Catching the rain in gardens

Rob Zimmer Special Contributor
Now Media Group

With all of the rain we've been having recently, it's a great time to consider installing a rain garden to help conserve our precious natural waterways.

Rain gardens are areas designed to capture runoff from driveways, parking lots, roof tops and other flat surfaces to remove potential toxins before the flow reaches our precious rivers, lakes and streams.

Water that would normally run directly into the storm sewer and feed directly into our natural waterways, loaded with toxins and pollutants, is instead captured and held temporarily as it slowly filters through the soil into the water table below.

How rain gardens work

This natural filtering system is accomplished by using a combination of native wildflowers and grasses. Native plants make the best choice for filtering rainwater as their root systems are characteristically extremely deep, vigorous and complex.

In fact, the root systems of some native plants may run as deep as 12 to 18 feet below the surface.

Native wildflowers and grasses are therefore quite drought tolerant, able to survive long periods without precipitation.

At the same time, these versatile plants make excellent choices for rain gardens, where they may be submerged for many hours during heavy storms.

Rain gardens are designed and planned to guide runoff from flat surfaces into a holding area or shallow depression where these plants then work their magic, slowly filtering out toxins and pollutants.

There are many online sources and books available to help determine how far from the flat surface to install the garden, how much space to allow depending upon the square footage of the surface being controlled, as well as the depth to create the depression.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources offers great information here: www.dnr.wi.gov/topic/stormwater/raingarden/

Choosing plants

There are many wonderful native plants and grasses to choose from to create your rain garden.

For practical purposes, as well as ornamental beauty, mix and match a variety of textures, colors, shapes and sizes to create a spectacular display that is not only fun to look at, but educational and environmentally friendly.

An added benefit of rain gardens is that many of the plants commonly utilized are also excellent nectar plants for butterflies and hummingbirds.

Some of the plants to choose from include swamp milkweed, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild quinine, prairie dropseed, blue flag iris, ironweed, Joe pye weed, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, sneezeweed, monkey flower, red twig dogwood, New England aster, orange milkweed, wild bergamot and more.

Find Rob Zimmer online at www.robzimmeroutdoors.com, as well as on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RobZimmerOutdoors.