SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Designer Neil Chambers visits South Orange’s Rain Park every other day to check on the Queen’s Anne’s lace, achillea, lobelias and coneflowers — among other plants. To onlookers, the project resembles a patch of weeds and unruly grass. Just wait, Chambers said.
The Rain Park is an alternative stormwater management project located in Meadowland Park. Chambers enlisted his family-owned firm, Chambers Design, for the job. The park’s native plants catch and filter stormwater runoff, Chambers said, which is far more innovative than a sump pump. In 2017, New Jersey American Water awarded South Orange with $10,000 for the project. Volunteers completed the first construction phase in October 2017 and planting began this April.
“I wanted to show the opportunity that stormwater management has. It doesn’t have to be pipes and drains,” Chambers said. “There’s so much work out there that’s trying to tackle these issues in a way that is artful and technically savvy. I felt it was something that could be done on a small scale in South Orange.”
Chambers brought the idea to the South Orange Environmental Commission. He previously collaborated with the commission on the buzzy parklet outside of Tito’s Burritos. Residents encountered a miniature green space that temporarily subsumed two West South Orange Avenue parking spots with flowers, patio furniture and a patch of grass.
Fellow commission member Walter Clarke explained how the Rain Park catches silt and water to prevent the adjacent Duck Pond from overflowing. Traditional stormwater management methods like cement pipes actually increase flooding, Clarke said, prompting professionals to seek out new options. “That has been the big change in the last few years in how stormwater is treated,” Clarke said.
As it nears full bloom, the project has encountered threats. Maintenance crews have unwittingly mowed the plants, Chambers said, which poses his greatest challenge.
After the Rain Park fully develops, residents can find seven or eight different types of blooming flowers. The garden will feature more structure and color each passing year as more perennials grow in, he said, resembling the shifts in any natural ecosystem. The next ideal planting opportunities arrive in the early fall and spring.
Chambers urges all to be patient. Landscape design is different from other visual professions, he said. When you walk away from a building, “it’s done.” Plants, however, demand waiting.
“There’s a beauty to seeing something start as just dirt in the first year and how it really transitions in year two and year three,” Chambers said. “When you install plantings like the Rain Park, you’re just starting...they have to find themselves.”