attending a landscaping seminar, David Ciepluch decided to
transform part of his yard into a rain garden; it now contains
40 to 50 species of plants and grasses.
We’ve all heard the children’s song
"rain, rain, go away," but to where? Rain falls on roofs,
driveways and roads — areas where it can’t soak in. The water
rushes off in heavy volumes, sweeping pollution like oil and debris
into storm sewers and causing overflows. Polluted water runs into
small creeks with a destructive force.
One solution that individual homeowners
can do is to create a rain garden — an infiltration technique where
water is captured in a garden full of native plants. There, the water
slowly filters into the ground and replenishes groundwater as the
plants trap pollutants. When the gardens are filled with native
perennials and shrubs, which are adapted to local conditions, they
also become oases for butterflies and other wildlife.
Milwaukee’s David Ciepluch had a
traditional yard, and was planting many annuals and spending a lot of
time mowing his lawn. Sparked by a landscaping seminar, in 2000 he
transformed part of his yard, which abuts Holler Park, into a rain
garden. He has expanded it to one-third of his lot and it now contains
40 to 50 species of plants and grasses. Some, such as jack in the
pulpit, wild geraniums and asters, sprouted up naturally after
invasive species such as buckthorn and garlic mustard were removed.
Ciepluch, an energy efficiency project
strategist for We Energies, says he now walks around his backyard with
his dogs every evening and always sees something new, including
butterflies, bees and humming birds.
"You could call it a healing
aspect. It de-stresses me and it’s a way to pause and
appreciate," he says. "It isn’t just the look of it I
like; it’s the mental appreciation for what’s below the soil —
the root system 5 to 10 feet below the surface. I’m not an artsy
person but maybe this is the way I get my art."
Rainfall diverted from Richard Marklin’s
downspouts is absorbed into his rain garden, which draws raves
While Ciepluch’s garden is his art,
the more pragmatic Wauwatosa resident and avid gardener Richard
Marklin says his rain garden just gave him a great reason to plant
more flowers. Two years ago he converted part of his front yard —
about 200 square feet — into a rain garden. Marklin was amazed at
the amount of rainfall diverted from his downspouts that the garden
could absorb, even in its first year.
He receives many compliments from
people who are just walking by and stop to admire his garden,
including 9-foot sunflowers.
"They’ll say, ‘I love your
garden,’ not even knowing it’s a rain garden," says Marklin.
"It’s just a beautiful garden that’s very functional. It’s
an easy way to make a small difference. If we all did it, the
cumulative effect would be amazing."
Rain gardens can look wild or formal
depending on the plants selected and other landscaping. They range
from 100 to 300 square feet, although smaller gardens are possible. It’s
slightly sunken, about 4 to 8 inches deep, with a level bottom. Any
deeper and it might pond water too long or create a hazard.
The rain garden can be near the house
to catch roof runoff or farther out to collect water from the lawn and
roof. However, siting the garden can be tricky because it needs to be
at least 10 feet from the house, so water doesn’t seep into the
foundation, and it can’t be over a septic system. It might be
tempting to put the garden where water already pools, but that’s
exactly where you don’t want it, because water there is already
having a hard time infiltrating. You want to encourage penetration.
Land with clay rather than sand needs a garden with more surface area
because infiltration will be slower. A sunny area is preferable to
shade (although shade gardens are possible) and choosing a part of
your yard that’s already flat will cut-down on digging.
Once your garden is dug, the fun part
— planting — begins. There is no single best way to plant a rain
garden, but some rules of thumb include:
•Have a rough plan.
•Select plants with well established
•Dig each hole twice as wide as the
•Apply a 2-inch layer of mulch the
first year, but avoid new plant crowns.
•Label groupings to make weeding
easier, but soon the native grasses and flowers will mature and
out-compete the weeds.
•Unless it rains, water once or twice
a week until the plants are established; after that you shouldn’t
have to water.
•In spring, when new growth begins,
cut tattered plants back and remove dead plant material with a Weed
Whacker. If your mower’s deck raises to 6 inches, you can just mow
it and rake up and compost the material.
The University of Wisconsin Extension
and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a free, detailed
how-to manual for homeowners that discusses siting, gives a number of
illustrated garden designs and plant lists. Log on to: clean-water.uwex.edu/pubs/raingarden/.
The DNR Web site, http://dnr.wi.gov/org/, is also an excellent source.