Northern Rhode Island Conservation District



Starting Your Own Community Rain Garden Project

Are you a teacher, youth group leader, or parent
looking for a worthwhile project for young people?

We recommend that you start your own
Urban Rain Garden Project.


  • Young people will study life science and ecology, while learning about community service and teamwork.
  • Each additional Rain Garden planted decreases the pollution entering our local waters.
  • A beautiful nature garden grows next to the asphalt of parking lots and streets.
  • A small wildlife habitat is created and people can watch butterflies and other wildlife.
  • Your city will learn a new and practical conservation method.

Below we will describe our experience with the Urban Rain Garden Project. We will tell you what we did, what we learned, what we  would do differently next time. We will also include the resources we used along the way.


The Northern Rhode Island Conservation District educates and assists northern Rhode Island residents as they protect their communities water and soil. This includes both farmland and urban land.

NRICD had already been working with local businesses, homeowners and elementary school children. We wanted to teach local teenagers about local water quality protection.

Mike Merrill, from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, told us about Rain Gardens and how they are being used in different  parts of the country. We learned that the average person can plant a Rain Garden next to their home or business, helping to protect the water around their home.

We realized that many Rhode Islanders did not know that this simple technique was available to them. We decided to train high school students to teach Northern Rhode Island residents about Rain Gardens.

To do this, the teens would first need to be taught about a Rain Garden's purpose and how to plant one. Then students would plan a publicity campaign to pass this information on to their city.

Finally, students would plant a demonstration Rain Garden in their community. An educational sign would be planted beside the garden to educate passerby.

As a result, local homeowners and businesses would learn about Rain Gardens and local teenagers would also learn through their environmental work.


We wanted to find high school teachers willing to try out our project with his/her students.

We found an Ecology class at Shea Senior High School (Pawtucket) taught by Mike Cordeiro and a Biology class at Woonsocket High School taught by Cathryn MacDonald and Elizabeth Shallcross. The teachers thought their students would benefit from the experience.


We applied for several grants. It took a while, but after a disappointment or two we were happy to receive both encouragement and  financial support from three organizations also working on natural resources protection. These organizations were:


The sites for our demonstration Rain Gardens would need to be:

  1. Next to a parking lot
    While Rain Gardens can be planted near any impervious surface, we decided our demonstration gardens would catch runoff from a parking lot.
  2. In a public spot
    ... so passersby would see the garden and read an educational sign about Rain Gardens.
  3. Near Woonsocket High and Shea High Schools
    ... so our high school students could walk to the garden sites and work during their class time.


We found two potential sites, one on Woonsocket High School grounds and one at the Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket.

We received encouragement and support for our project from staff at both schools.

The NRICD gets technical support from USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and they were partners in this project.

Mike Merrill (District Conservationist) and Joel Schmidt (Hydrological Engineer) went out to survey our Rain Garden sites.

They wanted to know the following:

  • Where did stormwater go as it flowed over the parking lots? Into a nearby storm drain?
  • Could this stormwater flow be diverted into a Rain Garden?
  • How much rainwater would flow off this parking lot during an average rain storm?
  • How large would the Rain Gardens need to be to hold this amount of rain?
  • What was the soil like at the garden sites?
  • How could we shape the garden so the stormwater would be carried directly to the middle?


New England Aster, Joe-Pye Weed
and Goldenrod

Thanks to our funders, we had the money to buy native plants for both gardens, however we did not know what types to choose. They had to be plants that would tolerate the wet  conditions of a Rain Garden after a storm and the drying conditions between storms.

The URI Healthy Landscapes Program at URI had recently published a list of native plants that  could be used in Rain Gardens. We reviewed this list.

District Conservationist, Mike Merrill, researched his own resources from the Natural Resource  Conservation Service Plants Database. We also used field journals, such as National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England.

From this, we came up with a list of what we would like to plant. These are the native plants we chose.

  • Vernonia noveboracensis (New York Ironweed)
  • Cornus amomum (Silky Dogwood)
  • Spiraea tomentosa (Steeplebush)
  • Eupatorium maculatum (Joe-Pye weed)
  • Lindera benzoin (Spicebush)
  • Aster novae-angliae (New England Aster)
  • Solidago rugosa (Rough goldenrod)
  • Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass)

We purchased our plants through two local nurseries:


We asked the Pawtucket Department of Public Works if they would donate a backhoe and staff to dig the garden at the Varieur  School. They willingly agreed to help in this community environmental project.

At Woonsocket, we decided to have the students dig their demonstration Rain Garden. This Biology class had several active, energetic  students. Would some outdoor exertion balanced with some quiet in-class lessons create better learning? An opportunity for an education experiment.


In April 2005, we began to involve the two high school classes with the Urban Rain Garden Project. Our work with them went as follows:

Introductory letter
Students were given a letter that explained the purpose and plan of this project. Then the classes discussed the project with their teachers.

