Every Drop Counts
Story & Photos by Sonia Linebaugh
Its sweating hot. Tan-brown snails have chewed the stems out of the green pattypan squashes. Day lilies have thrown off their dry orange heads. The magenta of cone flowers has faded to the anemic pink of a lipstick not popular since the 60s. Clouds hold themselves intact, allowing the merest dribs and drabs to fall on the parched young hydrangea.
Corinnes Rain Garden
It will rain again. It must rain again. When it does, I intend to put every precious drop to good use. In June [June 20, Vol. X, No. 25], Juanita Foust taught us how to catch water in a rain barrel and put it to gardens purpose. I meant to buy a rain barrel but I havent done it yet. Now Corinne Reed-Miller shows us how to take one step out of the watering process.
Reed-Miller put a rain garden in her Admiral Heights yard this spring. It looks a lot like a regular garden, but its set down into the lawn rather than raised up. Its easier than you can imagine, she says. I fretted for a month before I did it, but its not that different from a regular garden.
The beauty of a rain garden this one is alive with black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, bee balm, swamp milk weed and a naturalized Lord Baltimore hibiscus, with room still for blueberry bushes is not just the view but also the clever use of water. A rain garden grows with rain water directed to it from the house downspout.
The hardest part of making a rain garden is that you have to start with math fifth grade math. Measurements. Multiplication and division.
Reed-Millers house is a good example:
Picture a small house 30 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Multiply the length of the house by its width to get the square footage: 900.
Divide by the number of downspouts, four in this case: 225. This is about how much of the roof will send water to one downspout.
Plan a garden 30 percent of that size (based on local rainfall averages; trust the experts on this): 67.5. Round that up to an easy number: 70 square feet. That means Reed-Millers garden is seven feet by 10 feet.
Dig your plot about six inches deep. Begin five feet from the nearest foundation because you want the water in the garden, not the basement.
|Despite this summers drought, rainwater keeps a rain garden behind the Heritage Office Complex on Riva Road lush and green. Ann Pearson of Alliance for Sustainable Living points to a low spot in the parking lot curb that brings rainwater runoff directly into the garden.
Dont bother with a level, Reed-Miller says. After you have the garden roughly dug, just lay the hose near the bottom of the downspout, turn the water on and see where the soil is wet, where it puddles and where it needs to go a little deeper. If necessary, add an extension to your downspout or rainbarrel to help the water flow naturally to the garden.
Add two to three inches of humus or other nutrients. Remember that nutrients are good for your garden but not good running into the storm drains. You may need to use some of the diggings to create a berm on the lower side of you garden.
Add plants. Common native plants do very well, advises Reed-Miller. You want drought-tolerant plants that also dont mind standing in water for a few days at a time. In addition to the plants shes used, Reed-Miller suggests butterfly milkweed, New England aster, Joe-Pye weed, wild bergamot and purple cone flower. All these and more meet the test: drought tolerant but also tolerant of standing water for a day or two at a time. Native plants work best.
Just how does the garden work in real time?
Theres been just one good rain since Reed-Miller put her garden in, she tells me. That May day, she watched anxiously from the living room window as the garden filled but didnt overflow. If it ever does threaten to overflow, Reed-Miller figures shell create a berm directing the water toward her regular flower beds and away from her driveway.
For now this rain garden is a success. It caught and held the rainwater, then slurped it in, watering the plants down to their roots. Even in this drought, the garden has not been watered other than by rain, she says.
This sounds like something I can do.
I like the rain gardens other aspect as well, the hidden benefit to the larger environment. Every bit of water thats kept and filtered through Reed-Millers front yard is slowed down, cleaned and allowed to flow by its own hidden routes into nearby Weems Creek and on to the Bay.
Holding the first inch of water from a storm keeps 90 percent of pollutants and nutrients out of the Creek, she says. Gardens are better filters than lawns. A garden can absorb seven inches of water per hour, grass only two.
Up-Scaled Bio-retention Areas
Reed-Miller and I are not alone in appreciating rain gardens. With the persuasion of Anne Pearson of Alliance for Sustainable Living, Anne Arundel County has taken the lead on rain gardens in the parking lot at the Heritage Office Complex.
|Paved parking lots typically return rainwater to the Bay as runoff without benefit of the earths leaching magic. Bio-retention gardens, like those behind county offices on Riva Road, reroute rainwater back into the land, where nature cleanses it before it reenters the water table or the Bay.
Rain gardens demonstrate the magic ability of the earth to eat pollutants, says Pearson. Up Broad Creek from the South River, the County created two bio-retention areas, as rain gardens are named at this scale. Surface runoff from the asphalted parking lot is directed into shallow, landscaped depressions that mimic the pollutant removal techniques of nature. Says Pearson, The natural bio-action of the soil cleans the pollutants.
The gardens here are appropriately more complex. Theyre dug six feet deep, then layered with large gravel, small gravel, sand and compost. But the effects are the same.
The gardens are a service that allows the earth to function as it is meant to, says Pearson, and it puts the beauty back. Humans dont do well without beauty.
Ginger Ellis, who oversees the bio-retention project for the county, calls the gardens, a pretty wonderful thing.
Weve been watching the gardens for close to a year now and theres a dramatic difference with the raised beds we see elsewhere, she says. While those are bone dry, these are lush and green. In a heavy downburst, the gardens fill with water, and by the next day, it has percolated down into the soil.
An overflow feature keeps excess water from flooding the parking lot.
Spread the Word
|The downspouts at Corinne Reed-Millers home provide all the water her rain garden needs.
Word about rain gardens is spreading. The Center for Watershed Protection has created water-sustaining instructions for homeowners along the South River in partnership with South River Federation. The aim is to keep water laden with fertilizers, earth and car oil out of the storm drains where it rushes pell mell into streams, ripping out fragile shorelines and degrading the water. Presentations on rain gardens, rain barrels, car maintenance and handling pet wastes have been made in Selby on the Bay, Hillsmere and South River Colony.
We want to tell homeowners what roof and impervious surfaces do to the Bay, says the Centers Ann Kitchell. We want to hit them over the head with some options that work really well, that take that hot water (up to 140 degrees) off the roof, cool it, slow it down and filter it slowly into the ground.
Rain gardens and rain barrels are the strategies most appealing to homeowners. Theyve got eye appeal. Theyre not costly. Theyre easy to implement. And they ease the environmental conscience.
I was surprised, says Kitchell, by how many people did not know about rain barrels and rain gardens. There was a lot of enthusiasm.
Im enthusiastic too. It looks like rain, and Im going to miss this opportunity to put every drop to use. Ill be ready for sure next time. No sweat.
If youre enthusiastic about gardening, about using natures resources and about the water quality of our rivers and Bay, theres help available. The Center for Watershed Protection has fact sheets on rain gardens, green rooftops, lawn conversion to a natural state, fertilizers, pest control, kudzu control, green parking and more: www.cwp.org.
Get a further look at Reed-Millers rain garden project at www.WeemsCreek.org, where youll find advice, plant suggestions and rain garden sample plans by Homestead Gardens. For informational talks for homeowners groups, call Tracy Wroe: 410/721-0661 [email protected]. Center for Watershed Protection: www.cwp.org.