years out of those.
JENKINS: Don and Kevin both come from farming backgrounds, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I asked them why the DOT was going to all this effort for the bees.
LEE: Well growing up in Eastern NC, my family are farmers. We understand the benefit of pollinators. Our agriculture industry, the #1 industry, is a high value to NC’s economy. So it really makes sense. Why not use public lands to help our #1 industry in NC?
JENKINS: Why not indeed? If you would like to find out more about the plants the DOT uses along the roadways and their pollinator initiative go to our website, gettingdirtyradioshow.org We’ve added links to that information and more. I’m Lise Jenkins and I’m an NC State Extension Master Gardener Volunteer and I’m in Durham county.