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How Charleston residents can tackle flooding through flowers

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As city leaders and community groups come to grips with persistent flooding issues in Charleston, there's hope that an idea will sprout and spread among homeowners: rain gardens.

The thought is simple, planting flowers and grasses in areas of your yard that see a lot of water runoff so the water won't run into city or county drains. 

Mayor John Tecklenburg has one outside his West Ashley home. There are a few in city parks now — Medway Community Garden in Riverland Terrace on James Island and Corrine Jones Garden in Wagener Terrace — and a third to be installed at Magnolia Community Garden this year, according to Charleston Parks Conservancy Community Programs Director Leslie Wade. The Medical University of South Carolina has an urban farm and rain garden on its campus, too. 

There are classes to train master rain gardeners unfolding at Clemson Cooperative Extension, too, offering home gardeners and gardening experts more skills to build gardens in flood-prone Charleston. For those who don't have time to take the class, there's a list of businesses that have had staff certified as master rain gardeners. 

Though not a widespread approach in Charleston yet, both city leaders and gardeners hope the trend will bloom. 

Rain Garden

Merideth Garrigan, a homeowner with rain gardens on her property and a permaculture business owner, put a food garden in her front yard. Merideth Garrigan/Provided. 

Homeowner, master gardener and local gardening business owner Merideth Garrigan took Clemson's inaugural class a few years ago and built a rain garden using her whole yard.

"There's several spots in my yard that I catch water and I transformed my whole front yard into a food garden," Garrigan said. "Rain gardens are a beautiful way to attract more pollinators, which are in decline."

Garrigan, who runs the Wecology permaculture garden business on James Island, said she's looking forward to the city moving forward with its rainproofing initiatives. 

"Anyone impacted by flooding in a big way is going to want to start looking at the program," Garrigan said. 

Katie McKain, the city's director of sustainability, said the city is partnering with the Old Windermere neighborhood in West Ashley on its rainproof pilot program. A few years ago, the city piloted an Adopt-A-Drain program with a similar approach.

Kim Counts Morganello, water resources extension agent at the Clemson Extension, said the idea of rain gardens has been around for a while.

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Rain Garden

One of two rain gardens that the Charleston Parks Conservancy recently built and planted at Corrine Jones Community Garden in downtown Charleston Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Brad Nettles/Staff

"It's gaining popularity in the area as people are having more and more issues handling water in their home landscape," Morganello said. "The big thing with rain gardens is you want to make sure water infiltrates properly. A lot of our Lowcountry soil lends well to that."

Morganello recommends homeowners call 811 before they dig so they don't hit any buried lines or cables. 

The key is to have a percolation test to see how quickly water moves through soil when it is saturated. If the water saturates correctly after 24 hours, that's a good sign. 

"People think a rain garden is a wet place that will breed mosquitoes but they are more of a landscape depression that allows infiltration," Morganello said. "They're dry more often then they're wet. They're designed to infiltrate within 72 hours which is well ahead of mosquito-breeding requirements." 

Rain Garden

Meg Moore, with the Charleston Parks Conservancy, picks vegetables in front of the rain garden at Corrine Jones Community Garden in downtown Charleston Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Brad Nettles/Staff

From there, Morganello and Wade recommend planting species native to South Carolina, such as irises, echinacea, beauty berry shrubs and ornamental grasses.

"The native species, they're so used to our large influx of rain and then the droughts," Wade said. 

There's a plant database on Clemson's website, too. 

Both also said that residents should consider building cisterns to store water so it can help water home gardens over time.  

"No two rain gardens are the same," Morganello said. "Some need plants that prefer certain conditions while others might be different based on sunlight and water infiltration rates."

For more information on the city's pilot program, go to https://www.charleston-sc.gov/rainproof.

Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

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