How Does Your Rain Garden Grow… and Why?

Two of the many great things about the Aiken community are its commitment to preserving our natural resources and its respect for the idea of shared responsibility. There are many long-standing and notable efforts throughout this community to protect our various valued resources. More recently, the community has seen early efforts in what is a relatively new frontier for Aiken in natural resource conservation – rainwater.

The many reasons for conserving rainwater are less obvious and less understood than incentives for protecting other types of natural resources. As a result, opportunities for the conservation of this precious resource are less recognized and realized. The consequences of neglect range from polluted stormwater runoff owing into our streams and water bodies, reduced recharge of the local groundwater table, increased erosion at stormwater outfalls, and ash flooding of low lying areas. All of these conditions adversely affect habitat for our ora and fauna.

The good news is that all of this is beginning to change … and it must if we are to properly protect our other natural resources. Local governments, businesses, and residents all can do their part.

The City of Aiken’s “Green Infrastructure Project” is one good example of what a municipal government can do to reduce stormwater runoff and to contribute to rainwater conservation. This many sided and innovative project is a positive first step toward these goals. For example, in targeted parking areas in downtown, conventional pavement was dug up and replaced with water permeable surfaces that allow rainfall to soak down into the underlying soil.

In addition, the City channeled runoff from downtown streets into the available greenspace of some of the City’s parkways, particularly along Park Avenue. The topography in these parkways was sculpted into depressions, lined with porous soils, to collect stormwater and allow it to percolate into the soil, replenishing the groundwater. There are two types of depressions: sloping bioswales planted with turf grass, and rain gardens planted with flood tolerant plants.

Water conservation is in everyone’s interest, and even the individual can contribute to the cause. To really succeed, there needs to be a collective, communitywide effort. Rain gardens can be used to good effect by a federal, state, county, or city government, a large or small business, and even a private citizen at home.

A rain garden on the home scale is a gentle depression that receives runoff from nearby impermeable surfaces such as roofs, patios, sidewalks, and driveways. It is a relatively low cost, low maintenance garden feature that can become a green or colorful focal point in the garden. The location, shape, and size of a rain garden relates to the existing ow and volume of runoff on your property, as well as to the specific terrain of your lot.

With the thoughtful selection of appropriate plants, a rain garden can be designed to attract birds, butter ies, and bees. Native plants work best and will establish quickly. Depending on the amount of rainfall, the runoff collected in a rain garden will be absorbed by the plants and the soil within a few hours or a day or two, which is not long enough for the breeding of mosquitoes.

The rain garden is its own ecosystem. The plants, soils, and microorganisms present in a rain garden contribute to filtering the pollutants in the water. A number of contaminants commonly found in runoff are efficiently taken up by the plants or treated as the water is drained through the soil.

Careful research and planning are important for designing and installing an effective rain garden, but many academic and commercial resources are readily available online. After the initial installation of your rain garden, maintenance will involve watering during dry spells, periodic weeding and mulching, and seasonal replacing, pruning, and thinning of the plants. Fertilization is not necessary.

It may seem that a home or small business rain garden would make an inconsequential contribution toward conserving rainwater and alleviating the negative consequences of unabated stormwater. However, as this practice becomes more a part of the local culture and more integrated into the municipal planning process, like other conservation causes locally, the collective effort will, in fact, be appreciable. In doing so, we protect several of our other natural resources as well.

Hired in 2005 to serve as The Hitchcock Woods Foundation’s first Executive Director, Doug Rabold came to Aiken in 1990 to work at the Savannah River Site, where he held positions in human resources, community outreach, and business development. He has also been Executive Director of the Aiken Center for the Arts where he founded and organized Art After Hours and Aiken After Hours. For three years, he operated his own communications consulting business. A graduate of Duquesne University in journalism, he has served on the boards of Leadership Aiken County and Helping Hands, as well as numerous other local organizations and committees.