On a chilly Saturday morning in March, a group of District of Columbia homeowners huddled around a backyard bonfire, eager for the approaching spring season. In addition to the warmer weather, many in the group also shared their excitement for the resurgence of native landscaping gardens planted in their yards.

They swapped stories of their participation in the RiverSmart Homes Program, which facilitated the installation of a rain garden or “BayScape” (native plant garden) on each of their properties. While some of their gardens were installed in recent weeks or years, others were early adopters of the program when installations began in 2009. At the garden party, a professional landscape designer, courtesy of Shorb Landscaping, Inc., answered the group’s maintenance questions and told them about a pilot program that would provide assistance in maintaining their gardens.

The growing need for maintenance services was emphasized by a RiverSmart Rain Garden Performance Study done by Urban Ecosystem Restorations, Inc. in partnership with the University of Maryland’s School of Landscape Architecture, the Landscape Architecture Foundation and the District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment.

The study, which focused on 28 RiverSmart rain gardens in the District of Columbia, found evidence of some maintenance concerns. A handful of participating properties’ rain gardens were damaged, intentionally or unintentionally, as the result of a change in occupants or when a contractor hired to cut the lawn also mowed the rain garden.

More often, the study found that invasive plants had begun to establish themselves in the gardens, or plant communities had become unbalanced. In some cases, damage was done by homeowners who “loved their gardens” too much, as demonstrated by copious amounts of mulch, overwatering or overly aggressive “weeding” in which native plants were removed. It became clear that additional education and maintenance assistance for homeowners was needed to protect the city’s public investment in these gardens.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay developed the Pilot RiverSmart 3-Tiered Maintenance Program to address some of the issues identified in the Rain Garden Performance Study by helping property owners to maintain of their installations.

The pilot maintenance program was designed for flexibility: Homeowners can choose:

  • Tier 1: They do the maintenance themselves and submit questions by email or phone about the best way to care for their garden.
  • Tier 2: They can request a site visit, and for a fixed fee, receive on-site advice and direct, hands-on maintenance training.
  • Tier 3: They can hire a contractor, at a pre-negotiated rate, to do routine maintenance or repair work on their garden.

Tier 1 offers suggestions and advice on how to address general maintenance issues cost-effectively, given the owner’s preferences and garden type. Property owners may elect to complete the suggested maintenance on their own or use a Tier 2 or Tier 3 service from the maintenance program. 

In a partnership with the Alliance, Rachel Toker is one of the RiverSmart representatives who provides Tier 1 consultations for participating homeowners. 

Meanwhile, Urban Ecosystem Restorations, Inc., an urban land trust working in the Greater DC area, focuses on preserving or creating landscapes that perform ecosystem services over extended periods of time. It works to ensure that RiverSmart rain gardens and Bayscapes function at optimal levels for stormwater management, air quality improvement and biodiversity support. 

“Most urban residents are not familiar with rain gardens or how they work — nor are they familiar with native plant behaviors and patterns — but once they know what they need to pay attention to and what they don’t, it gets much easier for everyone to ensure the health and functionality of these gardens in the long-term,” Toker explained.

Jamie Alberti, a senior program manager with the Alliance who coordinates the RiverSmart Homes Landscaping grant, designed the program as a part of the grant to better assist homeowners with their maintenance needs.
Looking to the future of the program, Alberti sees a great opportunity to grow the Tier 1 level of services that the program offers. Homeowners can call in or email questions about maintenance, and will get an answer from a RiverSmart representative. She plans to roll out additional resources in the near future. “Maintenance awareness will start through our new homeowner landscaping guide to get homeowners thinking about long-term maintenance before their gardens are even installed,” Alberti said. “We will continue to build our online resources (available at allianceforthebay.org/maintenance) to serve as reference material for homeowners, as well as continue to offer the one-on-one opportunity for questions through our phone/email Tier 1 service.”

The RiverSmart Homes Program is creating more maintenance resources for all of its best management practices that go beyond landscaping practices such as rain gardens and BayScapes to include rain barrels, shade trees, impervious surface removal and permeable pavement.

In September, the District Department of Energy and Environment launched a website, riversmarthomes.org, where users can learn more about the program, see examples of past projects and read relevant articles.
The website has an entire section dedicated to maintenance where visitors can view care sheets, find information about invasive and native plants, watch short videos on a variety of maintenance practices and more. Soon, maintenance videos will be available for all of the best management practices that RiverSmart Homes installs.

More than 4,000 homes in the District have at least one RiverSmart Homes stormwater best management practice installed. With urban best management practice installations, monitoring must be coupled with maintenance to maximize stormwater retention benefits. Having invested significant funds, time and energy into the installation of these projects, maintenance is a vital piece of the puzzle to ensure long-term environmental benefits.

The installations will impact the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek not today or tomorrow — but in the years and decades to come.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.