A rain garden in your future?

My neighbor, Bob Kowal, at 537 Gately Terrace, has a legendary garden. One day, as I admired the luxuriant growth on his terrace, I asked him what the secret was. He said: "I removed about a foot of soil, so the rainwater flows from the sidewalk into the garden, instead of the street." It's as simple as that. Of course, he also lets the leaves sit there in the fall.

With this in mind, I began to notice a quiet revolution going on in the Vilas area. Here, there are numerous little rain gardens, often at the corners. On the slopes draining to Lake Wingra, water runs down the sidewalks, to where it's intercepted by one of these little gardens.

Corner rain garden in Vilas area, Grant St.

Near West High School on several streets, the sidewalks, curbs, and paving were redone. Residents got a choice of a traditional grassy terrace, or a rain garden. Small holes and pipes were built into the new curbs to divert street runoff into the rain gardens.

Each spot in a neighborhood is different. Sometimes the rain runs this way, sometimes that way. Each rain garden has to be built to take advantage of the local flow. Only people in the neighborhood know the local flow.

Rain garden on terrace in Vilas Neighborhood

In the case of Sunset Village Creek--the one that flows through the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway--we have a unique opportunity. That's because the creek originates entirely within Sunset Village. It's our creek. It reflects our values and lifestyle. If it's dying or neglected, well, that says something about us....

If we're going to save that creek, three things have to happen. We have to leave it open, we have to return water to the soil, and we have to get involved as a community.
Rain barrels take water from your downspout and store it for watering the garden. They are designed to exclude mosquitoes.http://www.rainfordane.org/ Now imagine, if everyone along the greenway had a rain barrel, and each one was connected to a soaker hose leading into the greenway. Many residents in the neighborhood have ostrich ferns, and would be willing to donate these and other woodland plants for transplant to the ravine. We could have a big planting party! Within a few years, we'd have a luxuriant prehistoric jungle, good habitat for dinosaurs and pterodactyls.

Planting trillium during the second annual Weed Feed

Returning water to the soil means more than rain gardens for your downspout. To return our creek to robust health, rain gardens have to handle runoff from all the sidewalks and streets. But Sunset Village, with few curbs, offers the ideal place to experiment.

Last year, the creek at Westmorland Park was buried. They said it was done to save Lake Wingra. Destroying nature to save nature doesn't make sense. This folly results from not taking a wider viewpoint--one that encompasses the whole watershed.

That's why I'm proposing that any solution to the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway problem should involve a watershed approach. Retention of rainwater in ponds, gardens, and barrels must be part of the plan. Less runoff means less flooding, less erosion, and less damage to any sewage/runoff system.

The little creek in Sunset Village is an opportunity, just like the right-of-way that was turned into the Southwest Bike Trail. Not so many years ago, the right-of-way was an ugly strip of gravel and abandoned track. Few could have imagined how beautiful it would be today, lined as it is with gardens and flowers. Groups of neighbors go out to establish prairie plants or pull invasive weeds. Our creek has the same potential to be a wonderful asset for the neighborhood. But it we bury it, or "gutterize" it, that opportunity will be lost.

Pulling invasive weeds along the SW bikeway

Other communities are beginning to restore neglected streams. http://www.strawberrycreek.org/ In the future, gas is going to be a lot more expensive, so we need to protect the quiet nooks closer to home.

Payoffs to a watershed approach:

  • Quality of life
  • Community spirit
  • Property values
  • Wildlife
  • Education...

Children learn about invasives during a play at the annual Weed Feed

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