Let it Rain, And Drain, Into Your Rain Garden

With Help from DC’s RiverSmart Homes Program

Jennifer Fritschi garden after.

Are you experiencing drainage problems around your property or, even worse, around the foundation of your house? Are you noticing torrents of water flowing across paved areas during heavy rainstorms, carrying with it valuable topsoil and resulting in ugly, harmful erosion? Or are you simply growing tired of spending so much time mowing, watering and chemically treating your lawn, which could also perhaps benefit from a more visually pleasing garden oasis planted within it?

If so, you may want to consider having a rain garden installed through the District’s RiverSmart Homes or RiverSmart Communities programs. That’s what Capitol Hill homeowners Jennifer Fritschi and Jennifer Robinson did, and they couldn’t be happier.

Tackling the District’s Stormwater Runoff

A grant initiative, conducted jointly between the District’s Department of the Environment (DDOE), the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Casey Trees and other partners, the RiverSmart Homes program provides up to $1200 in landscaping that reduces stormwater runoff into area streams and rivers, thus ultimately helping preserve the Chesapeake Bay.The cost is a $75 resident co-pay for a rain garden (or $100 for a BayScape) involving native grasses, plants, shrubs and trees. The RiverSmart Communities program also provides rebates of up to 60% of the project cost for larger-scale projects – such as cisterns, permeable pavers and rain gardens – involving multifamily residences, small locally owned businesses, and houses of worship.

What is Stormwater Runoff?

Stormwater runoff is water from rainstorms or snow melts that is contaminated with debris, chemicals, dirt and other pollutants that travels in sheets across impervious surfaces, such as driveways, sidewalks and streets and flows directly into water tributaries or into storm sewer systems where it is discharged as untreated sewage overflow into the water that we depend on for drinking water, fishing and swimming.

The problem is that a whopping chunk – 39% – of the District is paved over. Thus, our area tends to experience huge stormwater runoff flows, particularly following heavy rains. One solution is to create incentives to reduce this polluted runoff, such as “rainscaping” and “bayscaping”; hence the birth of the RiverSmart Homes and RiverSmart Communities programs, which employ both techniques in reducing stormwater pollution.

What Is a Rain Garden?

A rain garden is a landscaped saucer-like depression filled with deep, loose soil and native (or indigenous) vegetation that mimics a knoll or a swale found in a natural setting and allows rain water to sink deep into the ground. Often small and crescent, kidney or tear-drop in shape, rain gardens are deliberately designed and situated to withstand extremes in rainfall by redirecting and absorbing stormwater runoff from downspouts, roofs, driveways, sidewalks, streets and even grass areas (which tend to be less pervious than gardens). The pollutants in this runoff – including excess nutrients, pesticides, oils, metals and other contaminants -- are then filtered, typically over a period of hours, by the rain garden’s plants, soils and microorganisms.

The plants, shrubs and trees in a rain garden typically are the same ones one might see in a native or wildflower garden; the difference is that they are strategically selected and placed to achieve maximum bioretention benefits, while also serving as an overall aesthetic or focal enhancement. And since the depth of a rain garden can be as shallow as six inches, heavy machines typically are not required.

Why Are Rain Gardens Important?

In addition to helping control flooding, recharging groundwater and offering water-cooling benefits, rain gardens provide valuable habitat for local wildlife. And, even more important, these strategically planted areas help improve the health of our rivers, and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, by reducing the number of pollutants that flow into storm sewer systems or directly into tributaries that feed into the Bay.

Of particular benefit is that levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which contribute to algae blooms and other Bay degradation, are instead absorbed beneficially by garden plants.

Benefits to Homeowners

Homeowners who have rain gardens installed enjoy reduced yard maintenance, once the plants are well established.

In addition, rain gardens and native plants in general:

  • Help beautify yards by serving as pleasing visual oases in the landscape;
  • Reduce the need for mowing, pesticides, pruning, irrigation and fertilizing;
  • Require less watering than conventional lawns and gardens;
  • Cost less to maintain than typical turf lawns;
  • Help stabilize soils and reduce erosion; and
  • Are a fun and creative outlet for homeowners, who are free to participate in selecting plants.

Rain Garden Planting and Maintenance Considerations

While rain gardens are all unique in design, with many fitting into odd shapes and spaces, most RiverSmart Homes rain gardens are typically 50 square feet and are designed to fit with individual site characteristics, with topography, soils, drainage patterns, existing vegetation and sun exposure factored in.

A wide variety of natives – indigenous species that were here before European settlers arrived – may be used in rain gardens. However, plants selected are often those that tolerate both the extremes of flooding and drought.

Of course, rain gardens do require maintenance and are therefore not for everyone; the area will need to be weeded and mulched seasonally and watered regularly during the first two growing seasons, as well as during subsequent drought periods. However, rain gardens require less overall effort, time and money than traditional turf lawns. Plus, what better way for individual homeowners to make a difference in saving the Bay?

Want a rain garden in your yard? Here’s how to enroll: Visit http://ddoe.dc.gov/service/riversmart-homes-application or call DDOE at 202-535-2252.

About RiverSmart Homes and RiverSmart Communities

For more on RiverSmart Homes, see http://ddoe.dc.gov/service/riversmart-homes-overview.

For details on larger-scale RiverSmart Communities projects, see http://ddoe.dc.gov/service/riversmart-communities

Cyd Price is owner of CapitalCreations – Organic Gardening and Landscaping. She can be reached at 202-297-2661 or cydprice@msn.com.

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