Smithsonian Gardens Receives Grant Award to Fund a Water Conservation Project

April 22, 2016 at 8:00 am 2 comments

In honor of Earth Day, Smithsonian Gardens is proud to announce a $146,200 grant award from Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund for a water conservation project at our Suitland Greenhouse Facility.  The award supports the purchase and installation of a rainwater harvesting system to irrigate the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection by collecting and using rainwater to water the collection rather than municipally-treated water as we use now. This project is a collaboration between Smithsonian Gardens and the Smithsonian Facilities Energy Management Branch of the Systems Engineering Division which is responsible for Smithsonian’s energy use and conservation techniques.

Rainwater harvesting is a technique used for collecting, storing and using rainwater for landscape irrigation and other uses. The rainwater is collected from hard surfaces such as rooftops and is a cost effective method of water conservation.  Rainwater is superior for plant watering because it is free from pollutants like dissolved salts, minerals, and chemicals such as fluoride and chlorine.

Water quality is of critical importance when it comes to successful orchid cultivation and maintenance. Orchid species exposed to municipal water often show detrimental physical manifestations caused by accumulated salts building up in the orchid growing medium. These adverse effects include leaf tip burn, decreased plant vigor, reduced blooming, discoloration, and even death.

Many of the best orchid collections and commercial growers in the United States, Europe, and South America use either purified water or rainwater for irrigating orchids. Switching from municipal water to rainwater is like ‘flipping a switch’ with regard to orchid growth. Seedlings irrigated with rainwater grow two to three times faster and the plants often have cleaner, unblemished foliage. A resent comparison of Atlanta Botanical Garden seedlings sired at the same time as ones grown by Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection show they are more than triple the size of those being grown by Smithsonian Gardens. Clear evidence of the need to implement better water quality for the over 8,000 orchids in our collection. We hope to have the new water harvesting and irrigation system installed by the end of this year.

This project celebrates innovation and supports sustainable collections care which will have a direct, substantial, and permanent impact on the health and preservation of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. This project received Federal support from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee.

-Sarah Hedean, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Terry Letendre  |  April 23, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    I wonder with collecting from hard surfaces, about contaminants from those surfaces such as asphalt shingles. I am sure they don’t leach out oily type chemicals for their entire lives. I wondered if there is any information on how old a new shingle roof should be before it is used to collect water used for plants (orchids in my case). Another thought is acid rain,something we used to see a lot about in the news a few years ago (particulary in eastern North America). Is it no longer considered much of a problem?

    • 2. smithsoniangardens  |  June 2, 2016 at 10:05 am

      Hi Terry. Great questions! Smithsonian Gardens is testing the rainwater we collect for any chemicals that might be harmful to the plants such as excessive zinc or other metals. We are harvesting rainwater from our office roof which is made of metal and from our greenhouse range which is constructed from polycarbonate. Testing asphalt is likely similar.

      Our system will catch large particulates with a filter and take care of anything living with the UV. The key is to know, maintain, and service your rainwater collection system for best results.

      A great place to start in your research would be with this UN Environment Programme article – The article also contains other sources of information than may be useful for you in finding answers to your questions.


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