A Preliminary Plan for 2 Rain Gardens Near the Meek Aquatics Center Retention Pond at OWU
By Luke Steffen
This project is an addition to the broader study of the ecological impacts of the Meek Aquatic Center’s retention pond started by Caitlin Mcnoughtan and Cynthia Hastings in 2014. In this study, they suggested ways to make this recently constructed pond better for wildlife, cleaner, and more aesthetically pleasing. One of the proposed solutions was to plant native perrenials in and around the pond. After consulting with buildings and grounds, I found that building directly on the pond’s edge was not feasible because the pond was surrounded by rocks and there were legal barriers. They instead pointed me to two areas, one a semicircular area around the grotto on the northwest side of the pond and the other a circular area around a dead willow tree on the north side of the pond. After consulting with botany professor Dr. David Johnson and reading about rain gardens on non-profit websites, I drew scale model plans for the rain gardens.
Before going into detail about the project, it is appropriate to describe the pond in context. The Meek Aquatics Center was built in 2010 thanks to a $3.5 million donation from Phillip J. and Nancy Laporte Meek. The building is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certified, featuring a geothermal heating system, a reflective clay tile roof, and building materials that are either local, recycled, low-VOC (volatile organic chemical) or a combination of these factors. Because it was built to fit goals of conservation and sustainability in campus development, it is fitting that the grounds nearby should give back to the surrounding wildlife.
Because buildings have an impermeable roof, their construction disturbs the hydrology of an area, creating more runoff, intensifying some floods and, possibly, increasing local water pollution. To mitigate this, the builders have two main options. First, they can create a “green roof” covered in plants and faux soil that absorbs water just like the ground did before. This method is trendy, but complicated and expensive. As a result, most buildings dig a rentention pond for aesthetic purposes and to capture this extra rainfall. Despite its LEED certification and use of other hip ecologically conscious design practices, The Meek Aquatics design team decided to build a retention pond.
This pond is longer than it is wide and is situated on the east side of the Meek Aquatics Center, near Henry Street. The banks of the pond are steep and a thick pile of gravel lines the edges of the south end of the pond. There is an area of flat ground on the south side of the pond, which is perfect for planting a garden, but this area is hotly contested because it is useful for other things as well. Crab apple trees and evergreen bushes, each surrounded by a thick layer of mulch, are planted strategically around the pond for aesthetic purposes.
Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed (FLOW) is a non-profit central Ohio conservation organization that seeks to preserve and beautify the areas that drain into central Ohio’s Olentangy River. This includes lobbying for better environmental laws, sponsoring some scientific studies, and conservation projects. One recent program sponsored by FLOW is the Adopt a Pond program. This gives grants of $600-$900 to organizations or people who seek to improve their local retention ponds and change it from a necessary but dull human construction to something that gives back to wildlife and improves the surrounding hydrology. FLOW has three recommendations for the people or groups who wish to be a part of this program:
- Eliminate the use of fertilizer and pesticides near their ponds. Excess fertilizer nutrients can cause algae growth, harming stream life.
- Stop mowing to the edge of the pond to create a vegetative buffer. Buffers help hold soil in place and clean runoff water before it reaches their pond.
- Plant trees and native plants to encourage wildlife. Native plants prosper in central Ohio soils and provide food and shelter for birds and butterflies” (Summer 2014 FLOW Newsletter)
Implimenting the first suggestion seems like the easiest thing because it requires less physical labor. This may be popular with the Buildings and Grounds department at OWU because they are currently understaffed and overworked. However, a well-groomed aesthetic is key to OWU’s image which is in turn important to attract and retain donors and students, which are essential to OWU’s revenue. While an elimination of the use of pesticides and fertilizers could improve the cleanliness of this area in the long run, in the short term it will cause desirable plants to fade and “weeds” to grow strong. The buffer idea is good also, but for proper aesthetic, the whole edge of the pond would need to be planted with tall grass because the standard bluegrass that is already is not healthy when it is left unmowed.
