November 18, 2010

20 Rain Gardens in 10 Days

Rain garden installation

Workers install a rain garden in Leo and Marie Dodge's yard in Howard County.

Just in time. I watched as the contractors finished their work on the rain garden in Marie and Leo Dodge’s yard. It was just hours before for heavy rains fell on September 30, 2010. I had heard that flash flooding was in the forecast. That night, the oval rain garden with its high soil berm and newly planted native plants would be put to the test.

When Marie Dodge first heard about the “Win a Rain Garden” program in her Howard County neighborhood, she was intrigued. She told me that she and her husband Leo, both retirees, are avid gardeners who take a serious interest in their landscaping.  She’d heard of rain gardens but wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how they functioned.  But if the rain coursing down her backyard provided any clue, she suspected that her property might be well suited for one.

Leo Dodge recounted the story of the property downhill from them. When the new house was constructed in the early 1990s, he said, developers filled in the stormwater collection pond on the adjacent property.  Ever since, whenever it rains, water races down the Dodge’s hill toward their neighbor’s house, flooding their basement and forcing the sump pump to work overtime.

In May 2010, the Dodges joined dozens of other Howard County residents at a free seminar. They’d received a letter in the mail inviting them to attend. The seminar — a Rain Garden 101 of sorts — was hosted by watershed restoration specialist Amanda Rockler, who works with Maryland Sea Grant Extension, along with representatives from Howard County and the Center for Watershed Protection. At the seminar, residents learned about how rain gardens capture and retain stormwater that would otherwise run off their roofs and driveways, preventing it from carrying pollutants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, into nearby Red Hill Branch, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay beyond.

The following weekend, the Dodges watched as contractors installed a demonstration rain garden at the nearby GlenMar United Methodist Church. They saw what would be involved in the installation. They saw the finished product.

Along with 82 other residents in the Red Hill Branch subwatershed of Ellicott City, the Dodges then applied to win a free rain garden for their property. The “Win a Rain Garden” program is one that Rockler developed in partnership with Howard County, with funding from both from the county and the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund.  She was tasked with developing an outreach effort that both educated the community about best management practices (BMPs) for stormwater, like rain gardens, and also got the BMPs in the ground. The outreach piece is part of a more than one million dollar effort to make a big impact in a small area, a project that includes stormwater retrofits, bioretention cells, and stream restoration projects in a subwatershed of the Patuxent River. The contest would be perfect, a chance to educate the public and to get rain gardens planted.

As Rockler explained it to me, the program “offered a chance to roll outreach, education, and implementation into one — a window of opportunity to seize.”

Howard County had funding for 20 rain gardens. It would be tough to get all of sites selected and the gardens planted before the end of the sensitive fall planting window, but Rockler and her collaborators were determined.

Rockler, along with Howard County engineers and the Center for Watershed Protection, completed site inspections of all 83 properties, along with owner and designer Linda Luke from Village Gardeners, the contracting company that would install the rain gardens.  At each site, they assessed the grade of the lawn and looked for “pinch points,” places where rainwater would naturally pool on the property.  They assessed whether a rain garden could play a significant role in trapping runoff, based on the topography and proximity to storm drains or to the stream itself. They also considered whether the applicants would be effective stewards of a rain garden and whether they would likely set a good example among their neighbors.

Once the winners were selected, things moved fast. Village Gardeners installed two rain gardens a day, weather permitting, over an intensive two-to-three-week window.  It was tough work.  Most of the gardens needed to be dug to a depth of roughly two feet over a 12-by-8-feet area.  Once dug, each garden needed to be filled with amended soil and planted with dozens of native plants.

The contractors functioned like a well-oiled machine.  Four men, working with hand tools, could get a garden dug and fully planted in less than three hours.

The contractors from Village Gardeners had just finished cleaning up the site when the first raindrops begin to fall.  I stand with Rockler and the Dodges out the rain, surveying their completed garden and planning additional landscaping they want to put in along the soil berm.  Leo Dodge sees planting evening primrose — which produces a beautiful yellow flower — along the berm.  Already, they can’t wait to see the rain garden bloom in the spring and they’re looking forward to showing it off at the garden tour that Rockler is planning to promote the project.

Now they are ready for the rain.

– Erica Goldman

Watch this time lapse video of workers installing the Dodge’s rain garden. Video by Joe King for Maryland Sea Grant.

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