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Help Reduce Stormwater Run-off and Beautify Your Space with a Rain Garden

a small footbridge crosses over a river rock basin in a garden setting
May 6, 2019

It’s been a wet spring, and scientists say we’re likely to see more severe storms in the future. Consider one way you can help handle rainfall: a rain garden.

A rain garden is an attractively planted low place in your yard designed to temporarily collect and hold a large volume of water when it rains. The water will stand for a day or two, until it slowly soaks down into the soil or is taken up by the roots of the plants.

The rain garden can help make up for the paved surfaces in your yard, such as the driveway, sidewalk, and patio, that don’t allow rainwater to soak in.

The goal is to keep water on your property instead of letting it run off into the storm sewers. That has a wide range of benefits to you and your community: It diminishes the risk of flooding and the need for water treatment to remove pollutants and sediment from storm runoff. As the water soaks down to replenish the ground water, it’s filtered by the soil. Reducing the amount of water that flows into storm sewers cuts the risk that untreated sewage will overwhelm the storm sewers in big storms and need to be released into rivers and Lake Michigan.

A rain garden is not a pond; most of the time, between rainstorms, it will be dry. Since the water doesn’t stand more than 48 hours, mosquitoes don’t get a chance to breed.

Rain gardens are designed to be easy-care. Typically, they’re filled with native flowers, grasses and shrubs. Prairie plants often are favored because they develop extensive root systems that can absorb a lot of water.

There’s no particular style required for a rain garden, though they tend to be informal. The best site is usually a low spot in the yard where rainwater already collects, but you likely need to enlarge the depression to capture a significant amount of runoff.

The Arboretum is offering a class, Do-It-Yourself Rain Gardens, on Thursday, May 16.