As a result, I decided to plan for the third suggestion: planting native plants and trees to encourage wildlife. This achieves the ecological and aesthetic goals of the pond.
In conducting this project, my first challenge was scope. I could not decide where to plant the plants and how many to plant. Funding and knowledge of available and suitable plants was also a challenge. I contacted Cindy Hastings, who covered part of the pond project and Dr. Krygier sent me Caitlin Mcnoughton’s project from the previous year. Dr. Johnson gave me a list of plants that the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed (FLOW) recommended, but did not say if that organization was offering any money to pay for them or had any of the plants on hand. These were helpful in getting background knowledge about the pond itself, but not very useful with defining my scope or planning the layout of the garden. Additionally, I had conflicting information on funding for the project. Dr. Johnson did not know of any funding, but Dr. Krygier said that FLOW had donated about $800 to the project.
Recalling my Eagle Project, and other Scouts in my troop with similar conservation oriented projects, I realized early on that defining scope and settting boundaries is the most important step. Setting boundaries, literal and figurative, is important because you want to be sure that the project is legally and politically feasible in the given time frame as well as physically doable. If the project is not recognized by the authorities, it will be mowed down, at worst, or the project leaders will face charges, at the worst. As a result, I put aside questions of budget or plant types and figured out what areas around the pond were appropriate for use.
I sent an email to the OWU Buildings and Grounds Department to arrange a time to meet and solve this problem. After a few days of negotiations, I was able to secure a meeting with Shane De Wiggins, one of the Skilled Trades foremen in the Buildings and Grounds Department. He asked me about my plans and I said that I wanted to plant native Ohio perennial plants that would absorb water pollution, attract wildlife, and be aesthetically pleasing. I also said that while I ideally wanted these to be close to the pond, where they could absorb excess, polluted runoff, I was alright with having them on any ground near the pond that was open and had minimal restrictions for modifications and use. He pointed me to 50 foot tall hill of clay and rubble laying on the West (back) end of the Meek Aquatics Center. After thinking about it, I told him that that area would be suitable for a future project, but too ambitious for my own. He then pointed me to two other areas, which I eventually chose because of their moderate size and location near the water: a semicircular area around the patio on the northwest side of the pond. This area was currently a grassy area on a slope between the patio, the curved 1’ tall patio wall, a strip of mulch with small evergreen bushes, and the water pump. He noted that I would need to leave a 3’ wide strip of ground between the garden area and the pump. This area would likely not be a perfect semicircular curve but, do to landscaping practice, would be narrower (about 2’) on either end and bulge at 8’ wide in the middle. For convenience, however, I decided that the preliminary plan would have a 2.5’ wide arc for this part of the new garden.
The second area was a small dead willow sapling in lower, gently sloping area on the north point of the pond. We measured a 12’ radius around this tree. The pond got in the way of creating a perfectly circular area for this second garden, but ¾ of the circle was available for use. I asked briefly about recommended plant types and the soil and Mr. De Wiggins told me that this soil was a tough Ohio clay that was heavily compacted and full of construction rubble due to its location near a relatively recent construction site. He said that this may have been the reason why many trees, even the willow, which loves damp clay soils, have failed to thrive. This information made me choose to plant these areas with forbs and grasses, rather than woody plants. Woody plants may be hardier in the long run, but they are expensive and have a high chance of dying in this soil. After the meeting, we agreed that buildings and grounds would create a copy of the architectural plans for the Meek Aquatics Center and the surrounding landscape, which I would use as an aid for my garden design. I also discussed ways to get rid of the grass and make room fort the new plants. When I did my Eagle project in 2011, I sprayed the garden area with soap and vinegar. This quickly killed the weeds and grass so they could all be removed easily. It was fast, efficient, and more eco-friendly than pesticides. I told Shane De Wiggins about this and he said that while that worked for the flat ground where I had planted my Eagle Scout Project Garden, he warned that on this sloping ground it would kill the plants below. As a result, I decided to stick with physical removal. He also warned me that the Buildings and Grounds department sprays a copper based pesticide on the water to give it a bluer color. He said he will try to limit this spraying.
