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Let it rain
Environmentally conscious rain 
gardens are gaining popularity


May 2006

After 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 from admirers.

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 root systems.

•Dig each hole twice as wide as the plant plug.

•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: The DNR Web site,, is also an excellent source.