As her corner of Kensington became “a hotbed of teardowns,” Pam Marcus noticed that the water accumulation in her yard had changed since she’d moved in 20 years earlier. After a storm in 2020, she referred to her backyard as “Lake Marcus.” She reached out to Darlene Robbins with the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection’s RainScapes program, the arm that helps residents assess and mitigate stormwater issues. Robbins, a RainScapes planner, estimated that 13 upslope properties drained into that one backyard during significant rainfalls.
And Lake Marcus wasn’t just an eyesore. Unmanaged stormwater can be dangerous, potentially causing property damage and stream erosion while also spreading pollutants and creating breeding pools for mosquitoes. The multifaceted solution that Marcus’ waterlogged property required shows how landscapers, DIYers and even religious communities are coming together to improve the health of our watersheds.
For county residents such as Marcus, the RainScapes program offers resources and incentives to install rain gardens, conservation landscaping, rain barrels, pervious pavement and cisterns.
To solve her issue, Marcus hired Debbie Schweitzer of Kensington-based Shorb Landscaping, who recommended a rain garden with additional storage and controls. A rain garden is a shallow depression, usually 8 inches deep, that fills with up to 6 inches of water after a big rainfall. It contains native plantings that allow stormwater to be absorbed into the ground slowly, rather than run uncontrolled into neighboring properties and streams.
A required percolation—“perc”—test showed that Marcus’ soil drained too slowly, so Schweitzer’s crew decompacted it and added berms to slow and divert runoff to dry creek beds. Beneath those, PVC piping carries any excess water into a 325-square-foot dry well that fills only when there’s excess water and allows it to perc slowly. Another pipe drains any overflow along the side of the house into river rock at the front.
Adding topsoil, Shorb then planted 1,400 square feet of conservation landscaping—all native plants. Their roots, which are much deeper than non-native turf grasses, absorb rainfall better and weather the hot summers well.
The county’s RainScapes program (Rockville, Takoma Park and Gaithersburg offer stormwater programs to their residents) syncs with a national trend to better manage increasingly dire stormwater events. “The old way of setting up cities and towns was to move water away from buildings and streets, but that has created environmental damage downstream,” says Luke Jessup, the owner of Father Nature Restorative Landscaping, a Wheaton-based landscaping company. “All that sediment and debris and pollution has damaged our bodies of water. We need to capture stormwater as close to the source as possible.”
With their filtering capacity, rain gardens can reduce multiple pollutants, says Ann English, RainScapes’ senior planner and program manager. When county residents build large additions, they’re required to include green infrastructure tools, such as a green roof, a dry well, a rain garden and water harvesting, to address stormwater issues. Dry wells, the most popular retrofit option, don’t, however, filter water or promote local biodiversity. Rain gardens also “put water back in the soil, so it can gradually leak to our streams, which will keep them hydrated all summer,” English adds.
“It worked amazingly well,” says Marcus, a cancer epidemiologist. For all that she did to properly rectify the stormwater issues in her yard, she spent about $46,000 and received a rebate of $6,375. Now she enjoys the birds, insects and butterflies her native plants attract to her lake-free land.
The solution to Marcus’ issues was complex, but some residents take on the construction of a rain garden as a DIY project. After admiring the seasonal interests created by three rain gardens at nearby Olney Elementary School, Christopher Hinton-Miller and his wife, Shani, wanted to attract butterflies and hummingbirds to their yard, control erosion and improve their view. Using the RainScapes website as his primary guide, he designed a 400-square-foot rain garden and applied to the rebate program.
Hinton-Miller, a mathematician at the U.S. Defense Department, received approval in July 2022 and had six months to complete construction. That required renting a backhoe and consulting with a nursery to find deer-resistant plants. He said it was a “long, slow process” to dig, extract rocks and amend the soil with compost to create the 8-inch-deep ponding area they wanted. He also constructed a driveway trench drain to direct stormwater to flow from their gutters into the rain garden.
