09/24/14 8:00am
09/24/2014 8:00 AM
The Suffolk County Soil and Water District celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event last week. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The Suffolk County Soil and Water District celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event last week. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Before there was a state Department of Environmental Conservation tasked with protecting local soil and water resources, there was the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District. (more…)

10/13/13 8:00am
10/13/2013 8:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Danielle Raby, who manages the garden center at Shade Trees Nursery in Jamesport, points out the golden-yellow leaf color on a native variation of witch hazel called Arnold’s Promise, another plant suitable for a rain garden.

Pleasing to both the environment and the eyes, rain gardens are one way homeowners can take an active role in protecting the local aquifer while also creating a scenic backyard setting.

When rainwater from homes and properties flows into stormwater drains, it brings along the pesticides and pollutants it picks up along the way, said Sharon Frost with the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District.

That stormwater doesn’t get any filtration, she said, adding, “It’s all about stormwater remediation.”

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Low-maintenance river birch trees do well in wet soil.

Rain garden landscaping, also known as bayscaping, involves planting native shrubs, vines and trees in an area designed to catch stormwater runoff.

The native plants work as tiny filters that trap pesticides and pollutants in the stormwater runoff and prevent them from reaching groundwater, Ms. Frost said. They also help attract native butterflies, bees and birds, she added.

Plants and trees have deeper root systems than grasses, which helps aerate the soil. The water can then be absorbed and filtrated, she said.

“The great thing about native plants is that, once established, they are really very maintenance-free. Most are resistant to pests and tolerant of the local weather conditions,” said Anita Wright, assistant director of environmental education for Group for the East End.

Ms. Wright works with community groups and schools, including Shelter Island High School, where she helped build a rain garden last spring.

A rain garden needs to be planted in a shallow depression, which can either be naturally occurring or can be dug in an area near your home, Ms. Wright said.

“You want an area that is well-drained. An area where rain has completely absorbed into the ground within 12 to 14 hours,” she said.

“You don’t want stagnant water, which might attract breeding mosquitoes,” she cautioned. “Sand can be added below soils to help speed up absorption.”

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The rain garden behind the Cornell Cooperative Extension building on Griffing Avenue in Riverhead helps collect and filter stormwater runoff from area buildings and cars.

The garden should be placed five to 10 feet away from the home’s foundation – and near a downspout. Homeowners can direct rainwater from impervious surfaces, like a roof, into the garden, Ms. Wright said.

“I have one in my yard and it is absolutely beautiful. There are so many native plants to choose from and local nurseries are carrying more than they used to,” she said. “They attract so many butterflies and bees – they can be really breathtaking.”

Many people also add stepping stones, benches or hammocks to their gardens so they can relax there when the weather is nice, Ms. Wright said.

What makes fall the perfect time of year to think about building this type of garden is that many of these native plants are on sale, said Danielle Raby, garden center manager at Shade Trees Nursery in Jamesport. The nursery sells more than a dozen native species.

She recommends planting river birch, a tree that originates in the Northeast. “They are low maintenance and great in wet soil,” she said.

For shrubs, Ms. Raby said Clethra, also known as a sweet pepperbush, offers sweet-smelling white flowers in the summer and turns a golden yellow in the fall. It is native to Long Island, she said.

Residents in the Reeves Bay and Hashamomuck Pond watershed have an opportunity to earn cash for this type of conservation landscaping, thanks to a new rewards incentive designed by the Peconic Estuary Program, a public-private partnership focused on improving the quality of water in the Peconic Estuary system.

About 1,670 property owners are eligible to receive up to $500 each to build rain gardens or conservation landscaping on their property using native plants. The total reward depends on the size of the garden, which must be a minimum of 50 square feet.

“It’s on a first come, first served basis,” said Jennifer Skilbred, education and outreach coordinator for the program. “The more homeowners we get involved, the better.”

A total of $50,000 in federal funding has been secured for the program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she said.

For more information on the rewards program visit the program website.

Tips on building rain gardens — including a list of native plants — can be found on the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County website, www.ccesuffolk.org.

cmiller@timesreview.com