Working On The Brightside

By Mark Grueber and Angie Weber, photos by Noppadol Paothong | August 15, 2012
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2012

A small corner in St. Louis is now brighter and greener thanks to Brightside St. Louis and its many generous supporters. Four years in the making, the demonstration garden and learning center adjacent to the Brightside office is finally complete.

Many organizations contributed financial or in-kind donations to the project, and the installation of the garden required more than 1,000 volunteer hours, which were contributed by the U.S. Marine Corps, Master Gardeners, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Flora Conservancy and Brightside volunteers. In one week’s time, the site was transformed from a barren city lot into a vibrant community garden.

Twenty Marines broke ground on the project in the blazing summer sun. They spent most

of the week moving tons of rock, spreading truckloads of mulch, and installing 2,700 native plants, shrubs and trees. Despite the heat, they stayed positive and engaged and wanted to learn as much as they could.

Throughout the week, the Marines developed a sense of ownership in the project and a strong connection to the community. By mid-week, they had requested to stay in St. Louis an extra day to participate in the first educational workshop and connect with the residents who would reap the benefits of their hard work. The community welcomed the Marines with an outpouring of appreciation and support. Each day people drove by and honked, waved or shouted encouragement. Local restaurants donated breakfast and lunch every day and neighbors brought food and drinks, including one young boy and his mother who brought Popsicles.

Showcasing Natives in Nature

Brightside’s Neighbors Naturescaping program focuses on enhancing green spaces in neighborhoods throughout St. Louis with an emphasis on planting Missouri native flowers, shrubs and trees. Project leaders request material from a recommended plant list and participate in educational workshops. Visitors to the new demonstration garden and workshop participants will be able to see the recommended plants in their natural growing conditions.

Also, the new learning center is home to the Neighbors Naturescaping hands-on workshops, which provide the perfect opportunity for neighborhood leaders to learn about native plants and sustainable practices.

The vacant lot adjacent to the Brightsideoffice had been an eyesore in the neighborhood for more than two decades. Turning this lot into a beautiful green space met Brightside’s mission, so they turned to MDC for help. Mary Lou Green, Brightside executive director, contacted Urban & Community Foresters Rob Emmett (now retired) and Mark Grueber in 2008. Building on the basic idea of teaching people to “plant the right tree in the right place,” the plan expanded into developing a site that would demonstrate the benefits of a functional and sustainable landscape. Perry Eckhardt, then a Conservation Department community conservationist, was added to the team and the concept of the demonstration garden and learning center was born.

With the expertise of SWT Design, a St. Louisbased landscape architecture firm, the concept was fashioned to re-create microcosms of ecosystems found in Missouri. Using plants that are native to Missouri wetland, glade, prairie and woodland habitats, visitors to the garden learn more about the site conditions where certain plants thrive. Although the soils in most suburban and urban landscapes have been dramatically altered due to development, homeowners can find areas of their yard that have conditions similar to a wetland, glade or other habitat. When a gardener understands how to match plant species to the habitat where that plant is naturally found, they create a functional and sustainable landscape.

Plants that are matched to their natural growing conditions reduce the need for supplemental watering, fertilizers and pesticides. Traditional landscapes often include exotic plants and vast expanses of turf grass, which require a great deal of resources. While some may like the artificial appearance of a green lawn, it provides little, if any, benefit as wildlife habitat. The seeds and berries produced by native plants are important food sources for a variety of birds and mammal species. Many insect species also depend on native plants for food. Hence, the presence of native plants in urban landscaping is essential to maintaining the natural biodiversity of our region.

Technology and Technique

Beyond the wildlife and aesthetics, the garden’s design tackles the huge issue of stormwater. For years, the prevailing stormwater management strategy had been to capture, pipe, and almost immediately send runoff downstream. Erosion, flash flooding, water pollution and lost aquatic habitats have resulted. To combat this problem, permeable pavements, cisterns and rain gardens were installed so that not one drop of rainwater leaves the site to enter the city’s sewer system.

This type of design is called Low-Impact Development (LID) and it uses engineering strategies and natural processes to manage stormwater as close to the source as possible. Because this project provides important public education on techniques that improve water quality and reduce stormwater into the system, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Region 7 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided the project with a Clean Water Act Section 319-grant to fund the installation of these aspects of the design.