The following week, I received the ground plans. However, they did not have a scale listed on them and had few details. The latter was good because it made these charts clear but the former made it difficult to draw out clear boundaries and begin my garden plan. I arranged another meeting with Shane De Wiggins from the Buildings and Grounds Department to discuss these issues and draw clear boundaries. It turned out that the map I was using had an approximate scale that was good for an architect, artist, or laborer, but may not have been acceptable at an engineer. As a result, Shane and I had to approximate the scale by taking measurements with a ruler for a given distance on paper and, using a ticking wheel, measure that distance on the ground. Afterwards, simple algebra could be used to determine the scale. We did this, using the circumference and radius of the patio as examples. We found an approximate scale of 1”=9’. Using my ruler and (circle drawing) compass, I drew the general boundaries on the map and created the outlines for my garden designs.
When the meetings with the OWU Buildings and Grounds Department had concluded and I had drawn the boundaries confidently, I met with Dr. David Johnson to discuss which plants to choose. He was dismayed to see that the areas I ended up with were on higher ground because that meant that the swampy wetland plants on the list for a previous project were not appropriate for this project. He suggested that whatever I do, I should be mindful of the distance between the plants and be sure to give them more room than they officially need. I had remembered this was important in my Eagle project: a coneflower may seem skinny, but its root ball is big and requires more than one exact square foot. He also told me that a raingarden would be most effective for these areas because a rain garden is on the top of a big slope and absorbs pollution before it can enter the waterways below. He told me to look up rain garden plans for ideas and lists.
I followed Dr. Johnson’s instructions and looked up rain garden plans and pored over the lists of plants to come up with a proper design for my two areas. I wanted all native plants, a mix of grasses and flowers, a mixture of plants that would bloom in different seasons so the gardens could be attractive all year round, plants that were attractive to native wildlife, and plants that were suited for the wet and dry fluctuation of a rain garden. I found plenty of good sources, with information that was confirmed on most sites, and discovered unforeseen steps and costs.
To build a rain garden, one first needs a location that is on high ground near a drainage area, like a stream, river, ditch, pond or lake, but not immediately next to it. Ideally, it would also be underneath the roof of a building, so it can catch, absorb, and filter polluted runoff as directly as possible. The latter point did not fit the description for my garden areas, but the former certainly did, so I went ahead with the rain garden. The next step is to test the soil to figure out the proportion of clay, silt, and sand in it. After that, one needs to pull out all the existing grass and dig a ditch with an even depth where the new garden will be. The depth of the new garden pit depends on the composition of the soil below. That way, if the garden is on a slight slope, which both of these are, runoff will gather in the rain garden and be absorbed instead of continuing to run down the hill. This ditch needs to be filled with a sand, silt, and topsoil mixture of different composition and type depending on the composition. The volume of mixture required can be determined by multiplying the depth by the square area for cubic units of topsoil/sand/silt mixture. Because the soil in this area is a harsh clay made more inhospitable by building rubble and compaction, the ditch will likely need to be quite deep (at least 6”). I ran out of time for soil tests and my measurements of garden cannot be final until trial and error has proven them to work. As a result, I do not know the price for this digging and extra soil, but I do know that it will need to be taken into account and funded at some point. After digging out this area but before filling it with the soil mixture, a wall, or berm needs to be established along the edge of the garden. This wall will likely be made of rocks, as they are sturdy, weather resistant, and attractive. This wall helps protect the plants within the garden, preserve the layer of topsoil, and trap polluted water in the garden area so the plants can absorb it before it runs off into the pond below.