Although he developed carpal tunnel syndrome in the process, “it was therapeutic,” Hinton-Miller says, but he advises against DIYing unless you’re going to enjoy it. Their rebate, $3,750, was about $500 less than what they spent. The project was a finalist for a residential BUBBA, or Best Urban BMP (best management practices) in the Bay Award, given by the Chesapeake Stormwater Network.
“If they’re doing it themselves, the digging part is a little overwhelming,” English says, so some homeowners opt to do conservation landscaping, which doesn’t require as much digging. Such landscapes that pond to a shallower level of 3 inches, along with non-ponding conservation landscapes, can also qualify for RainScapes rebates. Less digging means not disturbing the existing soil as much, which some environmental experts encourage.
When installing a rain garden, “there’s a lot that can go wrong,” says Edamarie Mattei, founder of Backyard Bounty landscaping in Silver Spring. “If you don’t do it right, you could create a swamp.” Jessup advises hiring a landscaper with experience. “We’re dealing with ecosystems, and these are complex organisms,” he says. “A lot of landscapers don’t really understand how complex it is.”
Kenzie Raulin opted for a hybrid method for her small front yard rain garden in Silver Spring. She hired Jessup to assess her yard, design the garden, buy the plants and then mold the ground as needed. “Even though it feels costly to hire someone, it’s so worth the expertise,” says Raulin, who did the planting herself. “I’d never have come up with the design that Luke [Jessup] did. There’s such value in the skills that folks have about types of plants and how to position them.” She also welcomes the variety of beneficial flying insects (not mosquitoes) that now frequent her yard, along with “praying mantises, garden spiders and lots of caterpillars. It’s just made the whole yard come alive.”
Some stormwater issues are so immense that a homeowner alone can’t fix them. Instead, they require communitywide cooperation, like the project that resulted from the collaboration of The Carolyn Condominium in Silver Spring, the downhill Mississippi Avenue residents, the Friends of Sligo Creek and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
The tipping point for Benjamin “Sky” Brandt occurred in 2018, when storms caused water to seep into his family’s basement, which had been resealed earlier. His neighbors had been complaining for years about the flooding in their street, yards and homes, so Brandt decided to “follow the water.” He traced its flow uphill to two 30-foot black pipes pointed toward his street and fed by the large roof and two parking lots of The Carolyn Condominium. “People don’t realize exactly how much water there is when it rains on every square foot. It adds up really fast,” he says. After taking videos and photos, Brandt invited the Friends of Sligo Creek, the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection and neighbors to his home for a presentation.
Brandt took “compelling videos of the flooding,” says Kit Gage, interim president of the Friends of Sligo Creek, who estimates seven houses were impacted. Brandt and Gage contacted The Carolyn Condominium board, which “didn’t know there was a problem, and that’s typical. It’s not a blame thing whatsoever,” says Gage, who helped the condominium board obtain a demonstration watershed restoration grant for the project through the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The board supported the project.
Installed in 2019 on condominium property, the conservation landscape designed by Backyard Bounty redirects and absorbs much of the water from one of the parking lots. “The idea is you capture that water when it’s uphill and soak it into the ground,” Gage says. The conservation garden alone, however, couldn’t handle all the flow. The runoff from the roof and other parking lot still needed to be addressed, and the COVID pandemic had just started. To get that second project—a planned rain garden in the condo building’s backyard—off the ground, Brandt and Gage had to apply for another grant, convince a new condo board, and find an available contractor, which was difficult in 2020.
Once the board realized the greater extent of the problem and that the potential fix had funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, they “were really interested in it because it helps to beautify the property,” says April Scott, then the board president. “We have a large backyard mostly used by dog walkers, and the garden just beautifies the space. It wasn’t a tough sell.”
