KINGS BLUFF — The rushing sound of millions of gallons of water dropping over a dam was nearly overpowering.
A new rock arch rapid had been completed less than a year ago to ease the passage of fish upriver and the renovated ramp at Lock and Dam No. 1, while now reopened for launching boats, was jammed with floating logs freed from the banks by the brick-colored runoff of an overly rainy spring. While the American shad and striped bass were running the rapid to spawn, the river level was too high for fishing. Even the newly completed fishing pier was devoid of human beings.
The only vehicles in the freshly laid asphalt of the parking area belonged to a group of individuals carrying shovels rather than fishing rods.
The Pilgrims learned to bury dead fish to help their gardens grow; these volunteers were planting a garden to help fish grow.
“We are constructing an interpretive rain garden,” said Kay Lynn Plummer, 44, who works for Cape Fear River Watch. “After the parking lot was complete, we saw this hole in the center were nothing was growing. The soil was eroding and the runoff from the parking lot was carrying gas, oil and other pollutants straight to the river through a catch basin. We lowered the ground around the catch basin so the garden would hold water at the lowest point part of the time. Now, we are putting in topsoil and planting flowers and other plants that will grow in the wet and dry zones.
The garden area is essentially a circle surrounded by a street. Vehicles towing boat trailers must travel completely around the garden during the launching and retrieving of boats, so no angler, boater or sightseer will be able to miss what will soon become the centerpiece of the entire Lock and Dam No. 1 Park. A sign, with information about the plants and their functions, was already at the edge of the garden and about one-third of the plants were in the ground. Shovels bit deep into a pile of earth the color of charcoal, then spread it, one sweaty scoop at a time.
“This is our first cooperative project with the Corps of Engineers,” Plummer said. “New Hanover County Cooperative Extension donated the soil and Brunswick County Cooperative Extension is also involved. We received a $3,000 grant from International Paper’s Riegelwood Mill, and the Corps and Cape Fear River Watch signed a partnership agreement for the educational component of the facility.”
Plummer and Sabrina Wooster designed the garden, although neither of them had created a rain garden before.
“We are improving the condition of the soil by adding topsoil after tilling some of the hard-packed areas,” said Wooster, 28, Natural Resources and Environmental Education Agent for New Hanover and Brunswick County cooperative extensions. “We are encouraging people to think about pollution in the Cape Fear River. We bought the plants from nurseries who deal with specialty plants and each plant goes into a specific zone.”
The garden will have a bird zone, with beautyberry, sunflowers and other plants that produce berries and flowers that attract birds. A butterfly area will grow cardinal flower, dwarf sandhill iris and Joe Pye weed. A xeric zone at the high outer rim will have plants that can tolerate dry conditions, such wiregrass and yucca. The sub-xeric zone will have hyssop-leaved thoroughwort and pink muhly grass.
The low, wetland area near the catch basin draining the center will have seashore mallow, blue flag iris and Nash’s meadow beauty. This is only a partial list of the plants and all are native plants selected for a specific zone as well as for their beauty.
Tom Tewey became involved with Cape Fear River Watch after he moved to Wilmington from Oak Island and began walking along Burnt Mill Creek near his home.
“I noticed a kingfisher diving and saw beavers and black-crowned night herons,” said Tewey, 81, a retiree from Wilmington. “I didn’t know plants, so I took the Master Gardener Course at New Hanover County Cooperative Extension. Now, I’ve been a volunteer with Cape Fear River Watch for 10 years.”
Other people sweating out the gardening chores included Meg Blake, 34, of Sneads Ferry, who completed the Master Gardener course last spring, and Melissa Lunett-Boby, 30, of Hampstead, a student at Cape Fear Community College.
“I usually grow things I can eat,” Blake said. “But I have really enjoyed working on this rain garden.”