People adding soil ammendment to garden bed

Students from as far as New York participated in the field day.

CHARLESTON – When you drive 13 hours straight from New York to Charleston, there had better be a payoff at the end. For some, it’s the opportunity to experience the city’s history, architectural and natural beauty, and world-class cuisine.

For Frances Perez and Corbin Laedlein, it was the opportunity to complete the Certification Track of Clemson Extension’s Master Rain Gardener program by helping build a rain garden and rainwater harvesting system in Corrine Jones Park.

There were some challenges to overcome. An overnight storm had dumped six inches of rain on the Holy City in what the old-timers call a “gully washer.” And, a few days before the installation, Perez was sick with a fever and wasn’t sure she would make it to Charleston.

Perez and Laedlein were among 25 participants who had come from up and down the East Coast to slog around in their rubber boots and get busy with an array of tools that included worksheets, calculators and colored pencils for planning and design; and shovels, native plants and bags of mulch for installation.

Laedlein and Perez are community gardeners in the beginning stages of creating what they call an “earth-friendly, sustainable landscaping cooperative” in New York City.

“We are interested in racking up on skills and resources and we thought this would be something great to bring not only to our business but to our local community, to bring back to different gardens and to share with other community gardeners and community organizers in the Bronx and Brooklyn and really just throughout New York City,” Perez said.

People looking at old maps.

Students learned about the history of the site by examining old maps.

Master Rain Gardener is a certification program focused on rain garden and rainwater harvesting system design and installation. Rain gardens and rainwater harvesting systems can help with flooding, prevent erosion and incorporate native plants and backyard habitat into lawns. The collected water can also be used to irrigate landscapes.

The rain garden and rainwater collection system at Corrine Jones Park was designed and constructed in collaboration with the Clemson Architecture + CommunityBUILD Program and the Charleston Parks Conservancy.

Along with the rest of the group, the two New Yorkers came to Charleston having completed a five-part online curriculum that included an array of topics, such as site assessment, soil assessment, drainage area analysis, system sizing, and cistern conveyance and prefiltration.

The course has a “Letter of Completion Track” geared toward homeowners and a “Certification Track” designed for contractors and landscape professionals. The garden design and installation are required for completion of the Certification Track.

“There weren’t any programs like this in our region and because it’s a hybrid course that allowed us to take the bulk of the course remotely, it seemed like a great opportunity. Then to have the practical day here in South Carolina is great to really get hands-on experience. We’re working on only a few hours of sleep and it’s kind of a trope, but the southern hospitality has been great,” Laedlein said.

Kim Counts Morganello, Clemson Extension water resources agent and Master Rain Gardener coordinator, said the Master Rain Gardener course is a response to growing demand from clients.

This was the third time the course has been offered. There has been total of 123 graduates, including 41 completing the Certification Track.

Morganello led a team of Clemson experts who were at Corrine Jones Park to pass along their knowledge in such areas as soil assessment and amendment, rain garden design and planning, pond construction, proper mulching and planting techniques, tank selection and design and inspection and maintenance.

Guinn Wallover is a water resources extension agent for the coastal district of South Carolina who led a class about the benefits of mulch and how to calculate the precise amount needed during the rain garden design phase.

She said installations help the program participants reinforce what they learn online by allowing them to interact with experts and classmates in solving real-world problems. The installations also benefit surrounding communities and help spread the word about the benefits of rain gardens.

“Rain gardens are one of our stormwater best management practices that can be used to help manage flooding on property, but also manage pollution to make sure it doesn’t make its way downstream to our nearest waterway. Rain gardens are also really beneficial because we’re using a lot of native plants when we design rain gardens. So you’re providing habitat for pollinators, songbirds, different types of wildlife. And it’s a really nice way of beautifying your landscape,” Wallover said.

Mark Buchanan is in charge of stormwater management for Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Buchanan said there are two rain gardens on Marshall’s 150-acre campus, but he is trying to increase their number.

“The problem is the expense as far as hiring engineering firms and things like that. We’re trying to come up with a plan where we can do the design, site analysis and site prep ourselves and have our grounds crews do the work. I thought this course would be a good way to familiarize myself with the concepts and this would be the catalyst that would move our rain gardening efforts forward on campus,” Buchanan said.

While Buchanan came to the class having previously managed some stormwater projects for the state of West Virginia, there were things he learned from the Master Rain Gardener program that will help him do his job better.

“All of it’s great but for me the information I learned about soil analysis, site prep, percolation tests and the different soil types and roles they play was really helpful. For a lot of us, we’re just going to dig a hole and put some flowers in it and be done. But the course drives home how much planning is required,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said the knowledge he gained could also ultimately save his university money. The city of Huntington calculates the amount of impervious surface on the Marshall campus and charges for the stormwater runoff the university puts into the city’s stormwater system.

“It’s into the thousands of dollars that we pay them monthly, so there might be an opportunity to install more rain gardens on campus and get that credited,” Buchanan said.

Students at table drawing designs.

Students taking part in the design phase.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The Corrine Jones project was the second collaboration between Extension, architecture and the Charleston Parks Conservancy. In 2018, they worked together to construct and install a rainwater harvesting system and garden pavilion in Medway Park and Community Garden on James Island.

The Architecture + CommunityBUILD Program is for Master of Architecture students looking to further their understanding of community-centric architecture, process and design. The program is run through the Clemson College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities on the main campus and the Clemson Design Center at the Cigar Factory in Charleston.

Senior lecturer David Pastre leads the program in Charleston.“We look to do projects that are community-based – often with nonprofits – in which we can bring the skills and expertise we have in architecture and planning. We’ve designed projects with Clemson Extension in the past for economic and community development. And we’ve partnered with the Charleston Parks Conservancy. They’ve got great ambition and great community values and they look to make things the community can kind of rally around,” Pastre said.

The Charleston Parks Conservancy asked Pastre and his students to design a community garden pavilion that would also serve as a community shelter in the park in the Wagener Terrace neighborhood. The students reached out to Clemson Extension for help designing the rainwater collection system.

Over a five-month period, the students met with the surrounding community, researched the history of the site, worked through initial and iterative designs, created construction documents and received city approvals before going through the construction process.

The result was a pavilion with a roof with two slopes and three-foot wide, 48-foot long gutter that drains rainwater into a cistern and rain garden. The pavilion also features storage for gardening tools, countertops, seating and a washbasin where gardeners can wash their harvested produce.

Master of Architecture student Audrey Hesson said the project helped broaden her perspective on the collaborative aspect of architecture.

“For me, what’s really important about this program is you’re pushed in so many different ways to be able to work with a client, the community, your peers, faculty. You actually get a real sense of how all of these different teams come together,” Hesson said. “In a typical studio, you just kind of are at your computer and kind of zoned into one thing. Here you get exposed to so much more.”