The rain gardens that dot Ring Road on Anne Arundel Community College's campus have their roots in the mind of an honors student.
Eileen Catte, 33, brainstormed the rain garden idea for her environmental science class. To earn honors credit, she agreed to assess whether the campus would benefit from tiny gardens strategically placed near storm water drains to slow rushing water and filter out impurities before they wash into larger bodies of water.
With guidance from biology professor Susan Lamont, Catte determined that rain gardens would stop erosion near the walking trail on the Arnold campus and help prevent nitrogen and phosphorus from running into Mill and Dividing creeks.
It was Lamont, however, who took the project one step further after Catte turned in her design at the end of the fall semester. Lamont applied for funding to plant the garden, as well as four others on campus. She received more than $24,000 in grant money from the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Trust in February and, with the help of donations, brought the project to fruition last month.
"I was amazed at the way it took off," said Catte, who hopes to build a career in environmental building design. "It was really refreshing to see so many people were interested."
Catte and Lamont joined about 40 students, staff members and others to put in more than 600 plants April 24 along the campus' main road. Contractors had cut notches in the curbs so that rain water would be diverted into the gardens.
Rain gardens are a way to cut back on the damage wrought by development, said Steve Ailstock, chairman of the college's biology department. Instead of rain soaking into the soil and replenishing groundwater, it now washes over parking lots and roads, dragging sediment, motor oil, fertilizer and other pollution into storm water drains. The drains feed the polluted water into the Chesapeake Bay.
Nitrogen and phosphorus, which have caused an overgrowth of algae in the bay, can be absorbed by rain gardens and help native plant species thrive, Ailstock said. The gardens, some of which have trees, also can prevent erosion after heavy rains.
"The best thing you can do for water is to slow it down to give biological processes a chance to clean and filter the water," Ailstock said.
Catte proposed the garden project to Lamont as part of an honors contract, an initiative launched in the fall to revive the college's honors program. Under the contract program, a student can convert a regular course into an honors course by agreeing to do research or field work and to receive 15 additional hours of one-on-one instruction.
Catte, who is a business major with a passion for the environment, wanted to join the honors program, but the environmental course she picked wasn't an honors course. Lamont said it was an easy decision to advise and create an honors contract with Catte, who had a background in horticulture from working in a plant nursery. Catte also volunteered regularly with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and had a ready team of experts to give her advice. (The foundation is another nonprofit organization that works on improving the condition of the Chesapeake Bay, but it is not related to the Chesapeake Bay Trust.)
"What was different about [Catte] was that I knew she could implement that project," Lamont said. "It's rare to see a student with that type of commitment."
Catte used rain gardens on the foundation grounds to research native species of plants that would work in her garden and started collecting seeds she could use.
Lamont said she was so impressed with Catte's drive that she sought the advice of a landscape designer, Anne Guillette of Low Impact Design Studio of Pasadena, to help look for possible sites on campus and write a grant. Guillette encouraged Lamont and Catte to add four more gardens to their plan for a greater impact on runoff.
College officials "jumped right on board" when they heard about their plans, said Maury Chaput, executive director of administrative services at the college and chairman of the architectural review committee. The college had been putting in rain gardens during the past two years at its Arundel Mills satellite campus to get rid of standing water problems.
"It's worked beautifully," Chaput said.
Lamont received a $24,354 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, but she still needed $1,200 to complete the project. The biology club donated $700 in proceeds from bake sales and the college's landscaping committee donated some of the plants and mulch to defray the rest of the costs.
The funding helped pay for Guillette to design four of the gardens, as well as pay for the contractors to do the curb cuts, elevate the level of the storm water drains and deliver the plants. The college used Catte's design for the garden near the walking trail, where runoff already had cut a gully into the landscape.
Sally Hornor, another biology professor at the college, collected water samples to create a benchmark for water quality to see if the rain gardens reduce pollution going into Dividing and Mill creeks. She looked at sediment and bacteria levels and is having a lab determine phosphorus and nitrogen levels. Hornor expects to see a small change because the rain gardens can divert only part of the storm water runoff on campus.
Lamont hopes that future students will take on the task of planting more rain gardens. She plans to offer service-learning credits to students who maintain the sites and help monitor water quality.
Lamont hopes the rain garden project will inspire sites off campus too.
For more information on rain gardens, download a Rain Garden Guide from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Web site at cbf.org.