After these steps are taken, the planting of the gardens can begin. For the arched garden, I have chosen symmetry as my main design theme to reflect the orderly nature of the Greek columns and patio it surrounds. There are four sections, one on either end and two in the middle with 2-3 clumps of Carex Bricknelli, or Prairie Sedge. This grassy plant is tall, pretty, low-maintenance, and provides shelter for birds, food for caterpillars, and water filtration for runoff. It is on most native gardening lists. Near either end of the arch, I have nodding pink onion, or Allium cernuum. These small plants have a pleasant, sharp smell, pretty pink flowers, and can be planted closely together. Next further inward is white wild indigo or Baptistia Leucantha, a 3’-6’ tall plant that has white flowers. Flanking the center is purple prairie clover, or Dalea purpurea, a common plant in native plant guides that is on the list for attracting butterflies and absorbing water in a rain garden. Flanking the center of the arch are a group of purple cone flowers, or Echinacea purpurea, and stiff goldenrod, or Solidago rigida. Purple coneflowers are tough plants that do well in a variety of soils. Native Ohio wildlife and butterflies also like them. The stiff goldenrod is not as aesthetically pleasing as the others, but it has bright yellow flowers and attracts wildlife.
Due to its location on a slightly gentler slope that is much closer to the water, the circular garden on the north end of the pond by the dead willow tree has a mixture of plants that are better for damper conditions. Flanking the bank of the ponds is fox sedge, or Carex volpinoidea, a grasslike plant that does very well in damp conditions. On three sections of slightly higher ground right above either flank of sedge and situated between both is swamp milkweed or Asclepias tuberosa. This plant has bright orange flowers that are striking when it is grouped together. In addition to being great at tolerating swampy and moderate soil conditions and being thus ideal for rain gardens, this plant provides food for monarch butterflies. As a result, this garden could become a nationally recognized monarch waystation with these plants. In the center, slightly uphill, is a clump of New England Asters, or Aster Novae Anglae, a tall flower in the aster family that blooms in late Fall when the other plants are going dormant. It is excellent for butterflies, on all native plant gardening lists, and has gorgeous purple-blue flowers in the Fall. In the upland left is Prairie Blazingstar or Liatris pychnostachya, a small plant with flowers that look like a blazing star. It is good for swampy and dry soils. Next is boneset, or Eupatorium perfoliatum, a moderately tall classic prairie plant. Next are Ironweed, Vernona fasciculate, and Joe Pye Weed, or Eupatorium maculatum. Both are very tall, very hearty, and attractive to butterflies. I did not plant too many of these however, because they spread quickly and must be tamed if the other plants in the garden are to survive. Last is turtle head or Chelone gabra, a small white flower that is good for damp conditions.
If someone wishes to carry this project out in the next semester, they should feel no obligation to slavishly obey my plans. The drawings were suggestions and require more measurement and assessment of available resources to evaluate fully. Seasonality needs to be resolved as well; many of my plants bloom in the late Summer and early Fall, but few bloom in the Spring. Also, funding and labor are two crucial issues that must be resolved. The grant from FLOW may not cover all the costs of the required soil, mulch, and stones in addition to the plants. The Sierra Club, WCSA, and Price Organics Farms are three likely contributors. Boy Scouts of America is a good source of volunteer labor. In fact, this project could be handed off to a scout who is looking for a meaningful Eagle Project if there are not enough students willing and able to do this project. Maintenance is essential as well. The garden I made for my Eagle Scout project was not weeded at all and it looks like a mess now. Perhaps native garden caretaker could be a student work study position. While weeding needs to be done frequently, it will likely only take 2 hours each time, so long as it is done properly.
Figure 1Architectural drawing of Meek Aquatics Center and surroundings. Furture gardens are highlighted in grey.
Figure 2Plan for the circular garden on the northern tip of the pond.
Figure 3The second garden by the patio on the northwest side
Figure 4 Image fo the area where the curved garden by the patio will be.
Figure 5Picture of the site of the future circular garden around the dead willow tree
Jay Scheffel, OWU Buildings and Grounds, firstname.lastname@example.org
Shane De Wiggins, OWU Buildings and Grounds email@example.com
Dr. David Johnson, Professor of Botany, OWU firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia Hastings, OWU junior Botany/Environmental Studies double major, email@example.com