Installed in the summer of 2022 by Millersville-based Environmental Quality Resources, the rain garden required an underdrain and underground storage unit to slow the water’s downhill rush. Scott appreciates the piles of paperwork and the legwork done by Brandt and Gage, and now enjoys the “busy exercise” of the condo’s green team, which oversees the garden. “That’s definitely something I have enjoyed, the teamwork, the collaboration between neighbors who wouldn’t usually know each other,” Scott says.
“In the beginning, everybody was probably just seeing it as their own issue,” says Brandt’s neighbor Paula Miller. “The project is a great example of how individuals and organizations can work together to solve these big problems.” Miller helps with the condo rain garden weeding. And Brandt has installed five DIY rain gardens on his property.
While rain gardens have become more popular, some people still harbor misconceptions. “Can my child swim in it? Can I put lily pads in it?” Schweitzer says her clients have asked, not understanding that the shallow ponding (usually 6 inches at most) typically lasts less than 48 hours. Correctly installed rain gardens include an overflow notch that drains into river rock, a second rain garden on a lower terrace, or conservation landscaping. Quick drainage eliminates mosquito breeding, another common fear.
Some homeowners might worry that rain gardens are messy or muddy, but Bethesda resident Cindy Onder says her rain garden “is the complete opposite.” When she and her husband, Nick, rebuilt their home in 2017, their landscaper at the time installed a rain garden that turned out to be too sparse. In 2019, they hired Mattei to make it fuller and lusher. “It’s so beautiful, …and I like that I’m doing a good thing for the environment,” Onder says.
To obtain a rebate, RainScapes requires that applicants use 75% native plant species, but many, like Hinton-Miller, aim for 100% to support biodiversity while simultaneously addressing stormwater issues.
Naomi Edelson, senior director of wildlife partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation, came to view religious congregations, which often have lots of lawned acreage, as contributors to local stormwater issues and potential solutions. In 2014, the Takoma Park resident founded a national program within the federation called Sacred Grounds that’s designed to persuade congregations “to play a leading role in replacing their lawn or putting in native plants for wildlife habitat to help people and wildlife,” she says. “They have both large acreage and the ability to reach a lot of people. … We’re working with the concept of caring for creation.”
Edelson’s rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom in Bethesda, first had the idea to add conservation landscaping to the congregation’s property in 2012, which led to a connection with the RainScapes program and a rebate. “All of the projects we now do in the DMV have a stormwater link,” Edelson says. One of Sacred Grounds’ latest and largest projects, funded by the National Wildlife Federation and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, was with the IMAAM Center mosque in Silver Spring.
For interested congregations, Sacred Grounds offers informational sessions about stormwater and supporting wildlife. “People do not realize the connection with their own homes and the health of the creeks or rivers nearby,” Edelson says. While they might feel that they can’t make much of a difference alone, “the congregation model really works. People are doing it together and see that they will add up to having an impact.” Congregants who attend the sessions receive a starter kit of three to six free native plants for their yard, and Sacred Grounds supplies the native plants for installations on congregation property.
In the spring of 2022, the IMAAM Center hired a contractor to dig out an 80-by-20-foot-long and 2-foot-deep area that had a lot of compacted gravel. The congregants amended the planting area with richer soil and compost. (Due to easement issues, the mosque wasn’t able to apply for a RainScapes rebate, but it received Chesapeake Bay Trust and Sacred Grounds support.) Once the space was ready, more than 30 volunteers planted hundreds of native plants. Their conservation landscaping captures runoff from a parking lot and nearby Georgia Avenue. The mosque plans to apply for a RainScapes rebate to transform another piece of their land.
Currently working with over 15 congregations in the DMV and 70 in total, Edelson hopes to connect with churches and encourage them to consider rain gardens and conservation landscaping.
“Government agencies are at a point where if we don’t do it at home and on our congregation grounds, they can’t get past where they are” in dealing with intensifying stormwater runoff issues, Edelson says. “It’s our job to help, and people really have responded to that concept.”
Amy Brecount White, an Arlington regional master naturalist, practices conservation landscaping in her own front and back yards.
This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.