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Soaking it up
Rain gardens protect the environment 
and beatify the landscape


May 2006

Native plants and wildflowers now dominate the Bayside landscape of Dan and Carol Chew.

For crossword puzzle lovers, it’s Suduko; the health-conscious are taking their cues from "Dancing with the Stars." And in gardening circles, the hottest trend is rain gardens.

Amy Joyce, Whitefish Bay resident and co-founder of the Healthy Community Project, says one of the reasons rain gardening is gaining momentum is because the effects of "urban runoff" are becoming more and more apparent.

"The issue of polluted runoff harming our lakes, rivers and streams is never far from the headlines," Joyce says. "I also believe we’re feeling a direct impact on our ability to utilize our lakes and waterways for both recreation and food supplies. It’s hard to ignore the issue when every time you walk your kids down to the beach, you find that it’s closed again due to high bacteria counts."

The rain garden, by definition, is a garden that is planted in a specifically designated area of your yard to capture runoff water — mainly from your roof, driveway or walkways — and that allows the trapped water to slowly soak into the ground instead of flowing into storm sewers or waterways. The biggest problem with runoff, Joyce says, is the fact that harmful pollutants get trapped and make their way into our water systems, creating a dangerous domino effect on the ecosystem.

Longtime Bayside resident, environmental activist and member of Wild Ones Natural Landscaping group, Lorrie Otto discovered the potential to reduce runoff in her own yard during a rainstorm.

"I saw how the water would run off the road to yards and flood off to the stream," she remembers. "So I went out and dug a ditch and filled it with yellow irises. I also opened up a part of a ditch and dug a pond next to it where the water would run off and planted milkweeds."

Since that time, Otto has filled her one-acre lot with a multitude of rain gardens. A few of Otto’s favorite rain garden plants to use are marsh marigolds, culver’s root, aster, queen of the prairie, joe pye weed, turtlehead and red milkweed — all native plants.

Part of the allure of rain gardening is the idea of using these native plants — which are already acclimated to the soil and its surroundings. Milwaukee River Basin Coordinator Gail Epping Overholt says native plants serve a variety of purposes. "They need less maintenance, decrease the need for fertilizers and pesticides, improve erosion control because of their deeper root systems and have greater survival rates. They also provide food and habitat for native wildlife," she says.

When Bayside residents Carol and Dan Chew moved to the Milwaukee area after living on the West Coast, they felt it was like "coming to another country." With the move, the couple brought their love for natural landscape to Wisconsin.

Last spring earth science students from Kennedy Middle School in Germantown planted this rain garden at the Germantown Library.

"Having enjoyed the wooded areas surrounding our California and Oregon homes, we again selected a home near a natural area, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside," Carol Chew says. "The yard, however, needed a transformation from its mowed, sterile appearance."

One of the couple’s first projects was to dig a pond in a backyard low spot — a natural runoff area for their sump pump. After consulting the plat map for their yard, they created a measured drawing of their yard, sketched in garden beds, roped off the area and added transplants to their lawn. Through the years additional native plant beds were added to both the front and backyards. Wildflowers have gradually displaced the original lawn throughout the yard.

After participating in a workshop, 20 earth science students from Kennedy Middle school in Germantown created a rain garden last spring at the Germantown Library.

"The students were grouped to come up with a plan to share with the other groups," teacher John Kangas says. "Each group then had to try to convince the others that their ideas were the best."

With plan in hand, the eighth-graders helped install the rain garden near the front of the library in close proximity to one of the library’s downspouts. Kangas says a variety of plants with deep roots were selected including fox sedge, long-sepaled penstemon, culver’s root, great blue lobelia and brown-eyed Susan.

Getting started

Location: Near a downspout where roof water collects • A flat spot in the yard • At least 10 feet away from the house’s foundation • Away from septic system and trees

Size: 6 inches to 12 inches deep, depending on the slope • Twice as long as it is wide • Longer side should be perpendicular to the slope and the downspout • Make a berm across the bottom and up the side • Higher at the downhill side and tapering as it wraps to the top

Plants: 1 to 2 years old with an established root system • Zone 5 on the plant hardiness chart • Appropriate for sun/shade exposure of the area • Mix of sedges, rushes, grasses and flowering plants

More information:"Rain Gardens: A Household Way to Improve Water Quality in Your Community" by UW-Extension and Wisconsin DNR at or