Phipps Conservancy director is practicing what he preaches by installing a home rain garden

Leading by Example

Richard Piacentini, executive director of Phipps Conservatory and a veteran gardener, wasn't wishing for a torrential downpour. But when an all-day storm in June overflowed his rain gauge, he was ready.

Though the rain topped the 5-inch mark on the gauge at his Squirrel Hill home, there were no puddles in his front yard, side yard or small bed at the bottom of the sloped driveway. That's because they're all rain gardens and the driveway is made from permeable pavers.

During Mr. Piacentini's 15 years at Phipps, he has promoted many "green" innovations that save energy and water at a complex centered on a Victorian greenhouse. He figured it was high time he did the same at home.

"We talk about this all the time at Phipps. I thought I ought to practice what I preach," he said.

Rain gardens work by collecting and holding water beneath the soil surface. Plants grown there generally don't need much water but can tolerate deluges if necessary. Permeable pavers sharply reduce runoff by allowing rainwater to run through gaps between the stones and collect in layers of gravel beneath. Extra rainwater at the Piacentinis' house usually ends up in the 1,800-gallon concrete cistern beneath the bed at the foot of the driveway.

Like many household projects, this one started small, with a cracked driveway and falling-down retaining wall. Mr. Piacentini decided on Eco-Tek interlocking permeable concrete pavers and Omni-Stone cast-concrete wall stone made by R.I. Lampus of Springdale. The project took seven months. Mr. Piacentini declined to say how much it cost.

"Seven months of mud -- my wife wasn't very happy," he said, smiling.

Architect Christine Mondor of Evolve EA designed the new, wider driveway and Mr. Piacentini designed the gardens based on information he found on the Web, especially a stormwater management manual created by the Westmoreland Conservation District). Now Phipps has rain garden information on its own Web site.

The Oakland conservatory and botanical gardens has been preaching the gospel of sustainability for years. But convincing gardeners to use less water and grow less thirsty plants is an uphill battle. Mr. Piacentini admits one of his motivations was strictly personal -- he wanted low-maintenance beds that he wouldn't have to water often.

Since he favors native plants, he chose most of his shrubs and perennials from Sylvania Natives and Beechwood Farms nurseries. His gardens include winterberry, black-eyed Susans, irises, daylilies, sedums, liatris and boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), whose fuzzy white flowers were teeming with bees this week. Since he loves vegetables and herbs, he couldn't resist also planting tomatoes, leeks, pepper, parsley and rosemary.

To water everything, he has two rain barrels and a spigot connected to the concrete cistern. If it ever overflows, the water runs through a pipe into the hillside and is dispelled into gravel at its base.

So far that hasn't happened. But if it does, this gardener is ready.

Kevin Kirkland can be reached at or 412-263-1978. First Published August 22, 2009 4:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?