Timberlane Middle School students planted a rain garden to help curb flooding outside of the school.

An ecosystem is a delicate balance. Throwing in different plants can mess with everything from the soil to the insects that rely on plants for food. Invasive species can take over the land, affecting the ecosystem entirely.

Understanding the importance of native plants in an area can make a huge difference for the ecosystem, and for the environment as a whole. This is one of the reasons why the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space is determined to educate the community about the environment and sustainable practices that can help protect the ecosystem.

In September, FoHVOS partnered with Hopewell’s Timberlane Middle School to create a rain garden that would serve not only as a solution to a water drainage problem, but also as a beautiful, aesthetically-pleasing space filled with native and deep rooted plants.

Hopewell Valley Regional School District STEM Coordinator Greg Hunter was working as a Teacher-In-Residence at the Watershed Institution when he submitted a grant proposal for review to Sustainable Jersey. The grant was denied at first, and Hunter went to Lisa Wolff, executive director of FoHVOS, for assistance with the revised proposal.

Though the initial proposal had no relation to the rain garden, it inspired Wolff and Hunter to consider other projects that could be done to help create a water drainage system while creating a sustainable space. Thus, the idea for the Timberlane Middle School Rain Garden was born.

Timberlane Middle School needed a water drainage system, due to the amount of water that pooled in front of the building after a storm. Commonly referred to as “Lake Timberlane,” or in the winter, the “TMS Ice Rink,” the land was a safety issue, especially during the winter weather. After a need was identified, Wolff and Hunter worked on a proposal to help redirect stormwater.

Peg Forrestal of Janssen Pharmaceuticals provided the grant on FoHVOS’ previous project, the Bear Tavern Outdoor Learning Area, and decided to approve the final grant for the Timberlane Bioretention Rain Garden project as well.

Originally, the front of Timberlane Middle School had two sidewalks. After the rain garden, only one sidewalk remains. In its place, a bioswale, a channel for stormwater runoff to help prevent pollution and debris, was added along with natural flora and fauna from Hopewell Valley. The rain gardens design included peaks and valleys, so water could pool in a desirable area.

The Timberlane Rain Garden proved the concept when the water after a storm slowly drained, and it went where it needed to go for it to quickly be absorbed back into the ground, according to Wolff.

The native wildflowers added in provide earth-friendly habitats for birds and pollinators alike. Monarch butterflies, bumble bees, and other native creatures can enjoy the rain garden just as much as the students do.

Those that worked on this project, and contributed to its development include the following: Michael Van Clef, who was responsible for the ecological consulting and native plant selection on the project; Gretchen Kish of Nectars Landscape and Design, responsible for the planting design; and Gene Huntington of StewardGreen, who did the engineering and drainage design.

A part of the design included putting in plants with deep roots, which is important to loosen the land, encourages water drainage and reduces erosion.

“We really had to dig deep, and [that’s] a part of the student’s lesson,” said Wolff.

Timberlane is not the only school in Hopewell Valley to have worked on a sustainability project with FoHVOS. According to Wolff, as of October, there is a community conservation project in every single Hopewell school.

“FOHVOS doesn’t do anything by ourselves,” said Wolff, “We like to partner [with others] to get the whole community involved.” She lists two reasons why: it keeps costs down; and it helps more people get a sense of how to care for the native environment and what FOHVOS itself is doing.

When the TMS 7th grade STEM class, led by teacher Grace Rarich, worked on the rain garden in September, other students were interested in learning more about how to help with the garden as well. In the future, Timberlane Middle School may have its own green team, to help take care of the garden and work on other projects for the surrounding land, according to Nicole Gianfredi, principal of Timberlane Middle School.

“Everything is indigenous to the area, and it’s pretty to look at,” said Gianfredi.

Nectars Landscape and Design will also return to Timberlane to provide a lesson for students on the names of each plant in the rain garden, and how to identify them.

“The [Rain Garden project] has given us a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with our community,” said Gianfredi, “it’s exciting to me to see how students can take ownership of the garden.”

Beyond the students, the facility at Timberlane Middle School pitched in with the Rain Garden as well. According to Gianfredi, during the planting process, there was a heat wave. Facility, such as the custodial staff, worked to ensure that plants were properly watered and well-taken care of for the students and the school.

The students at Timberlane are continuing to learn about sustainability. Another project on Timberlane Middle School’s radar is to work on the school’s courtyard in a similar, eco-friendly way.

Students have the opportunity to learn about the importance of using the right plants for the land, and it’s a lesson Wolff hopes they can pass along to their families as well.

“We’re hoping this will model behavior,” said Wolff, “that people will take one look at the rain garden and put a meadow in their own yard.” Some of the benefits of having a meadow includes providing food for birds and wildlife, improve air and water quality, improve soil health, etc.

FoHVOS’s goal is to improve Hopewell Valley’s landscape, and to preserve the native growing plants in the area. Making sure that young people are inspired to think about new ways they can live sustainably, and to share what they learn with the rest of the community is also just as important.

“This was always part of the original idea,” said Wolff. “We specifically knew that we’re trying to spread the word, educate our young people on what we need to do. They want to do it because it helps the land and it helps the school.”

Climate change is something that students will only hear more about in the future, as it continues to be a concern and a topic of debate in the political landscape. The more young students know, the better informed they can be when listening to politicians and other figures discuss climate change.

“This is national news,” said Wolff, “and it’s something we can bring to students so they can understand it and feel more connected to it. This is how we can reduce our carbon footprint.”