Rain Gardens

There are many benefits to gardening with a social conscience.

Looking for a garden that’s easy to install, requires very little maintenance, looks good year-round and has a positive impact on the environment? Then a rain garden might be the right garden for you.

Rain gardens catch stormwater runoff from roofs, sidewalks, parking lots and roads. Rather than rushing off into a storm sewer or a local waterway, the rainwater collects in a rain garden. It can be planted with native grasses and wildflowers that are specially selected for their ability to gradually absorb and filter stormwater – a beautiful solution to a real New Orleans problem.

In addition, rain gardens recharge local aquifers and help protect communities from flooding and drainage problems. Rain gardens also help protect streams and lakes from pollutants carried by urban stormwater such as lawn fertilizers, pesticides and numerous harmful substances that wash off roofs and roads. Studies have shown that as much as 70 percent of the pollution in streams, rivers and lakes was carried there by stormwater.

Global Green USA’s Holy Cross Project is used for education and advocacy for sustainable building. It has examples of rain gardens and bioswales, landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water, at its Lower Ninth Ward site. They welcome visitors and are a great resource for all things “green” and sustainable.

“Here in New Orleans, where we are prone to flooding with our fast rain events, rain gardens can help a great deal with our street flooding,” says Michelle Pyne, Green Building program associate with Global Green USA. “They also help filter out runoff such as oil. They really do help our overburdened storm water systems.”

Many other organizations are beginning to incorporate rain gardens into their landscape planning. Andrew Wilson Elementary School has a 12,000-gallon water cistern that collects rainwater and uses it for its landscape irrigation. The Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center has a small rain garden filled with irises.

You’ll find an in-depth guide, “Stormwater and Your Rain Garden” on LSU AgCenter’s website, lsuagcenter.com. It will give you a solid start, and as with all things gardening, nothing beats just contacting your local county agent at 658-2900.

But here’s a short “how-to”: Your rain garden should be located at least 10 feet from your house. A typical residential rain garden is 100 to 300 square feet, but any size rain garden is fine. A natural site is a low spot in your yard that often collects water after a heavy rain. The downspout from your roof should be directed toward your garden. And it’s recommended to place it in  full- to partial-sun exposure.

Once you’ve identified the new garden’s location, dig up the soil and remove any existing turf grass. Dig the area to a depth of 4 to 6 inches, and grade the area so there is a lower catch basin. You may need to line that area of the garden with plastic to help retain a small pool of water.

Native plants are your best choice. They withstand difficult growing conditions and are low-maintenance. As always, choose plants considering their height, bloom time and color.
“Horsetails take off like crazy, and they thrive here,” says Pyne.“Irises and cypress trees also do very well.”

New plants should be watered every other day for the first two weeks or so. Once they are well-established, your garden should thrive without additional watering or fertilizing.
If you don’t have the space or don’t want to make a full rain garden commitment, you might consider harvesting rainwater in rain barrels, an ancient practice once again in vogue in our greener urban landscapes.

Kelli Wright and architect Kurt Hagstette with Eskew+Dumez+Ripple recently installed a Poly-Mart, Inc. rain harvesting tank in their yard after Wright attended a Preservation Resource Center workshop on rain gardens.

“I just think it’s a good idea,” she says. “It’s free water and such a simple thing to do. We use the water on our plants and it’s perfect for the pool.”

One thing to consider about your rain barrel is that it needs to be covered. Think mosquitos and yellow fever. There are many places to purchase safe rain barrels online and at retail stores, but if you want to increase your social conscience cred, I suggest purchasing rain barrels from the Community Service Center (CSC).

CSC helps ex-offenders offer services that help them become successful citizens. CSC’s Rainwater Catchment Barrels are very affordable – just $55. Their website is cscnouw.org.

If you decide to take responsibility for the rainwater that falls off your roof, you’ll be helping protect our rivers, streams and lakes. Adding a rain garden is simply lush lagniappe, providing food and shelter for wildlife, and giving you a hardy, low-maintenance and naturally beautiful garden.

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