OAKLAND — After she retired from her job as a nurse anesthetist at the end of 2013, Jean Ponitz took it upon herself clean up the concrete traffic islands at the five-way intersection where Kennedy Memorial Drive enters Oakland village.

The town planted lilies in the traffic islands and in small plots along Church Street, but after the flowers finished their seasonal bloom, no one weeded or mowed the plots and they would become overgrown with weeds and grass.

“I thought it was embarrassing, it was so bad,” Ponitz said in an interview this week.

At first, she expected to clean up the lilies and weed out the plots, but one thing led to another. Before long, she was pulling out roots and weeds and then planting new flowers with the help of her husband, Don.

Ponitz likes flowers, but she was never a big gardener. Her husband has the green thumb in the family. However, she was committed to making the town look a little nicer.

At first, her efforts were greeted with skepticism from the Town Office. Some worried that it was too dangerous to plant and care of flowers in the middle of a busy intersection. Others suggested there wasn’t any town money available for the flowers, Ponitz was told. “I said, ‘I don’t care. This is my project,'” Ponitz said.

Whether flowers would even survive in the traffic islands was an open question. Laura Pierce, from Pierce’s Greenhouse, helped Ponitz select flowers to plant but warned against getting her hopes up, Ponitz said. The doubts didn’t faze her. Ponitz put down fertilizer and topsoil and hoped for the best.

“It was a miracle. They grew,” she said.

Before long, people started to take notice of the new slashes of color amid the asphalt and concrete. When she was out working on the flower patches, drivers would roll down their windows and thank her for the work.

The flowers also became a topic of conversation at the Town Office.

“We have a lot of people that come in an say to us, ‘Who takes care of the flowers?'” Town Clerk Jan Porter said. “I think that everyone really appreciates it.”

Public interest led the Town Council and the Budget Committee to propose including $750 in the 2015 budget to fund Ponitz’s effort and to spruce up the town in advance of the first annual OakFest in 2015. Voters approved the funding this spring.

By that time, Ponitz wasn’t the only one involved. A committee of 14 women organized to expand the project.

That included planting flowers in about 12 small plots along Church Street, near the library and in front of Williams Elementary School, as well as in existing planters on Main Street; and flowers at the entrance of Messalonskee High School that resident Beth Prelgovisk has maintained for years.

Everyone has a responsibility for his or her own patch, and to pitch in to help volunteers if they can’t make it on some days. Volunteers usually come by every two or three days to weed, water, fertilize and deadhead their flowers. The volunteers selected mainly annuals that will bloom most of the summer, such as petunias, dahlias, daisies, zinnias, marigolds and geraniums.

“It’s a true commitment. It’s ongoing,” Ponitz said. “It’s not just planting the flowers and then you’re done.”

At 73 years old, she’s the oldest person on the committee, Ponitz said. Most of the women work full time and take care of their flowers on the weekend, or in their free time before or after work. Aside from Ponitz and Prelgovisk, the group includes Diane Engbert, Linda Holmsen, Kathy Whitney, Cheryl Godfrey, Beth Granholm, Terry Borman, Sandy Swartz, Lisa Ladd, Sky Austin, Jane Pellerin and Judy MacKenzie.

Local businesses such as Pierce’s Greenhouse, Blake Hardware, Lakeside Landscaping and the Korner Store donated supplies to the effort. Local businesses let the volunteers use their outside spigots for water. When funds ran low, volunteers paid out of their own pockets to get new flowers or supplies.

The public response to the flowers has been overwhelming, Ponitz said. Drivers stop and thank volunteers, she said, and she has even received letters from people expressing appreciation for the project. Recently, a man drove by while she was working and handed her a $5 bill, with instructions to use it to buy more flowers.

“It was such a boost for the town, I think,” Ponitz said. “You see flowers and you just get the feeling that the town cares.”

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire


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