Students write short essay
Both demonstration Rain Gardens would protect the Blackstone River as it passes through Woonsocket and Pawtucket. Students were  asked to write about any personal experiences they had with the river. Their writing was then read to the class. Almost all talked about the pollution they had seen.

Blackstone River Valley National Heritage
Corridor Map (portion of)


 Students needed to understand a variety of topics before they could tell others about Rain Gardens. These lessons were given during Science class.

To view lesson plans, go to STUDENT LESSONS

  1. What is a Rain Garden?
  2. Review of Water Cycle.
  3. What is a Watershed?
  4. What is Groundwater?
  5. Choosing Native Plants for your Rain Garden
  6. Comparing characteristics of sand, clay and humus
  7. Experiment: Does water drain faster through sand or clay or humus?

Here are some ideas for more science lessons that could be used with The Urban Rain Garden Project:

  • Impact of water pollution on personal health ... on local environment.
  • How do various plants adapt to their ecosystems?
  • The nitrogen cycle ... photosynthesis.
  • How is soil formed?


The students were asked to teach the public about Rain Gardens. They discussed different ways they could do this and the following methods were chosen:

  1. Tell school community about Rain Gardens.
  2. Public celebration at garden site.
  3. Submit informative articles to local newspapers.


Groups were formed to work on each publicity method. A fourth group began to plan garden design.

Student work group plans publicity.


Student practice a speech they will give to other classes. They will tell others about the Rain Garden they are planting on school  grounds and explain its environmental function.


Prior to garden digging we called


and got the okay to dig at both of our sites.
There would be no risks of digging up any utility lines.

Pawtucket Demonstration Garden at Varieur Elementary School
The Pawtucket Department of Public Works graciously agreed to dig the soil for this site using a backhoe. Prior to digging day, we  went out and marked the boundary of the garden. On the digging day, Mike (NRCS Conservationist) met the backhoe operator and they worked together to dig the garden the proper depth.

Woonsocket Demonstration Garden at Woonsocket High School
Because we had many strong, capable students in our Woonsocket Biology class, it was decided that we dig this garden the old  fashioned way, using shovels. It took us several class periods, but we did it. Many students seemed to enjoy this outdoor work.  However, restricted by time limits we had to dig during some hot and humid June days. Even with plenty of cool drinks and snacks, many students were wishing for a backhoe.

For more information, go to HOW TO PLANT YOUR OWN RAIN GARDEN


In March, we placed our plant order with New England Wetland Plants and New England Wildflower Society. The plants were ready by our June planting date.

Shea Senior High Students plant a Demonstration Rain Garden
One humid day, early in June, we met teacher Mike Cordeiro and his students at the Pawtucket Rain Garden site. Throughout the day,  we all planted. By the end of the day, a beautiful new Rain Garden was complete. This Rain Garden will catch stormwater runoff from the parking lot at the Varieur Elementary School.


Another humid June day, three classes of Biology students planted a variety of native plants. For some, it was their first time  gardening. Some students loved to work with the soil and plants, while other students preferred to helped distribute the drinks and  snacks. It was an enjoyable experience for most of the students and teachers ... to be outside doing something active and useful.


The students told the school community about Rain Gardens by:

  1. putting up posters throughout school
  2. giving a short talk to other science classes
  3. writing articles for the school newspaper

Articles published in local newspapers
Several of the local newspapers wrote about the demonstration Rain Garden. These articles provided positive news about the school as well as useful information about water quality protection.

Celebration held at Rain Garden site
A few days after the Woonsocket Rain Garden was planted we had a public celebration. We listened to  a few short speeches, ate a colorful cake and listened to music played by a group of talented students. The local newspaper attended and took pictures, representatives from several supportive environmental  groups attended as well as other students from the school.


As a first time experience, the Urban Rain Garden Project went well. What would we change next time?

Next time, we would work with the students off and on all through the school year rather than starting in spring. Ideally, students  would become "Rain Garden experts" and plan publicity with minimal guidance. We did not have enough time for students to reach this level of independence.

Should the garden be dug by a backhoe or by students?

There are several lessons to be learned by digging a garden by hand. The physical experience makes lessons on soil types, plant  requirements, water drainage, groundwater, and watersheds more understandable to students. Digging a garden by backhoe keeps students from this outdoor, sensory experience.

On the other hand, digging the garden by hand takes much time. Some of the days we were digging were really hot. Some students did not want to participate on these days.

Next time we would continue to experiment with garden design. We scattered plant types randomly. Later, when the plants bloomed,  it looked like a small field of wild flowers. It would be interesting to see the effect of grouping plant types.

In summary, we thought the Urban Rain Garden Project was worthwhile for all participants. We all learned ... about gardening, the environment and our community. It also produced a useful product ... a working Rain Garden.



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