This is the time of year when many of us like to sit back and think about next year’s gardens and plantings around the house. But this year let’s think about what we can do to make our properties more friendly to the Anacostia River. What are a few simple things we could do in our yards and nearby areas to help speed the recovery of the River and the time when we and our offspring will be able to swim, fish and frolic in its clean waters? Two years ago that would have been considered a wildly optimistic view, but the recent progress has been impressive and there is more to come.
I spoke recently with a number of professional garden folk, including Kristin Sampson at Frager’s Hardware, Thomas Kapfer at Ginkgo Gardens, and Jim Guckert of Guerrilla Gardeners of DC, a citizens group that works to improve public spaces with nature. They were full of information and ideas about what homeowners in Anacostia, Capitol Hill and other places can do to help our rivers.
The main challenge is holding, slowing and absorbing the rainwater falling on our properties and reducing the level of chemicals and toxins in that runoff. Since many of those toxins are in the gutters and streets the water runs through, simply reducing what is flowing off your property is a good start. We all have so-called “impermeable surfaces” that do not absorb the rainwater and send it on – roofs, patios, concrete or brick walkways, driveways, etc. Lawns are another source – especially if they are cut short they send the water right off with minimal absorption and they are often over-watered with sprinklers in summer. Letting the grass grow long creates deeper roots and more absorption of water, and replacing sprinklers with drip systems helps a lot to reduce run-off.
Gardens are more complicated, because we add so many nutrients and chemicals to help growth and control plant and animal pests. Mulches can help by reducing runoff if they are limited to two inches and are the type that integrate with the soil over time. If mulch is too deep, it simply becomes more nutrient run-off. Using leaves in place of commercial mulches also keep down the toxins. In fact, you should consider reducing the use of commercial chemicals and replacing them with organic fertilizers and weed controls. And don’t forget winter ice and snow – avoid using a lot of salt-based chemicals to melt it – there are alternatives. The best way to manage runoff from your gardens is to use layers of plants in different varieties growing close together; some hold the soil, some cover the ground, and others send down deep roots to absorb more water.
Create a Rain or Roof Garden
Another option is to create “rain gardens” on your property; these are low areas away from the house where the water collects and slowly seeps into the ground. One benefit of this is that you can grow a wide variety of new plants that are quite colorful, spread easily and like to have their feet wet. Roof gardens are another way to go for those with flat roofs and ready access. Some are made for grasses and sedges and others accommodate vegetables and traditional flowers. And they all absorb the rain on the roof.
Help Our Public Spaces
If all this isn’t enough for you to think about in anticipation of next year’s gardens, look beyond your property for opportunities. You can start with the tree box in front of your house and others on the block. Or look for nearby areas that don’t seem to be under anyone’s management and take them on with your neighbors. After all, that’s how Jim Guckert got started with Guerrilla Gardeners; there was a piece of property across the street from his house on the 700 block of I St SE. It was up next to the freeway and across from the Marine Barracks, but no one seemed to be caring for it. Today it is a beautiful space due to the participation of various agencies and volunteers to keep it looking better all the time. And those tree boxes on your block can always use a bit of mulch, a few plants underneath and a little love.
Of course, there are many places to turn to for help and support as you think about how to help the River come spring:
- The Guerrilla Gardeners of DC are always looking for new partners and volunteers to work the streets and open areas of the city. They would especially like to have contacts in the Anacostia neighborhoods. Check out www.guerrillagardenersdc.org or e-mail Jim Guckert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For help with trees in the District, especially for street trees, connect with DDOT Urban Forestry on-line for contacts and programs. There are also programs to provide trees to homeowners run by Casey Trees (see below).
- A wide variety of assistance for property-owners who want to work to reduce their impact on the Anacostia is available from the Riversmart Homes Program under the DC Department of Energy and Environment, run in cooperation with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. This is a District-wide program providing a number of valuable incentives to homeowners to reduce stormwater runoff from their properties. It provides an “audit” to homeowners to determine eligibility for both financial and technical assistance for one or more of the following:
- Rain Barrels
- Shade Trees (w/Casey Trees)
- Rain Gardens
- BayScaping (native plantings)
- Permeable pavers for driveways, walkways, etc.
If you are interested, check out riversmarthomes.org; you can apply by calling 202-535-2600 or online at doee.dc.gov/service/get-riversmart.
All this is provided to help the individual property owner do his or her part to help restore our rivers. And now you know how and why, as well!
Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, on the Boards of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Friends of the National Arboretum, a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.