Install a rain garden to reduce water runoff in the Midwest
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
All over the Midwest, communities are dealing with century-old, combined sewer systems that frequently overflow during heavy rains. The stormwater runoff, laden with human waste, chemicals and other pollutants, pours into our waterways.
One of the ways homeowners, schools, businesses, office parks and others can help correct this problem is by installing rain gardens. These environmentally sustainable gardens naturally slow or reduce stormwater runoff. They collect and hold rain water for a brief time, slowly releasing it though the soil or allowing plants to soak it up.
Can one rain garden make a difference? It can, if your neighbors, schools, office complexes and parks join in the effort with their own rain gardens.
Why should residents of water-rich states, such as those in the Midwest, care about conserving rainwater for use in the garden? Because these states may not always be water-worry free, says Ken Remenschneider, founder of Remenschneider Associates Inc., a landscape architect and planning firm in Indianapolis.
As urban and suburban populations increase, homes, businesses and schools require more water to meet their needs, says Remenschneider. His company has designed and overseen the installation of several rain gardens or swales, including private residences and four at schools in Indianapolis.
Contrary to instinct, the section of the landscape that stays wet may not be the ideal site for a rain garden, says Holly Richter, owner of highly rated Ilex Garden Design in Wauconda, Ill. For these water-retentive sites, consider a swale, sometimes called a bio-swale.
A swale is an area where water flows, frequently staying wet for long periods and seldom drying out. It usually develops at a contour of the land, such as drainage ditches or where adjoining properties meet.
A rain garden can be planted where water is directed, such as from a downspout or low areas where stormwater runs from a driveway or other paved areas. These sites usually dry out within several hours after a rain.
The different sites may require various steps for installation. Hire a professional to test the soil to ensure it can accommodate the type of rain garden or swale planned and to do the heavy lifting: large quantities of soil or gravel may need to be brought in or removed, a basin may have to be dug and engineering skills will be needed to ensure slope and drainage comply with local codes and regulation.
Finally, plant selection is key to success. Homeowners who like to get their hands in the dirt can hire a landscape architect or designer to provide direction.
Sedges (Carex) and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), for instance, are adapted to swales and other wet areas, while coneflowers (Echinacea) and sneezeweed (Helenium) work well in rain gardens. Shrubs and trees can be planted on higher ground, such as berms, to extend the season, create a buffer and add texture.
Native perennials and grasses work well for these sites because of the plants' adaptability to environmental challenges, from wet to dry soil, temperature swings and resistance to many insects and disease problems.
Sometimes known as the Hoosier Gardener, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp lives in Indianapolis, where she manages perennials and woody plants for a large, independent garden center. A freelance writer, her work appears in many publications, including The American Gardener and Garden Gate. Sharp also speaks about gardening throughout the Midwest and is a director of the Garden Writers Association.