November-December 2011

Green Lanterns

2011 Bethesda Magazine Green Awards in partnership with Bethesda Green

An elementary school club that has attracted national attention with its efforts to ban disposable lunch trays.

A conservancy that has rallied more than 1,000 volunteers to protect a 75-square-mile patch of urban forest. A man who has spent nearly a decade battling climate change—while transforming his own home and life.

These are a few of the winners of the second annual Bethesda Magazine Green Awards, in partnership with Bethesda Green. They were chosen from among more than 80 nominees in Montgomery County and Upper Northwest D.C.

Different though they may be in size and focus, the seven winners have at least one thing in common: a commitment to a more sustainable way of life.

Brookside Gardens

Category: Nonprofit organizations that have significantly incorporated green practices into their culture and operations

Director Stephanie Oberle says many of the ideas for making Brookside more  sustainable came from the staff. Photo credit: Jonathan TimmesYou can’t get much greener than Brookside Gardens, 50 acres of carefully pruned ornamental shrubs and flowers, glassed-in tropical plants and forested wetlands in Wheaton. But there’s greenery and then there’s “greening.”

About five years ago, Brookside staff members began what has evolved into an organizationwide mission to bring sustainability to all operations—from more efficient copy machines to native plantings.

They started with the little things that generally go unnoticed—switching to high-efficiency lightbulbs and natural cleaning products—and then they got more ambitious. In 2008, they added a rain garden on a hill near Brookside’s conservatory. Designed to absorb and redirect stormwater runoff, it replaced a rock garden that tended to flood with heavy rains, dumping soil and flower bulbs into the parking lot.

At three public entry points, Brookside installed “deer exclusion grates,” a low-tech replacement for aging automatic gates. In the process, they eliminated the maintenance and electrical costs of operating the gates 18 hours a day to accommodate the park’s more than 400,000 annual visitors.

Brookside Director Stephanie Oberle says many of the eco-initiatives were conceived by the staff’s green committee. They’re geared toward reducing the park’s environmental footprint and showcasing changes visitors can make themselves, from composting outside to using recycled carpet and other eco-friendly materials in the public buildings.

Brookside’s classes, meetings and functions are “zero-waste events” that use compostable tableware. And the park stopped using plastic water bottles, installing water coolers and outdoor fountains to fill reusable containers instead.

Anne Ambler, a neighbor since Brookside opened about four decades ago, says she has noticed the garden’s attention to the environment. An active Sierra Club member, Ambler says Brookside’s annual Green Matters Symposium has become a must-attend event for homeowners and landscapers looking for environmentally friendly gardening tips and solutions to stormwater runoff problems.

Many of the initiatives build on what professional gardeners have been doing all along, according to Ellen Bennett, Brookside’s advancement programs manager. She says it’s gratifying to see more of Brookside’s visitors interested in learning how to compost, install rain barrels or build their own rain gardens at home. “It used to be a fringe movement,” she says of environmentalism. 

“It’s nice to see the rest of the community has caught up.”