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Great Lakes Article:

Rain garden preserves natural water cycle
By Marty Hair
Knight Ridder

DETROIT - The grassy strip between the Piotrowskis' sidewalk and the street used to turn into a soggy ditch that held rainwater bound for the storm drain and the Rouge River. This year, the area is a rain garden that absorbs and filters water after each downpour.

"The rainwater doesn't last more than 24 hours, which to me is saying the compost and sand are really filtering the water" and helping some of it penetrate the soil, says Linda Piotrowski, of Lathrup Village, Mich.

The native plants that grow on the site, attracting birds and insects, are interesting to look at, too.

Call them rain gardens, swales or forward-thinking water management. They're a far cry from the arrangement that sends storm water spilling across pollution-encrusted pavement and into pipes or retention basins before pouring into lakes and rivers.

With rain gardens, the water seeps into the soil, as it did before development and pavement disrupted the natural cycle.

Not ponds, not wetlands, rain gardens are quick-draining, plant-filled shallow depressions in landscapes.

With the right soil mixture and the right plants, experts say, rain gardens soak up and filter water within 48 hours - well before the gardens have a chance to turn into mosquito breeding grounds.

Fall is a good time to lay the groundwork for rain gardens, which - drop by drop - may change how people think about storm water.

Before rain gardens, "this wonderful rain that fell out of the sky was thought of as a waste product, not a resource," Roger Bannerman of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource recently told a Detroit-area workshop.

A watershed scientist, Bannerman says the phrase "rain garden" wasn't even in his vocabulary a few years ago. But since he has started experimenting with the gardens, he has been overwhelmed by the interest in something so simple. If enough people embrace rain gardening, Bannerman predicts, "we're going to change how our cities look."

That's already happening in rain garden hot spots like Madison, Wis.; Seattle, Wash; Prince George's County, Md., and Minnesota's Twin Cities.

Rain gardens are trickling into other areas, too. Lathrup Village has streetside ditches rather than curbs and gutters, so rain gardens are helping to reduce the amount of standing water, a big concern because of West Nile virus. By filtering water and sending less of it into drains and ultimately the Rouge, rain gardens also boost the river's water quality.

To see how a rain garden would look, the city built a 20-foot-by-40-foot model last year next to the municipal building's parking lot. Grass wouldn't grow in the wet area.

"It was just a nasty-looking area" that held the parking lot's salty runoff on its way to a drain and the Rouge, says Jeff Mueller, assistant city administrator.

Working with the Southeastern Oakland County (Mich.) Water Authority, city workers dug down 3 feet around the drain, removed debris and clay soil and replaced it with a compost-sand mix. Then volunteers and local gardeners planted native wildflowers and shrubs like penstemon, sweetspire and serviceberry, which can thrive with occasional wet feet but under mostly dry conditions as well. On top, the workers spread a layer of shredded bark mulch. Materials cost $750.

A perforated pipe under the soil catches extra water; really heavy amounts go to a sump and into the regular storm sewer. The installation recently won a Keep Michigan Beautiful Inc. award.

Best of all, it works.

"Even with some of these whopper rains we've had, the garden can handle it," Mueller says. The rain garden's success led the city and the regional water authority this year to work with several home owners, including Mark and Linda Piotrowski, to build rain gardens that the home owners plant and maintain.

Elsewhere, rain gardens are becoming outdoor classrooms. At Buchanan Elementary School in Livonia, Mich., parent Laura Jannika and others worked with Bill Craig of the National Wildlife Federation and students to turn a wet mowed section near the school into a rain garden with native plants and a dry stone riverbed. Students in all grades take turns learning about animals and plants in the rain garden. According to Principal Marjorie Moore, the youngsters held a contest to name the garden. The winner was Buchanan Oasis Garden, or BOG.

Rain gardens can fit into a bigger scheme to manage runoff. At the University of Michigan's Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Mich., a garden was dedicated Oct. 11 with several stepped plantings. The installation, says arboretum director Robert Grese, slows the water as it runs off a hill and down toward Schoolgirls' Glen. The planting also encourages water to absorb into the soil.

On the other side of the state, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council is working with the City of Grand Rapids, Kent County and other groups and businesses to build rain gardens. Four demonstrations are in place with others planned for 2004. Patricia Pennell plans to post several designs for Great Lakes rain gardens on her Web site, , but cautions that no one design fits all.

Designs must be selected for the site. A rain garden of tall grasses looks spectacular in a rural setting but weedy in the city.

The Piotrowskis have enjoyed their rain garden this year, and Linda is eager to see the blue flag iris bloom next season.

"It really looks nice having a garden out in the front," she says. "The softness of the garden next to the cement is really attractive."

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