Dolores Milmoe, an Audubon Naturalist Society lobbyist, helps plant a… (Photos By Evy Mages For The…)
Sarah Fulton once worked as a social worker, trying to help clients change their ways, but now that she's retired, she is trying to create tiny ecosystems that could help change the world.
Fulton is one of three volunteers who last month helped plant a rain garden at a Habitat for Humanity townhouse development in Deanwood in Northeast Washington.
At the development, volunteer construction crews have been using environmentally sensitive building methods and materials as much as possible. The goal is to create an affordable green community of 53 houses on what had been 4.3 vacant acres off Central Avenue near the Prince George's County line.
Installing rain gardens, instead of using more traditional methods of managing storm water, is one way to meet Habitat's goals of building green and promoting low-impact lifestyles.
The gardens comprise an array of water-loving plants that filter runoff headed for the region's water supply and the Chesapeake Bay. Each garden is expected to handle about 600 gallons of runoff for every inch of rainfall. Without the gardens, the runoff would go directly into the District's storm sewer system.
"If we only build housing, shopping centers and highways, we don't have plants to soak up water," Fulton said as she explained her growing interest in rain gardens and their effect on the environment. The garden is the second on the site, and Habitat plans to plant more.
Unfiltered storm water runoff, which carries dirt, gravel, chemicals, motor oil, farm runoff and other gunk into waterways, is a leading source of water pollution in the Washington area.
In the District, runoff poses special problems because, as in many older jurisdictions, sewage and storm water mostly run through the same sewers. In a heavy rainstorm, storm water can overwhelm the system and send untreated sewage into local waterways.
Dick Brinker, a developer in Prince George's, was among the first in the nation to use rain gardens, when in 1990 he decided to forgo the usual retention pond and install rain gardens in the Somerset development near Bowie. Subsequent studies have shown rain gardens can reduce runoff substantially. At the Somerset development, an analysis found that the gardens helped the development cut down its storm water runoff by about 70 percent.
"They can be very effective," said Delores Milmoe, a lobbyist for the Audubon Naturalist Society who helped organize the planting at the Habitat site.
A fortuitous phone call from Milmoe to Habitat in early fall connected the two groups at a time when Habitat construction chief Dave Gano was thinking about installing rain gardens. Milmoe, coming out of a long and unsuccessful battle to derail the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, was looking for a new project for the society, a leading regional environmental organization.
Habitat spokeswoman Heather Phibbs said her organization, which sells its houses at cost and provides no-interest loans to buyers of moderate means, was pleased to have the assistance.
"Building a green home isn't just about the house itself but the land around it," Phibbs said.
The plants, topsoil and sand for rain gardens at the Habitat site were funded by the District Department of the Environment. Mulch was donated by Montgomery County, as were some plants. A major effort was made to include many plants native to the Washington area because they can do double duty, soaking up rainwater and helping local fauna.
One of the plants selected is turtlehead, which has dense, spiky leaves and white or lavender flowers. It not only loves water but also happens to be the only plant on which the threatened Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly will lay its eggs.
The plants most suitable for area rain gardens such as Habitat's cost $200 to $400 per garden, Milmoe said, depending on where they are purchased. Audubon has helped install many rain gardens of about 35 square feet each at several other sites in the region; the Habitat gardens are a bit larger.
The rain gardens were designed by Habitat volunteer Yungling Mei, a local architect, to run down slopes between two houses. Runoff from roofs and the street will be sent through pipes to the garden, which will absorb as much as possible and send the excess flowing through pipes into a creek that empties into the Anacostia River.
To install the garden, Milmoe enlisted Fulton, Gayle Countryman-Mills, a retired middle school teacher, and Marney Bruce, a volunteer with the Maryland Native Plant Society. They spent about four hours on a misty mid-November day planting and mulching, following a map Fulton drew to show what would go where.
The gardeners offered a primer as they warmed up indoors after their work.
First, determine where water runs downhill; be prepared to dig to about 18 inches; fill with soil mix suitable to the plants selected. Plants should be grouped together. Plants should like lots of water but be able to endure dry spells. If possible, plants should be native to the area.
Once the garden is established, "you don't have to do much except weed," Milmoe said.
If planting a rain garden seems too daunting, there are other ways to slow down and filter runoff, Bruce said, such as directing a house's downspouts away from the street or using a rain barrel to capture runoff, which can be used to water plants.
"It is instant gratification," said Countryman-Mills of her volunteer gardening. And it can be done with minimal intrusiveness. "Nobody has to know you were there."