Conservation Outdoors

Managing Stormwater with Beautiful, Productive and Inspiring Rain Gardens

(Above) Glenda McDowell’s rain garden in bloom. Photo by Sandra Villasenor

By Emma Castleberry

Glenda McDowell is a lover of paper mail. “I still like to get things through the mail because you can learn and you can take your time reading it,” she says. One day a few years ago, she was going through her mail when she learned that RiverLink was looking for homeowners to participate in a pilot study about rain gardens. “I filled it out and here I am,” she says, looking out over her three-tiered rain garden brimming with strawberry plants, a blueberry bush, and native grasses and flowers.

The RiverLink project, made possible through a grant from The North Carolina Land and Water Fund, was an effort to develop garden designs well-suited to the steep slope conditions of our mountain region. RiverLink partnered with Blue Earth Planning, Engineering & Design (Blue Earth) to conduct the research and develop and install the designs.

Linda McDowell. Photo by Lydia Koltai

The third partner on the project, Lenoir-Rhyne University, conducted social research to better understand human relationships to stormwater management.

“The focus of the project was on residential sites in the Central Asheville Watershed near downtown Asheville that meet specific criteria, including having steep slopes,” says Tim Ormond, president and water resources engineer with Blue Earth. “For six selected sites, the project team worked with homeowners to develop designs that direct stormwater runoff from rooftops into storage areas on steep slopes where it can soak into the ground.”

Of the six pilot sites, Glenda’s was the largest rain garden system, consisting of three interconnected basins on an average slope of 19 percent. “Glenda’s three basins can capture at least 1,750 gallons of rainwater without overflowing,” says Ormond. The project also directed all of Glenda’s downspouts into her rain garden system.

“During the monitoring period, we estimated that Glenda’s rain garden infiltrated approximately 68,800 gallons of rainwater into the underlying soil, preventing a huge volume of stormwater runoff from flowing into the street, City storm sewer system and creeks,” says Ormond.

While Glenda appreciates the environmental benefits of her rain garden, there are more intrinsic rewards that she’s experienced since the garden was installed about two years ago. “My whole thing is to leave something for my children,” she says.

The garden has provided additional value to her home, as well as aesthetic benefits, nutritional value and learning opportunities for all levels of her progeny. Glenda’s granddaughter uses the edible flowers in her vegan cooking. Her daughter uses the garden’s strawberries in her local cake business, AVL Cake Lady. “The strawberries were so big,” says Glenda. “She took some and dipped them in chocolate.”

Glenda’s five-year-old great granddaughter can’t get enough of the strawberries, either. “It is a treat to come to Nana’s house and go outside and pick strawberries that never make it in the house [because she eats them on her way back inside],” says Glenda. “She can grow with that. We can get her into planning and looking forward to next year. What did we plant? What did well? It’s introducing her to nature.”

And Glenda herself is inspired, too. “You get excited about what you can plant,” she says. She has plans to install two rain barrels in her backyard, and possibly add a raspberry bush or another blueberry bush to the garden.

There’s also a tangible economic benefit. “I had this large yard,” she says. “Do you know what it costs to get that cut?”

Rain gardens are a relatively simple and cost-effective solution to stormwater, which is the biggest threat to the health of the French Broad River. “Rain gardens not only manage stormwater sustainably but also provide habitat for wildlife, enhance local biodiversity and beautify landscapes,” says Ormond. And, as evidenced by Glenda’s rain garden, they can also provide joy for generations.

Learn more about rain gardens and stormwater management at

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