Anyone in the 77 square miles of the Rock Creek watershed can be a good neighbor to Rock Creek Park.
One yard at a time, Washington area residents are protecting the environment of Rock Creek Park.
They act because — even with the best stewardship of the National Park Service — only efforts across the entire region can keep the Park from being beset by invasive plants, poisons and sediment in its streams, periodic flooding and a loss of wildlife.
Roughly 300 of the 700 plant species within Rock Creek Park are non-native invasives. As these intruders grow out of control, they crowd out native plants — often without providing food for creatures and birds. The problem is so great that eradication projects are focused in just two areas: the mature tree canopy and habitats with the highest biodiversity. Even these efforts are undermined when people possibly miles away use non-native species in their landscaping. The invasives keep showing up in the park — spread by air, water, wild animals, birds, the dumping of yard waste and hitchhiking on the clothing, shoes and pets of park visitors.
Good neighbors are removing invasive vines, grasses, shrubs and trees from their yards and planting native species that are just as attractive and more sustainable. Some people are going further by combining native plantings into a backyard wildlife habitat that offers food, water and shelter to a variety of animals, native and migrating birds, pollinators and other beneficial insects, and even helpful bacteria and fungi. Adding trees to the overall canopy also helps moderate the climate for the entire region.
Use This, Not That
Naturalists can recommend specific native vegetation to take the place of invasives — as they remind us how harmful popular alien species can be.
For example, the European import called lesser celandine (fig buttercup) has beautiful yellow blooms. Yet the plant is among the first to emerge in forested floodplains, creating an impenetrable carpet that can nearly erase from the calendar the arrival of native wildflowers in the spring. Instead, try planting spotted geranium, wild ginger or foam flower
Use native honeysuckles and not the exotic varieties whose fruit does not support migrating birds — or plant spicebush, arrow wood or swamp rose. Destroy the English ivy and porcelainberry vines that can become so weighty they often uproot trees — and bring in Virginia creeper, creeping phlox or lady fern.
Environmentalists also have a special disdain for Tree of Heaven, the species celebrated in the novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (and one we might more easily resist if we called it by its alternate name, stinking sumac). True to the book, the tree grows tenaciously. But it also produces chemicals that kill nearby vegetation and prevent new growth. Preferred substitutes include native sumacs, oaks, box elder and black walnut.
Calming the Storm
Neighbors can't stop the rain — but they can keep some of it from running off their roofs, driveways and lawns into storm drains. Whatever flows from our yards joins with water coming off streets and buildings to sweep trash, sediment and toxic chemicals all the way to Rock Creek. Fast-flowing water also erodes the banks of the creek and its tributaries.
To stem this flood, residents are installing rain barrels, cisterns and dry wells. They are creating rain gardens, installing green roofs and replacing impermeable pavement. Their communities are posting reminders on storm drains that anything dumped there ends up in Rock Creek.
You Are Not Alone
You can find help reshaping your own environment to protect the overall ecology of Rock Creek Park.
Rock Creek Conservancy began rolling out a new program in 2015 called Rock Creek Park In Your Backyard. Experts will visit your yard, prepare a site report and work with you to set goals aimed at removing invasives, planting native species, creating a rich wildlife habitat and reducing stormwater runoff. Hitting different benchmarks will result in Silver, Gold or Platinum Status for each yard — along with an attractive yard sign and other perks.
Programs like RiverSmart Homes in the District and RainScapes Rewards in Montgomery County can prescribe ways to keep rainwater from flowing from your yard into storm drains, and they'll help install and pay for the improvements. Casey Trees will rebate part of the cost of new trees and assist in choosing the right tree in the right spot. The group also offers communities the chance to organize as a neighborhood for free tree plantings. Maryland's WildAcres program has several fact sheets on landscaping that attracts wildlife. And one recommended site that matches your yard to local plant species is nativeplantcenter.net.
Using these resources, area residents can each do a little bit toward making a big difference. The wild ribbon of green we call Rock Creek Park cannot thrive without the vigilance of its neighbors.