Another important demonstration included in the Brightside garden is how to make use of small areas to successfully grow trees. In many communities, trees are planted in “boxes” that may measure smaller than 3 feet by 3 feet within sidewalks and parking lots. Foresters call these coffins due to the short (less than 10 years) life span of the trees subjected to these harsh conditions. Tree roots need large areas to expand in order to absorb adequate water and nutrients as well as provide support for their large canopies. Because the pavement limits their root space, the trees are often short-lived. Tree roots also damage sidewalks in their attempt to grow. Good engineering and sound forestry practices offer an alternative to improve tree health, eliminate pavement damage and allow us to enjoy the aesthetic and functional benefits of large shade trees, which includes intercepting storm water, reducing pollutants and reducing energy consumption. To find out how much benefit your shade trees provide, visit this tree benefits calculator website at

During the second phase of the project, the Silva Cell suspended pavement system will be used to provide rooting space beneath a large expanse of sidewalk (see graphic left). Additional 319 grant funding through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources will help make this first-of-its-kind installation in Missouri possible.

Our Shared Vision

Building this garden was an example of partnership at its best. From the nurseries that donated native plants to the businesses, foundations and governmental entities that supported this undertaking, more than $500,000 was invested in this endeavor. Today, neighbors have a beautiful green space that provides respite from the built environment and provides the opportunity to connect with nature. In St. Louis, the Conservation Department is supporting such initiatives that encourage urban residents to experience first-hand the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

“Many partners contributed, yet the staff of the Conservation Department embraced this idea and, through their vision and expertise, made this project a reality,” praised Green, Brightside’s executive director. “We invite everyone to stop by, enjoy the beautiful garden and learn a little bit about how the Conservation Department is making a difference in the St. Louis community.”

A Community Effort

Brightside St. Louis (formerly known as Operation Brightside) was founded in 1982 and initially began as a public-private partnership teaming community residents with city government to clean up neighborhoods. Brightside has cleaned up millions of pounds of trash and debris and planted millions of flowers to beautify public spaces in St. Louis. In honor of its 30th anniversary, Brightside mobilized hundreds of volunteers to plant 500,000 daffodils this year.

Brightside staff and volunteers organize cleanup events and community plantings. Through their efforts, they have succeeded in bringing a variety of community stakeholders together including volunteers, businesses, neighborhood associations and local governments to enhance the livability of St. Louis. Brightside works with all of the 79 neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis on a variety of cleaning and beautification projects.

Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution

The Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program was established under the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act. Point source pollution refers to contaminants that come from a specific source, such as pipes from sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities, which often directly discharge to waterways. Conversely, nonpoint source pollution (NPS) comes from indirect sources and includes sediment, motor oil, animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides. Rain then washes these pollutants from hard surfaces such as parking lots and roads into local waterways via storm drains. These pollutants have harmful effects on drinking water supplies, recreation and aquatic life. According to the EPA, NPS is the leading cause of water quality problems in the US. Grant funding enables states, territories and tribes to monitor, assess and educate their constituencies about NPS and protecting water quality.

The following partners contributed cash or in-kind support to the project

  • Environmental Protection Agency Region 7
  • Missouri Department of Natural Resources
  • Missouri Department of Conservation
  • Cornelsen Charitable Foundation
  • William A. Kerr Foundation
  • Edward K. Love Conservation Foundation
  • Employees Community Fund of Boeing St. Louis
  • Alberici Constructors, Inc.
  • City of St. Louis
  • Dana Brown Charitable Trust
  • Philpott Family Foundation
  • Crawford Taylor Foundation
  • Ameren
  • Korte Company
  • Peabody Investments
  • St. Louis Composting
  • Forest ReLeaf of Missouri
  • Bohn’s Farm
  • Forrest Keeling Nursery
  • Prairie Hill Farms
  • Home Nursery
  • Jost Greenhouses
  • Missouri Wildflowers Nursery
  • Schroeder Sod Farm
  • The Home Depot
  • Fred Weber, Inc.

Also In This Issue

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MDC is celebrating the 75th anniversary of putting the state’s citizen-led conservation efforts into action. In this issue, we highlight the Department’s science-based approach to fish, forest and wildlife management.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler