Polk State College Students Create Rain Garden on Winter Haven Campus

Posted on by Polk Newsroom

A group of Polk State College students recently transformed a large patch of grass and dirt into a garden that will help filter rain and recharge the Florida aquifer.

For about two hours, the students dug and raked, planted and watered, letting lessons learned in the classroom take root and bloom in the process.

The students are in Natalie Whitcomb’s Environmental Sciences class, a course developed three years ago to teach the relationship between Winter Haven’s environment and the environment on a global level.

“We can’t change the world, but we can change Winter Haven,” Whitcomb said.

This semester, Whitcomb incorporated service-learning, allowing her students to put their studies into practice while also bettering their surroundings.

To complement their classroom instruction, students met with City of Winter Haven Natural Resources Division Director Mike Britt to learn about the Florida aquifer and the effects of urbanization.

He also explained the concept of rain gardens and why they are beneficial to the environment; the City is increasingly creating rain gardens within its boundaries. In short, rain gardens contain native plants and help redirect water runoff into the ground, where it can recharge the aquifer.

The City’s Natural Resources Coordinator, Mary Thornhill, instructed the students on the need to use Florida-friendly landscaping that can withstand the state’s weather conditions.

Inspired by what they learned, the students decided to create a rain garden on the Winter Haven campus.

“I’m very impressed,” Britt said. “A lot of students get the academic part, but not many get the hands-on piece.”

The students began by selecting the location, a grassy area northwest of the Administration Building where rain puddles before being sent into storm drains. Then they got to work designing and selecting plants. For that, they consulted master gardener Janet Thome of the Winter Haven Landscape Services Division, and Anne Yasalonis, Florida yards and neighborhoods coordinator for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Bartow Extension Service Office.

Once a list of native plants and a design were decided, the students contacted The Natives, a plant nursery in Davenport. The Natives supplied plants including Beach Sunflower, Muhly Grass and Beautyberry; with the exception of the non-invasive Perennial Peanut, all the plants in the Polk State rain garden are native varieties.

In late October, the students completed the first portion of their project, planting a group of Asian Jasmines near a sidewalk outside the Administration Building. Those plants will stabilize the sloping ground and direct water to the main rain garden. There, the garden will slow the flow of water and the plants’ roots will direct the runoff underground.

“Polk State College sits on one of the biggest aquifer recharge areas,” said Chris Waltermire, a a student from Satellite Beach, explaining the importance of directing water underground rather than letting it pour into the city’s storm system.

The students finished their project by watering the plants with water collected in rain barrels at the College’s nearby greenhouse. They also added a layer of pine straw, which won’t float away during rain showers, and installed a decorative clay border.

Because the rain garden contains native plants, it will withstand heat and cold, rain and drought, making the need for upkeep minimal.

Whitcomb said she credits Winter Haven Provost Dr. Sharon Miller and Dr. Martha Santiago, dean of academic affairs, with helping the rain garden come to fruition. She hopes to take on similar service-learning projects in future semesters.

Taking a break from the day’s work, student Corie White said the project helped her to engage with the material she learned in class.

“The project made things less boring and helped me retain more,” said White, a Haines City resident. “Before this, I’d never heard of a rain garden.”