Rain gardens, like this one planted in Parma, OH, absorb stormwater and prevent it from overloading the sewage system.
It’s springtime, and many people are putting on their gardening gloves and planting some tomatoes or maybe tulips in their backyard. But there’s another kind of garden that you might want to consider, especially if you live in a rainy place with old and overburdened sewers.
That’s what folks in Parma, Ohio, have done. The Cleveland suburb is a typical neighborhood with homes, lawns, and sidewalks, but there’s something missing: grass. Jen Greiser, a natural resource manager for the Cleveland Metroparks, explains that this is intentional. “For homeowners that signed on to the project, we installed what we call ‘right of way’ rain gardens, and so we worked with a contractor to take up the grass and dig some depressional planting beds and install some plants,” said Greiser.
This project is one of many initiatives in this area and across the country that use plantings and greenery to help trap stormwater.
Northeast Ohio is a rainy place, and all that water -- if not absorbed into the soil -- runs off, mixes with pollutants and sewage, overloads the wastewater treatment plants, and ends up spewing out untreated into Lake Erie. This isn’t a good thing for people or wildlife or the lake’s overall ecology.
Stormwater runoff can be stemmed on a large scale with stuff like urban trees, wetland protection, permeable pavement, and floodplain management. But it can also be done on a smaller scale by individuals.
In the spirit of springtime, the Metroparks’ Jen Greiser shared some tips with me on how to plant a backyard rain garden that can reduce local runoff and provide some attractive landscaping.
To get started she suggests a little observation during the next rainy day. “Just put on a raincoat, grab an umbrella, run outside, and stand out there for a little while,” said Greiser. Your neighbors might wonder what you’re doing, she warned, but don’t let that deter you. It’s important to find out where the water’s pooling up. This is the spot to plant your rain garden. And it doesn’t have to be huge: it can fit right into other landscaping schemes.
Next, it’s time to get your hands dirty with some digging. “Instead of our traditional planting beds that are raised above the ground, we’re kind of flipping that over and we’re going to have a more bowl-shaped area for planting,” said Greiser.
You want to fill out your bowl with plants that have deep root systems. Native grasses and shrubs take their roots deep into the ground, so they loosen up the soil and allow for more water to seep in. A mowed lawn, in comparison, has a really shallow root system.
You can also pick deep-rooted ornamental plants, but watch out for the tastier varietals like cardinal flower or purple coneflower, which Greiser says can just be deer candy.
You might also want to consider some soil amendments, especially if your soil contains a lot of clay. Mixing in some sand or compost helps water infiltrate through heavy clay. If your backyard soil is already pretty sandy, then a shallow rain garden should work just fine.
Then wait for the rain. Your garden should soak up the water in just a day or two, so there’s no standing water.
Greiser says backyards are an important part of overall stormwater management plans for areas like northeast Ohio, where residential parcels abound. “While they seem small in and of themselves, the residential areas make up such a great percentage of our land use here, so they’re really critical, and to the extent that we can get whole neighborhoods involved, it’s a cumulative effect,” she said.
Some communities even offer incentives to residents who plant rain gardens in their yards. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District will knock off 25 percent from a homeowner’s stormwater fee (if and when those fees resurface after ongoing court battles). Other metropolitan areas, like cities in New Jersey and Washington, give a major rebate to cover the cost of a rain garden installation. One pilot program in Cincinnati actually paid
people to plant them.
Jen Greiser says would-be rain gardeners should aim to get their plants in during the spring to soak up all the May showers, though a fall planting would also work well.
If your green thumb is a little rusty, just remember to think like a raindrop and you can’t go wrong.