Our Bay: This Week's Take: Visiting rain gardens can be eye-opening

For The Capital Published 07/04/09

Courtesy photo The rain garden at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Crofton is shown during a rainfall.

Summer is undeniably a time when our spirits surge with the joy of new life, a time to visit and consider how each of us, residents, businesses, churches and schools, can join in a dedicated renewal of life in the creeks and rivers we hold dear.

May I suggest an eye-opening, inspiring visit to some outstanding urban rain gardens?

For redevelopers: A miniature stream valley, created on land provided by Westfield Annapolis and funded by Chesapeake Bay Trust and National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.

The garden is an outstanding example for urban redevelopers of revitalization of compacted soils, restoring their natural capacity to absorb and infiltrate the rain shed by roads and rooftops.

For the demonstration, we selected a struggling patch of grass between rows of trees at the food court and movie entrance to the mall off Jennifer Road.

With a small backhoe, we dug through buried asphalt and discarded sidewalk between the two rows of trees, leaving their roots undisturbed.

By digging compost into the underlying clay soils, we achieved infiltration for road runoff that flows into the rain garden through cutouts in the curbs. We planted and mulched river birch, sweetbay magnolia, bayberry, winterberry, cardinal flower, aster, joe pye weed, goldenrod and other natives.

A ribbon-cutting for this garden in 2003 was celebrated by a gathering of high-level officials, including the director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, whose enthusiasm for widespread use of rain gardens for baywide restoration was undeniable.

With regard to polluted runoff from roads that this garden treats, it is vital to note that field monitoring showed that a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch removed 90 percent of metals.

At 6 years old, this summer, the garden's early bloom is a treat to the spirit of deprived urbanites, as well as an inspiration to redevelopers to help restore Anne Arundel County's damaged waterways.

For churches: Two exceptional rain gardens will delight your imagination and offer opportunity to other churches whose parking lots drain to our cherished rivers. Chesapeake Bay Trust helped fund both.

The rain garden at St. Philip's Episcopal Church on Bestgate Road has stone benches, an altar, tiles made by the congregation to express their relationship to the rain, and a sign which suggests a relationship with all life.

The garden pooled to the very top when it was first planted, three years ago, with a deluge - 8 inches of rain - flowing rapidly from the parking lot. The soils are sandy, so within 36 hours the garden was no longer afloat. A linear rain garden absorbs rain from the back parking lot.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church off Route 424 in Crofton, designed and installed by Keith Underwood, resembles a dry streambed.

To the delight of parishioners, it has a natural stone bridge for passage between parking areas. Its bald cypress and inkberry are distinctive for beauty and function. The garden can infiltrate 26,000 gallons of rain and clean copper lead, zinc, cadmium and other potential cancer causing pollutants deposited by cars on parking lots.

Instead of encouraging overflow into a stormwater pond, this "dry creekbed" moves water it cannot absorb into the nearby woods, refreshing the roots of trees.

Importantly, at the Riva Trace Baptist Church on 214 in Edgewater, the South River Federation, with funds from Chesapeake Bay Trust, worked with the church to install a large bioretention area and several smaller rain gardens.

Filled with wetland-loving rushes and irises, the entire system serves to sequester nutrients and sediment before they reach Beards Creek.

Anne Pearson lives in Edgewater and is director of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities. She can be reached at 410-956-1002 or aplace4@verizon.net.

(Revised July 2009)