Snow and ice may be blanketing Germantown's Vernon Park, but community members responsible for the rain garden waiting underneath haven't forgotten about it. And now, they've won the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's (PHS) 2013 Community Greening Award for their efforts.

On Monday, another "perfectly rotten night" according to Friends of Vernon Park president Ruth Seeley, hardy members picked their way across the ice to the Centre in the Park for their monthly meeting.

They joined representatives from the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford (TTF) Watershed Partnership including executive director Julie Slavet, David Bower of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation and PHS rain-garden expert Emma Melvin, who presented the award.

The award acknowledged a greening project that has aided the environment as well as had true community impact.

Friends on the ground

Slavet explained that the project was spearheaded by TTF (which is funded by the Philadelphia Water Department) in partnership with the Friends of Vernon Park and many other community groups.

She said the rain garden on the park's west side was TTF's first big project within the city limits.

It was launched in fall of 2011, designed by the engineering firm AKRF and built and maintained mostly through volunteer labor from neighbors and local civic groups, corporate helpers and school service days.

"It wouldn't be successful if there weren't people right on the ground" to help, Slavet said.

Why rain gardens?

Urban water trouble begins when rain runs across non-porous roads and sidewalks and gushes into the already overloaded sewer system.

A rain garden, built into a shallow depression that can catch the run-off from nearby structures, helps to capture, store and clean that water while nourishing an assortment of native plants.

"We're so proud of this rain garden," Slavet said.

By all signs, it's been a major success, and not only in terms of motivating a broad community coalition which gains insight into eco-friendly storm-water management.

Native plants are thriving with nice deep roots, and Bower said the park now attracts more wildlife including hummingbirds, bug-eating northern brown snakes "as big as your pen" and even the rare Pileated Woodpecker.

The presentation

On Monday, the group received a brand-new sign from the National Wildlife Federation calling Vernon Park a Certified Wildlife Habitat because it "provides the four basic habitat elements needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover, and places to raise young."

Seeley said TTF "did all the spadework" in applying for the PHS award, which brought expert evaluators to about 90 different sites across the region.

Last September, Slavet received notice of the award, the presentation of which was originally scheduled for December, hosted by Pennsylvania first lady Susan Corbett at the Governor's Residence in Harrisburg. However, a snowstorm kept the Vernon Park honorees at home.

"A lot of dirt and plans and pizza" went into that recognition, Slavet said as members of the supporting groups posed happily with their prize: A big blue-and-green sign that touts the garden for "Motivating people to improve the quality of life and create a sense of community through horticulture."

That new signage, including a third one that identifies the site as a registered rain garden and offers some facts about the project, is important to the Vernon Park volunteers.

"One of my concerns is that people are walking by without knowing what it is," Seeley said of the rain garden in past years, which had no signs to explain it or provide informational resources.

Next up for Vernon Park

When the weather warms up, last year's leaf matter will be cleared, gutters cleaned and native plants installed and maintained.

There are plenty of plans afoot for the park in the spring, including a "Germantown Emerald Picnic," with the help of a $750 activities grant from the Fairmount Park Conservancy, and (organizers hope) a modest activities grant.

Friends of Vernon Park program events coordinator Angela Miles said the free BYO-picnic event is tentatively scheduled for late May. She said hopes it will feature a DJ or live music along with lawn games like soccer, volleyball and croquet.