My Rain Garden
by Eliana Brown
The decision to buy my house was easy. I loved its hardwood floors and charming 1930s features. I don’t even remember what the yard looked like nor did it ever factor in my choice. Despite my disregard, it is the yard – this afterthought, this gift with purchase – that has the potential to be the most profound thing I ever do to improve the environment. Given that my entire working career has been in the environmental field, it is quite the statement. But, bear with me, because I believe it’s true.
Most people think that industry is the main cause of river impairment. It certainly was in 1972, after the Cuyahoga River caught fire thirteen times, when the Clean Water Act established a program to require pollution control for industry effluents. As a result, the EPA expected river water quality to improve, but it didn’t by very much. They found that stormwater runoff also caused impairment.
Since 1970, the average American home size doubled. Big box stores design parking lots for Black Friday-sized capacity. Hard surfaces such as these don’t allow rainwater to soak in the ground. An inch of rain on a 2 acre lot equals a little more than 54,000 gallons. That’s equal to about 1,200 bathtubs. Our infrastructure takes all that runoff that would be filtered naturally as groundwater and sends it straight into the river. Rivers can handle an occasional deluge; but now, they receive water from the more frequent storms too, which degrades them.
The best thing we can do for our rivers is take responsibility for our hard surfaces on our properties by using our yards to capture runoff. We can be grateful for our existing storm sewer pipes and add “green infrastructure” elements. We already have a system in place that takes big storms away. We need green systems that capture the first flush of rain and prevent it from reaching the creek. Instead of treating water like a waste for disposal, green infrastructure takes a different tact: water is a nurturing resource that we can use on site.
One example is a rain garden. A rain garden is simply a hole 6" – 12" deep that has plants. These plants tend to be native species since they are accustomed to wet and dry cycles, but they don’t have to be. The garden itself can be any style – I’ve seen formal ones and naturalistic ones – whatever works for your aesthetic.
The important part is that the garden captures water and allows it to filter into the ground. If you like, you can build an overflow that goes to the storm sewer. My friend, an engineer, got fancy and hooked his sump pump to a fountain that shoots up from his rain garden. Another friend is a beekeeper, so her rain garden has plants that extend the bee foraging season.
To get you started, I highly recommend that you look at the Wisconsin DNR rain garden manual. A book to check out from the Champaign Library is Creating Rain Gardens: Capturing the Rain for Your Own Water-Efficient Garden by Apryl Uncapher and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine. You can’t have it right now, though, because I have it checked out to help me with my garden.
My rain garden is going to be cottage-style, bee friendly, and cover a large part of the front yard. The yard I never considered will have a profound purpose beyond its current one of being a surface to mow. Another easy decision.