Across the main entrance of Raritan Valley Community College lies an open area that Sue Dorward, Sustainability Coordinator, has been battling on for years.
First built in 2010 on a large, wet patch of grass as part of RVCC’s River Friendly Campus Certification, the rain garden was designed to provide crucial environmental benefits to the campus.
It was supposed to filter storm water pollutants, buffer storm water runoff to reduce erosion and flooding in the nearby stream and house native plants to provide food and habitat for native wildlife. But it has not always worked that way.
Native plants are known to be low-maintenance, yet they would still get strangled by invasive weeds like Canada Thistle and Purple Loosestrife or eaten by deer. Although a fence has been in place around the garden, it was meant only for geese.
“I thought the deer wouldn’t want to eat there because there’s so much traffic back and forth,” Dorward said. “I’ve been trying to do it without a deer fence, but that hasn’t worked.”
It is not just plants in the rain garden that encounter this problem. Last spring several gardens were planted throughout RVCC as part of a campus beautification project. Within weeks deer and weeds destroyed almost all of them, including one throughout the entire outdoor amphitheater.
Another problem arose in the rain garden shortly after it was built. The garden was built slanted and water was not percolating properly, whereas it should be built like a flat tray with raised edges so water spreads and percolates through the soil.
As a result, water sat and mosquitoes arrived. Somerset County did not want stagnant water there, so the college rebuilt the rain garden.
In 2011 Rutgers Water Resources Program made sure the garden was flat. They also put in an underdrain—a perforated pipe under the soil—that drains out the other end of the garden and into the campus stream. Dorward eventually learned to plant deer-resistant plants, such as Wild Columbine, Marginal Woodfern, Blue Flag Iris, Wild Bergamot, Cinnamon Fern and Hoary Mountain-Mint.
Recently, on April 28, Dorward and Environmental classes planted about 20 tree seedlings around the rain garden for "On-Campus Arbor Day Tree Planting." The plants were given as part of the New Jersey Tree Recovery Campaign, a project to plant trees in communities hurt by super-storm Sandy. Dorward and Environmental classes chose this area for the trees because it is spacious and visible to commuters.
The trees included Willow Oak, Norway Spruce, Black Gum, Sweet Gum, Eastern Redbud—an endangered species in NJ given by Senator Christopher "Kip" Bateman—and American Chestnut, which are specially bred by the American Chestnut society to be resistant to the chestnut blight that has been devastating New Jersey for about 100 years.
“Our facilities department was kind enough to pitch in and buy plant material,” Dorward said. “We hope the plants do well and the deer don’t eat them.”
Throughout this battle, the rain garden and other areas of plant life on campus still provided Environmental classes with educational material.
“We use plantings on campus to show the benefits of native species for improving water and air quality, reducing storm water and flooding hazards, increasing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, energy efficiency, and aesthetics,” Jay Kelly, Professor of Environmental Science, said. “We also use the plantings and natural areas on campus to teach students how to identify trees and shrubs and about forest ecology and conservation.”
Next month the college will be planting more native plants around campus as part of the Campus Cares program.
Featured image caption:
Environmental students planing tree saplings during On-Campus Arbor Day Tree Planting. Photo by Hector Yanes.
This article was edited on May 5.