"Don’t underestimate the power of a rain garden."
Rain gardens do more than provide natural protection for communities, they bring people together.
As the Urban Programs Manager for the Conservancy in New Jersey, I have been responsible for leading several rain garden installations, including one in the town of Millville in Cumberland County. What I saw there was a remarkable blend of teamwork, cooperation, passion for nature and a real caring for neighbors and neighborhoods that truly transcended the humble quality of the job at hand.
Our group included representatives from Rutgers Cooperative Extension Office, Citizens United for the Protection of the Maurice River, Cumberland County Master Gardeners and the City of Millville, in addition to Millville residents and Conservancy staff. We toiled under bright sun over the span of two days, grading land, preparing soil, digging holes, planting flowers, mulching and watering a 1,000 square foot rain garden in the uphill portion of Joe Buck Park, located near the town’s public library.
For years, the site has been problematic because the library’s roof and parking lot create 7,000 square feet of impervious (non-draining) surface. As a result, whenever rain fell in the area, water collecting on the roof and in the parking lot would mix with oil, pet waste, trash and other pollutants, and stream those contaminants directly into the nearby Maurice River.
Our completed rain garden now captures that water and protects the river.
But it also provides habitat for native pollinators, is a focal point of civic pride in the community and beautifies the landscape in a way that actually has the potential to improve property values by making perceived “eyesore” properties more attractive.
It is important to recognize and promote all the benefits of rain gardens, because communities have different needs.
In Millville, the potential to enhance property values was the catalyst for city officials to fast-track our project; in Camden, another city we’ve worked in, the motivation was to combat an aging sewer system that backed up raw waste into children’s playgrounds with as little as half an inch to one of rainfall. In either case, rain gardens have proven an elegant part of the solution.
Yet another benchmark of the impact of a rain garden is media attention. Our installation in Millville was covered by 5 different local and regional newspapers, even making the front page in two different publications. The media recognized how the message of turning bland or even blighted urban locations into vibrant, protective areas full of life resonates with their readership.
The other day, I checked on the Millville rain garden, which is now 4 months old, and it is functioning beautifully. Its plants—picked specifically to attract native species—are thriving, with butterflies, bees and even milkweed bugs abounding. And it is serving its main purpose by capturing the maximum amount of water from storms and protecting the Maurice River.
Whenever I visit, and every day that Millville residents pass by this little oasis, we are reminded of the power of nature and the power of community, and how those two forces working together can have benefits well beyond expectations. Whenever I have the opportunity to explain how this humble patch of nature can protect neighborhoods, safeguard water supplies and bring people together, I always say: Don’t underestimate the power of a rain garden.