While it's not much to look at right now, an unassuming corner of the front lawn of the Ambler Student Recreation Center at Kansas University will soon be bursting with vibrantly colored aromatic aster, black-eyed susans and crested iris. The near-to-blooming flowers are just a few of the 2,500 plants from 18 species in the 5,200-square-foot cornucopia across the street from Allen Fieldhouse.
This massive bouquet of nature's bounty belongs to a garden that will celebrate its first full year on Earth Day. It's a fitting birthday since the plot is a bit of an eco-gardening wonder. Known as the Student Rain Garden, its planters are hoping it might inspire a sustainable revolution in landscaping.
Rain gardens funnel and absorb storm water from impervious urban areas like sidewalks, driveways and - in this instance - the roof of the recreation center. This helps naturally filter the storm runoff back into the water table rather than the sewers. "It's basically a depression that can collect that initial flush of rain water," says Jeff Severin, director of the KU Center for Sustainability, who helped organize the garden's creation. "They're typically designed with native plants and other kinds of tolerable species that can also help filter any pollutants in that water. So basically it's an urban storm water management tool that people can use in their yards on a small scale or, in the case of the campus garden, can be used in a pretty large scale. Ours is kind of different because it's huge."
The rain garden was conceived back in 2007 as a far more modest endeavor by environmentally minded students.
"At the time it was a very small idea and a very small rain garden, then it turned into a big idea and a very large rain garden," recalls Laura Foster, architecture grad student at KU who was then a member of Emerging Green Builders, the student organization integral in making the rain garden happen.
The project grew in scope thanks to the eager participation of the recreation center, who decided to fold the construction of the garden into its 2008 expansion. By early last year, two limestone-bounded tiers were completed, and the inaugural planting was held on Earth Day. Nearly 200 members of the campus and larger Lawrence community rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. "To see that many people out helping, supporting the student-led initiative - everyone was really proud of what we were able to accomplish," Severin says. "The students really saw that as something tangible from their experience at KU, to say that they were part of this project that's going to provide water quality benefits, and a really great use of native plants for landscaping, that people can enjoy for years to come."
That the unveiling was on Earth Day was no coincidence.
"It was good to have this sense of community within KU that everybody was excited to come out and plant a plant on Earth Day," Foster says. "I know we celebrate Earth Day every year, but you don't often get your hands dirty to celebrate it. The Earth doesn't necessarily appreciate it when you just celebrate it - it also wants some love in return. So planting it on that day was a very good thing."
And the influence of the Student Rain Garden might extend well beyond the KU community. It's one of four rain gardens in Kansas currently being studied as a prototype by respected Kansas City eco-architecture firm BNIM and researchers from Kansas State University. "It's really exciting that K-State has to come to KU to look at something," adds Foster with a bit of playful school pride.