Conservation Currents

Gardening for the Rain

June 2010

by Shelly Stiles

People garden for all kinds of reasons. One reason, soon to be on display at the New England Tropical Conservatory’s Education Center, is unusual. There, at the former Howard Johnson’s on Route 7 south of Bennington, NETC is creating gardens to protect and improve water quality. You can learn why and how – and lots more – at a workshop scheduled for Monday June 28th from 5 pm to 7 pm at the Center.

Put very simply, the land and the watercourses that drain it are a precipitation cleansing and delivery system. They capture and purify rainfall before returning it to the seas, from whence it rises, to fall and flow again. At least that’s what happens in nature.

But add parking lots, roads, and storm drains to the scenario – or a former HoJo’s orange roof – and rainfall doesn’t infiltrate into the earth. It flows instead in greater quantities directly to streams and rivers, and it dumps into them impurities that before might have been captured by soil and the microorganisms in it. This is stormwater, and it is one of the biggest threats to water quality in developed parts of the world.

One small-scale approach to managing stormwater (again very simply!) is gardening. Rain gardening, to capture and hold rainfall until it can percolate into the soil rather than run over the surface. And, at NETC, to capture and hold rainfall to grow summersweet, chokeberry, spiraea, butterfly milkweed, purple top, culver’s root, buttonbush, and more. Our Rain Gardens and Stormwater Management Workshop will include a tour of the gardens at NETC led by Executive Director Mary Fuqua, and will offer lessons on how people can create their own rain gardens at home.

While the parking lot at the NETC Education Center is substantial, it is as nothing compared to the many acres of impervious surfaces in the Bennington downtown. Jim Henderson, GIS Senior Planner at the Bennington County Regional Commission, has been mapping those roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and roofs, and will present his findings at the workshop. Water quality and flood flows in the Walloomsac River watershed are greatly affected by how much of the community is covered by impermeable surfaces.

To help us get our heads around what we can do as a community about roads and roofs and parking lots and sidewalks, the workshop will include a presentation by Ryan McCall, Green Infrastructure Coordinator with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Water Quality. He’ll introduce us to techniques we can use to deal with stormwater retroactively, and with policies we can adopt to reduce stormwater produced by new development.

Registration for the workshop is $10 per person (or $9 for Friends of NETC). It includes a copy of the Vermont Rain Garden Manual and other helpful handouts. (In case of heavy rain, the workshop will be held at the same time the following day.) Light refreshments will be served. To register, contact NETC at or by calling 802-447-7419.

The project has been undertaken with a grant to the Bennington County Conservation District in collaboration with the New England Tropical Conservatory and the Bennington County Regional Commission. Nick Lasoff of Lasoff Landscape Design designed the rain gardens. Ann Kremers provided the illustrations for the sign that will grace the garden site. The Bennington Garden Club is also sponsoring the workshop.

Shelly Stiles is the district manager of the Bennington County Conservation District, whose mission is promoting rural livelihoods and protecting natural resources in southwestern Vermont.

This column appeared in the Bennington Banner in June 2010, as one of the BCCD's Conservation Currents pieces, a bi-weekly feature written by BCCD board and staff members since August 2006.