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Sowing Seeds of Service


Service learning that rewards students with professional knowledge and builds community for Messiah College's neighbors


Raingarden and team
Click image for closeup of Dr. Foster (at left) and student team.

    Whenever it rains (or pours) in the new Cottage Brook Lane residential development on Mill Road, homeowners reap the rewards of the beautiful and functional flowering rain gardens that Dr. David Foster and a number of his Messiah College biology students designed and built last year. These three rain gardens form the first such system in Upper Allen Township to combine bio-filtration and stormwater management on the scale of a residential subdivision.

Basin Blues

Traditionally, stormwater flowing along the streets of a residential subdivision has been collected and held in a detention basin, so as not to overwhelm nearby streams and creeks with excessive and possibly contaminated runoff (from sources such as, say, that oil leak in Mr. Jones' Rambler that he keeps promising to fix). These earthen berm and concrete detention basins, while functional, can be a visual eyesore and the standing water sometimes creates a breeding ground for buggy pests. Rain gardens, when properly designed and maintained, are a delightful and ecologically-sound alternative, with root and soil systems which treat many contaminants found in residential runoff and permit the clean water to percolate naturally through to nearby waterways.

Garden Goals

The developers of the Cottage Brook Lane project, Jim and Joy MacDonald, are Messiah College alumni and had talked with Dr. Foster about the possibility of this project during the design phase in 2007. The project engineer, Fischbach Morgan & Associates, LLC, and, later, J.W. Gleim Excavating were involved in the project to create site grading that would deliver the stormwater to the area designated for the three rain gardens. In addition to the need for selecting plants that could bio-remediate runoff water and tolerate a broad set of soil moisture conditions, the developers also desired to improve site views by obscuring infrastructure and walls, and to provide a spread of texture and flower colors across the various seasons of the year. An additional objective was to plant primarily native species that would spread vigorously within the rain garden area.

Planning and Planting

Last spring, the students in BIO 334 Plant Ecology worked together with Dr. Foster to create the planting design and select the plants for the principal rain garden, which covers approximately 275 square meters. The grouping of plants was selected to give the appearance of a naturalized wetland, and included shrubs such as highbush blueberry and red-osier dogwood, herbs such as the ostrich fern, and a variety of flowers, including the New England aster, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and bee balm.


Highbush Blueberry Red-Osier Dogwood Ostrich Fern New England Aster Purple Coneflower Bee Balm
Place cursor over any picture for identification.

Once the plants had been selected, BIO 271 Ecological Field Techniques students worked this fall with Dr. Foster and Black Landscape Contracting to locate and plant the rain gardens. Evaluation and ongoing maintenance of this multi-faceted project will be undertaken by future students in the BIO 335 Plant Propagation class.

Rewarding Results

The beautiful flowers that bloom here each season are a visual reminder of the cooperation of the participants; the students, the community and local township, the environment, and the clients all continue to benefit. Dr. Foster sums up the positive nature of this effort, "This project is a model of service learning for students in technically demanding areas. It combines professional knowledge, skills, and community service with real projects. It benefits the community and builds community and expertise at the same time. It has [also] been a real privilege to work with the MacDonalds on this project."


What are they up to now?

Dr. Foster and his students are preparing for plant installation this spring for the Yellow Breeches Creek restoration project here on Messiah's campus.

Dr. Foster outlined the objectives for students participating in these projects, "Our goal is to continue involving students in real world projects where they meet the needs of the community, function in a consulting environment and can see the outcome of their efforts to make our community a better place."

A special thank-you to Jim and Joy MacDonald for providing this opportunity to Messiah College students and for funding all the required site preparation services and materials!

To Learn More:

Department of Biological Sciences

Cottage Brook Lane Neighborhood

Fischbach Morgan & Associates, LLC

J.W. Gleim Jr., Inc. Excavating

Black Landscape Contracting

Build Your Own Raingarden (PDF)

Chesapeake Bay Foundation



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