How to refine a rain garden

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 24, 2012 - 4:03 PM

Installing a rain garden is one small step toward protecting our lakes and creeks. But many well-meaning gardeners still have a lot to learn about the technique.

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Dawn Pape played with her son, Mason, near her rain garden. This is a curb-cut rain garden to handle runoff from street.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Dawn Pape's rain garden is a workhorse, designed with a curb cut to capture runoff from her entire street in Shoreview. But Pape, a master gardener, also was determined to make her rain garden pretty and to keep it that way.

"I see so many ugly, ugly rain gardens going in -- especially in developments," she said. "Developers have to do it, so they throw in some seeds and don't maintain the gardens. It gives rain gardens a bad name. I'm out to prove they can look decent."

There are many more rain gardens in the Twin Cities than there were even a few years ago. But not all of them are visually appealing or even doing their job -- collecting and filtering water so that runoff containing dirt, lawn chemicals and other nasty stuff doesn't end up in lakes and creeks.

By now most people have heard of rain gardens, but there are still many misconceptions about what they are, what they're supposed to do and what they involve, according to Lynn Steiner, a Minneapolis horticulturist and author of the new book "Rain Gardens: Sustainable Landscaping for a Beautiful Yard and a Healthy World."

"There's definitely more awareness now," said. "Five years ago, the term was not on the radar. People don't give you a blank look anymore." Then she added: "I'm surprised how many people, even people in horticulture, think a rain garden is a water garden, a pond," she said. "Then they say they don't want a pond in their front yard."

Unlike a pond, a rain garden is supposed to drain, within a few hours or a day or two at most. It needs drought-tolerant plants that can handle both rainy and dry spells, ideally with long roots. And while a rain garden is generally a low-maintenance garden, it does require some minimal upkeep.

Block patrol

Debby and Bob Wolk are still babysitting some of the 11 rain gardens that they gave to everyone on their Minneapolis block in celebration of their 50th anniversary in 2009.

"I was surprised how much help people needed," said Debby, a master gardener. "I have to be honest; we do walk up and down regularly, and we do nurse them," she said, adding new plants to fill in skimpy gardens, and pruning and weeding overgrown gardens.

"Most of the neighborhood tries to keep them up," she said. But some neighbors can't, either because of age or health, hectic schedules or lack of understanding.

"What we learned is that it wasn't enough just to give them the gift," she said. "Most of them don't know the difference between the plants and seedlings from trees. You do have to get out there and pull tree seedlings."

Bob Wolk, a board member for Metro Blooms, even produces a monthly neighborhood newsletter during gardening season, with tips on what to do when. Their grandson delivers the newsletters to every house on the block.

If they could start over, Debby said, "We would do more education about rain gardens. When we offered the gift, the only caveat was that they come and participate in a seminar," a PowerPoint presentation that Debby presents to other groups. In retrospect, she wishes they'd also invited their neighbors to take part in a workshop "to get hands-on experience and give them ownership."

A low-maintenance, high-functioning rain garden starts with good planning, according to Steiner. Site selection is important. "You're looking for a spot in your yard where, after a rainfall, water is collecting naturally, coming off the roof or driveway, and draining away within 24 hours."

"Draining away" is crucial. "One place you don't want is a place that's already boggy and swampy; that indicates poor drainage," she said. "You're not trying to create a pond."

Plant choice also is important, especially if you want to keep maintenance chores to a minimum. "Stay away from heavy reseeders or plants that spread rapidly," Steiner said. "Stick with better-behaved clump forms," such as purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susan and little bluestem. "Rain gardens don't have to get weedy and out of control if you give careful thought about plant selection."

'Neighbors' garbage'

Maintenance chores are increased with a curb-cut rain garden, such as Pape's. "Most rain gardens aren't taking street runoff, so basically you're accepting your neighbors' garbage," she said with a laugh.

She met most of her neighbors while installing the garden last May, a year after she and her family moved into their house. "If you want to talk to your neighbors, plant a rain garden in the front yard," she said. "We met everyone in a 2-mile radius."

Because her garden absorbs street runoff, filtration is especially important. She uses a "stick filter," basically a bundle of buckthorn tied with twine. "It's good at collecting the grass clippings, and buckthorn is pretty rot-proof," she said. When the bundle becomes clogged with debris, Pape cleans it witha Shop-Vac.

To keep her garden looking pretty, she planted a wide variety of native plants, including cardinal flower, Joe Pye weed, little bluestem and rudbeckia. "I designed it to bloom from April through October," said Pape, author of the recently published Kindle book "A Lawn Chair Gardener's Guide to a Balanced Life and a More Balanced World" (available on Amazon.com).

Pape, who also has a day job as environmental education coordinator for the Rice Creek Watershed District, was able to get a grant from the district that covered part of her rain garden's cost.

A number of communities and watershed districts offer financial incentives to help homeowners install rain gardens, Steiner said. Maplewood, for example, has been at the forefront of promoting rain gardens.

In 1996, the city implemented a pilot project to make rain gardens a part of street-reconstruction projects, said natural resources coordinator Ginny Gaynor. When streets are being updated, the city installs rain gardens and provides plant material for homeowners who are willing to do maintenance. Since then, the city has installed more than 620 boulevard rain gardens and more than 60 city rain gardens, Gaynor said.

Financial incentives help because rain gardens can be a hard sell with homeowners, Steiner said. "There are not direct benefits like with a vegetable garden. You're doing it more for the greater good, but it's important."

If keeping fertilizer and pesticides out of the water isn't enough incentive, there are other reasons to install a rain garden, according to Steiner. "You can create a stronger aquifer for your own deep-rooted trees and shrubs, reducing the need for watering. You can create a habitat for pollinating insects and birds."

And, "If you do it well, you can have a beautiful garden."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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