The library rain garden handles stormwater run off. 

Run Off or Rain Gardens?

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Thursday October 03, 2013

Two weeks ago, I pedaled on my bicycle to the South Burlington Library, where I noticed a young woman pulling up weeds in a garden near the front entrance. Her cheeks, hands, and clothes were spotted with coffee-colored soil, as if she had just finished making mud pies. Curious, I asked her if the garden was a school project. “It’s a rain garden,” she said. I had never heard of one. I pedaled hacome and Googled, rain gardens. One link after another popped up: Rain gardens sop up stormwater. Rain garden design templates. Smart waterways. 

So, what exactly is a rain garden? It’s a garden, typically planted with perennials, which reduces the amount of stormwater from impermeable surfaces, like roofs and parking lots, from running into storm drains, lakes and streams. Ultimately, the gardens prevent contamination of waterways from pernicious substances, like phosphorous, pesticides, and heavy metals. Rain gardens also prevent storm water from leaching into buildings.

Rain gardens are not entirely new to South Burlington. Fourth grade teacher, Christopher Provost and his students installed Chamberlin School’s third rain garden this past August. Several years ago, a team of researchers at the University of Vermont and city officials assisted neighborhoods as they planned and implemented examples of residential rain gardens.

For South Burlington in particular, there is reason for interest in these gardens: According to University of Vermont’s Redesigning the American Neighborhood Research Team Report, “South Burlington contains all or a portion of six streams impaired by stormwater run off, the highest number of any community in Vermont.” 

A few days after my research, I pedaled back to the library, where I met with Nancy Simson, a South Burlington resident and chair of the South Burlington Library Board of Trustees, to talk with her about the garden. Though we were blessed with crisp air and a sapphire-blue sky on this mid-September day, Nancy did not forget the rains that flooded the library again and again in the several years prior to the planting of the garden this past spring. Can you imagine all of the ruined books, the mold, the stink, the unnecessary losses? 

According to Library Director Louise Murphy in 2006 earthen berms were permanently piled-up outside of the library. But, as Nancy said, “They just absorbed the water then it ran into the library.” Whenever an impending storm was predicted, library personnel, or whomever they could summon to help, would have to haul in sand bags. Thanks to Nancy’s daughter, a rain garden specialist who visited from Seattle during the summer of 2012 and explained the process to her mother, the board began discussions on how to start one at the library. It didn’t take long for the community to engage in this environmentally sound idea: According to John Stewart, South Burlington School District Business Manager, the school paid a little over $8,000 toward the garden, including an engineering study, and materials, such as gravel, sand, concrete, asphalt, and underground drainage pipes. The city provided $5,000 in equipment and labor. An environmentally concerned patron of the library donated $300. The garden’s shrubs are the result of a $1500 grant from The Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District. Arcana Farm donated several of the plants. The final cost for the school and city combined: just over $13,000. Compare that to the $60,000 Mr. Stewart said it would otherwise have cost to “change the slope of a portion of the parking lot, install storm water drains, and repave the affected area.” 

Nancy explained that the building of the garden began in the fall of 2012 with the excavation of the two berms, leaving behind two bowl shaped pits measuring twelve inches deep. Due to the high water table, drainage pipes were laid down to absorb anticipated excess water. The bowl-like pit was then filled with course stone and pea gravel. This past spring, a mixture of sand, compost, and topsoil were applied. When I asked Nancy who helped with the planting, she held her hands up in pleasant disbelief: “People just showed up.” They helped spread the soil.” The high school’s maintenance personnel spread the woodchips, which are designed to absorb water. Jennifer Mills, the mud pie maker, is paid by the library to care for the garden, which Nancy proudly expresses as pesticide and fertilizer free. Pure organic matter nourishes the plants. 

Going forward, “we need to stop the gushing,” Nancy said. “Individuals can do this on their own property.”  It’s a perfect excuse to gather with neighbors, to install and maintain the gardens together, to share ideas about what you can do to keep the runoff out of the lake,” as Nancy said. 
If you don’t have a green thumb, the money, or time, an alternative might be a rain barrel.  They rest under a gutter down spout, where they collect and store rainwater from your roof, preventing runoff from flowing into storm drains and streams. You can then use the water collected for your plants. A rain barrel can easily become an art project:  you can paint it with your favorite colors, or design. This is a great way to involve children in a “green” project. 

Remember when we didn’t have cell phones? Now, we say, “How did we manage without them.” Remember when it was okay to smoke in restaurants and on airplanes? “I can’t believe we put up with that,” you might say. Ten years from now, picture every household, every public facility, with a rain garden as a welcome gesture, lush with purple Asters, fuchsia Anemones, and lipstick-red bee balm. Imagine the scent of mulch, spice, and chamomile. Jump ahead a decade: “Remember when we didn’t have a rain garden? Why did we wait so long to build one? We could have stopped the deluge from ruining our homes sooner. We could have stopped the contamination of Lake Champlain sooner, where nearly 200,000 people get their drinking water.” 

The South Burlington Library will be holding a dedication to their rain garden in the next couple of weeks. For more information, contact Nancy Simson at

South Burlington’s Department of Public Works Stormwater Services division isVermont’s first and only stormwater utility, it manages and maintains stormwater drainage including more than 120 miles of drain lines and 2500-plus catch basins. In addition to raingardens,  it also develops and maintains proactive management practices such as detention ponds,  and the Bartlett Brook stormwater wetland. See the city website for more details. 

For information on rain gardens:

Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District:

Redesigning the American Neighborhood:• Let it Rain Stormwater Program:

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor