Chesapeake Quarterly
Greening One House at a Time
Bayscaped garden contains native plants. Credit: Jeffrey Brainard
My Bayscaped garden contains native plants, like orange milkweed and northern highbush blueberry. Compared with a grass lawn, plants like these do a better job of retaining stormwater and reducing soil erosion. Photograph, Jeffrey Brainard

THE FLYER CAME IN THE MAIL WITH A PLEA. Washington, D.C., was looking for homeowners in my neighborhood who would agree to add a whole lot of "green infrastructure" on their properties — special plantings like rain gardens to soak up stormwater. Would we come to a meeting to consider signing up?

My neighborhood, Chevy Chase, D.C., in the city's northwestern part, had been chosen back in 2011 for an experiment. The city had teamed up with the nonprofit Rock Creek Conservancy to answer a question: if all of the homeowners in a single stormwater drainage area acted together, could they reduce the amount of rainwater flowing off their properties and into their common stormwater drain? The city was looking to monitor and reduce this flow because the water was washing pollutants like road dirt and motor oil into a drainage system where they would end up in local waterways and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

I didn't know much about rain gardens or stormwater management. But I was about to get a crash course. As the grandson of a florist, I was interested; I had something of a green thumb and liked to putter in my backyard. I attended a public meeting at the community center and then a cocktail party around the corner at which project sponsors talked up the idea. It felt like my neighbors and I were in this together — the more of us who signed up, the better the odds that the project would result in reduced stormwater flow.

Plus, there was cash on the table. The city was offering up to $5,000 for the green-infrastructure costs at each participating home. We could use this money to pay for one or more greening options. They included rain gardens — native vegetation planted in bowls of soil landscaped to hold stormwater so it can slowly percolate into the ground. Another option was "Bayscaping," creating gardens of native plants without the bowl. We could plant trees. And install rain barrels to catch rain coming out of our gutter downspouts. Or remove paved surfaces such as the concrete pathway and patio slabs in our backyard.

My wife and I opted for the full menu. Then we found out that all of this would cost double the $5,000 budget from the city. This business of greenscaping wasn't exactly cheap, not with professional landscapers doing the work.

We narrowed our project's scope, opting for one rain garden instead of two. It would take up 40 square feet in our front yard. We paid some of our own money over and above the $5,000 to remove an unsightly concrete sidewalk that ran straight down the middle of our backyard to our detached garage. New grass and a Bayscaping garden, measuring 100 square feet, would replace it.

Overall I'm pleased with the result. The orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) attracts butterflies. The northern highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is lovely. Our backyard seems more of an oasis than it was. And somewhat less rainwater pools there after big storms — the plants seem to be sucking up moisture as expected.

City officials liked the result, too. Stormwater flows in the neighborhood have decreased. And after the vegetation was installed, project leaders brought about 15 people through my backyard one weekend afternoon on an inspection tour. They included students and volunteers interested in learning more about greenscaping. They joked with me about wanting to stay — if only I would fire up my grill and cook for them.

In my neighborhood, 33 of the 61 other homeowners joined me in signing up for the greening. So did 30 homeowners in the Petworth area of northwest D.C., another neighborhood chosen for the same project to monitor and reduce stormwater.

The city is continuing to fund a group of programs to carry out greening work like this across Washington. One of them, RiverSmart Homes, began in 2007 and in 2014 funded the installation of Bayscaped gardens at 130 properties. Any home in Washington is eligible. (Learn more at http://doee.dc.gov/service/riversmart-homes-overview or phone 202-535-2252.)

But there's a key difference between RiverSmart Homes and the program that subsidized work at my house. RiverSmart Homes caps its subsidy at $1,200, a lot less than the $5,000 I received. City officials have said the higher payments in my program, which the city no longer offers, were necessary to encourage enough participants to make it possible to monitor the effectiveness of greenscaping. (The project for the 60 homes in both neighborhoods cost a total of $3.5 million.)

I consider myself fortunate to have received the financial support. There are many detached homes and row houses in Washington — the city has more than 100,000 — where green infrastructure could make a difference in addressing the city's stormwater-management problem. Greenscaping a lot more of them will be no small or inexpensive feat. But as my own experience showed, there's a lot to be said for the result.

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Chesapeake Quarterly and Bay Journal teamed up in 2014 to produce a series of articles about sea level rise, coastal flooding, and the Chesapeake Bay. Articles appeared in both print and online. This 72-page, full-color report compiles this content along with a new foreword to offer a comprehensive look at the subject. Download a pdf of the report here.

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