Benefits of rain gardens taking root across district

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Janet Folajtar had a water problem to solve when she decided a rain garden in her yard would spare her and her Mt. Lebanon neighbors the ordeal of storm runoff. And Eddie Figas, Millvale's community and economic development director, saw the opportunity to show very publicly what a rain garden can do in the corner of a municipal parking lot.

The two won in separate categories -- residential and public -- of the first contest of the Three Rivers Rain Garden Alliance, an advisory group that promotes the creation of gardens to reduce runoff, keep pollutants from streams and rivers and increase groundwater.

Of 94 rain gardens registered with the alliance, six entered the competition. On a recent daylong tour of all six, judges walked around and through each one, making notes and conferring on the identity of certain plants, on garden design and the pros and cons of each. The other four contest entrants are at a residence in Monroeville; the Latodami Nature Center in North Park; an Indiana Township community park on Middle Road; and the Mt. Lebanon Park.

A rain garden can be deep or shallow and shaped like a stream, a circle, oval or square. The location dictates the design, but the best ones are low maintenance, make use of native and adaptive plants, and quickly absorb as much storm runoff as possible.

Mr. Figas said the Millvale parking lot rain garden absorbs 64 percent of the rainwater from the site.

It is about 18 inches deep, 650 square feet and drains a 5,400-square-foot lot. One curb cut takes water that runs toward the corner of the lot, while another opens at the mouth of a gutter under a strip of grillwork bordering the sidewalk.

Millvale teamed up with GTECH Strategies using a grant from the Heinz Endowments on that project, which was completed in 2011, Mr. Figas said.

"We had done other projects with GTECH of a green nature," he said. "We got the idea of really making an impact on a site that's concrete. That was one of the parking lots that the borough owned, and it had minimal impact on parking spaces. When it was finished, it took up 3 1/2 spaces.

"A few people didn't understand the concept, and that location was chosen in part" to be educational.

Ms. Folajtar, an engineering geologist and master gardener, saw a rain garden as a way to add a patio in back of her house without affecting her downhill neighbors. She also wanted to solve the problem of runoff onto her property.

"Part of my master gardener program was to do a project, and I selected a rain garden, as stormwater management has become very important in Pittsburgh," she said. "I wanted to make it pleasing to the eye."

She split her garden into two parts, one 100 square feet, the other 250. The larger one in the front of the house is fed by underground pipes, and she has an inlet to collect her neighbor's runoff, she said.

"It was estimated that I collected 11,000 gallons since last September," she said.

StormWorks, a project of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, and George Girty Landscape Design worked with her on the project.

Beth Dutton, program manager for Three Rivers Wet Weather, one of the alliance members, said the contest has been instructive for future programming.

"We want to do a design program for people who cannot afford" to hire a design firm and landscape architects, she said. "Other cities are giving incentives to homeowners."

The judges said they were inspired on the tour.

"I was looking for rain gardens that solved a problem, showed some innovation, used appropriate plants, and looked nice," which would indicate a plan for maintenance, said judge Lynne Weber, a master gardener and co-owner of The Urban Gardener.

Fellow judge Joel Perkovich, sustainable design and programs manager for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, spoke of the "global problem" of the loss of forests, wetlands, floodplains and meadows. These losses regionally are due in large part to lack of planning, sprawl and steep topography with heavy clay soils, he said.

"The rain gardens we observed as part of this contest are an encouraging sign that people are more conscious than ever about designing with nature in mind," he said, "and we all are reaping the benefits."

He said that with careful thought and maintenance, rain gardens can be aesthetic features year round. And they "should not require supplemental irrigation or fertilization after establishment."

"The rain gardens we visited are an encouraging snapshot of the green infrastructure solutions to stormwater runoff that are being implemented in the Pittsburgh area," said judge Sandy Feather, an educator in commercial horticulture for Penn State Extension. "In addition to managing stormwater on-site, these gardens provide habitat for pollinators, songbirds and amphibians, which are some of the species most adversely impacted by urban sprawl.

"The more our gardens mimic nature and provide ecosystem services, the better for all of us."

The Rain Garden Alliance is made up of 18 partner organizations and has 94 registered gardens that have collected more than 2.6 million gallons of rainfall since July 1, 2009.

region - environment

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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