Community Rain Gardens, Small Projects with Big and Beautiful Upsides

0:00 By Jamie Jensen Just over a year ago our neighborhoods and downtown business district were badly damaged by the torrential rains of Hurricane Ida. […]

Published September 26, 2022 2:24 PM
4 min read


By Jamie Jensen

Just over a year ago our neighborhoods and downtown business district were badly damaged by the torrential rains of Hurricane Ida. In addition to millions of dollars in property damage, the storm also wreaked havoc on our bodies of water. Storm run-off from yards, pavement, parking lots, roofs, and basements found its way into Long Island Sound and Blind Brook, bringing further environmental harm to our communities.

Since the devastation of last year, Rye’s City Council and City staff, County officials, and State partners have been focusing on flood mitigation efforts centered on Blind Brook. Meanwhile, citizens — under the leadership of the Rye Sustainability Committee (RSC) and the Conservation Commission Advisory Council (CCAC) — have organized small community projects that promise big returns.

Rain gardens are one such example, and last Sunday I joined a group of garden-friendly volunteers and the professional staff of Save the Sound to build one at the back of The Rye Arts Center. The idea came together during a January brainstorming session between the RSC, chaired by James Ward, and the CCAC, chaired by Tracy Stora. The two environmentally focused groups were searching for examples of manageable, effective projects that local citizens could embrace.

Not entirely sure what a rain garden was and could achieve, I joined a one-hour seminar hosted by Save the Sound earlier this summer to learn. In the words of the staff, “Rain gardens are a form of green infrastructure that filter pollutants from stormwater runoff before it flows into the nearest body of water. Native plants and layers of soil, sand, and rock act as sieves to remove harmful chemicals, toxins, and nutrients.” As they explained, the resulting water that absorbs back into the watershed is cleaner after it filters through a rain garden. These gardens are also pockets of nature that bring beauty to the spaces they occupy.

As Tracy Stora noted, “The installation of rain gardens throughout the community will help to reduce the burden of stormwater pollution and flooding. Native vegetation planted in the rain gardens will improve the habitat for birds and pollinators, complimenting the active pollinator pathway program already underway throughout the city.”

When I arrived for the project at The Rye Arts Center (RAC), I found most of the first shift volunteers standing over a recently dug bowl-shaped bed, six inches deep and some 12 feet in diameter. They were wet, from a combination of sweaty labor and drizzling rain, but they were focused. Nicole Davis, Watershed Coordinator for Save the Sound, and our rain garden designer, directed the crew.

Davis, wielding a can of eco-friendly spray paint, instructed us to spread soil on the left side using rakes and dig a bit more on the right. She and James Ward pulled string across the diameter of the bed to help in the leveling process while staffer Sam Marquand fitted PVC pipe to the RAC downspouts. There was clearly a science behind building a rain garden, and this was a knowledgeable and engaged group.

I quickly learned the early morning crew had carefully mapped out a garden plot equal to 1/6 of the surface area of The RAC roof. After removing sod and debris, they created a sloping, 6-inch-deep catchment area where water coming directly from the adjacent building’s downspouts would be captured. The goal of these precise measurements is to ensure that the first inch of rain flowing from a building roof — the rain with the most industrial debris and pollution — ends up in the rain garden.  

Lily Smith, a sophomore at Rye Country Day School, was at the site getting the garden shovel ready. She and her older cousin, Leigh Smith, showed up to learn and pitch in. Lily reported that students at her school intended to build a rain garden on campus, either at the performing arts center or the admissions building. From our conversation, I learned that there are at least three different conservation-focused clubs on the Rye Country Day campus, and Lily believes that students from all these clubs will likely get involved.

Some five hours after the start of this project, we planted native pollinators and the garden slowly emerged. An array of asters, grasses, echinacea, and other species were donated from generous families like Tracy and John Mayo-Smith. Many were purchased from donors wishing to honor Patti Capparelli’s tenure on the Rye Sustainability Committee. Others, like Peggy Peters, donated plants directly from her garden.

What may seem like a small project with a big heart, a rain garden can have a much bigger impact. Modelled after the successful residential rain garden program in New Haven, Conn., The Rye Arts Center project will, hopefully, be the first of many. Multiple small green infrastructure projects can have the same water quality benefits as one large project, while providing a unique opportunity to educate the community and empower residents to improve local water quality.

I am thinking maybe it’s time to remove our no-longer-used family trampoline and put such a garden in our backyard. Maybe, if I’m lucky, others will join me, too.

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