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Rain garden teaches students and community
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Anthony Morgan prepares a spot for a plant in the rain garden at North Georgia Technical College. - photo by Tom Reed

CLARKESVILLE — When students at North Georgia Technical College recently dug up new homes for a few dozen plants, the exercise was about more than simply getting some fresh air.

Some were enrolled in the school’s horticulture program, so putting the right plant in the right place was a perfect hands-on activity. Others in the group were members of the school’s Rotaract club, a service-oriented group that works under Rotary International.
And a few other students simply lived in the dorm next door to the new rain garden, and wanted to take part in beautifying their campus.

“I like to help people and make the campus look nice,” said Ray Chamblee, president of North Georgia Tech’s Student Leadership Council. “The campus is your house, and you want your house to look good.”

The rain garden, built in a flat area between the dorm, a main campus parking lot and the street, is a teaching garden in more ways than teaching students how to plant, too. Horticulture students surveyed the site and carved out subtle high and low spots, allowing the water to pool rather than run into the street. They also took soil samples, measured the rainwater coming off the dormitory and researched the plants that ended up being planted.

And the teaching extends to the community, too, said Duncan Hughes, watershed coordinator for the Soque River Watershed Association. With the help of a grant between Clarkesville, North Georgia Tech and Soque River association, Hughes was able to work with North Georgia Tech environmental horticulture instructor Craig Thurmond to install the garden and use it as a teaching tool.

“It’s really a demonstration garden,” Hughes said as students got to work digging holes for the new plants. “What we hope will happen is, this is something you can have in your own yard.”

Any place you have runoff going from grass or dirt into a sewer drain, he said, can be a spot for a rain garden. The idea is to use plants to keep the water in the soil and filtering back down into the watershed, rather than guided through pipes into rivers and eventually into the ocean.

“We want to get it to soak back into the ground,” he said. The result? A better water supply and higher water quality.

Thurmond oversaw the final selection of plants for the garden, which include swamp sunflowers, various types of ornamental grasses and dogwood trees. Plants that like “wet feet” were planted in low-lying areas carved out by the students, while plants that enjoyed a more sandy soil were placed in the high parts. A berm around the edge of the garden keeps the water from flowing out into the street.

The students who dug in to finish planting said they enjoyed the work and the opportunity to learn how the garden worked.

“This is what I love to do — this is why I’m in school, to figure out how to do this stuff,” said student Bridget Jones. “Plus, it’s good to learn how to conserve water.”

Jones is also a member of the Rotaract club, and club president Joseph Roberts said the group thought the rain garden was a worthwhile project to do as a community service.

“It was a project we thought we’d take on, help out with,” said Roberts, who got to drive the heavy equipment that initially prepped the garden before the plants came in. “So here we are, having fun.”

And granted, Hughes said, just one rain garden won’t stop the water runoff issues facing North Georgia’s developed areas. But if anyone wanted to learn how to set one up, hopefully the garden at North Georgia Tech can grow to be a teaching tool throughout the community.

“This one rain garden won’t solve our water quality problems,” he said. “But it does show we can do things to increase our water quality and supply.”

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