A rain garden street for our neighborhood?

A guest article by Elizabeth McBride

I used to think of a rain garden as a trendy “green” gesture, something you could pat yourself on the back for having but not all that effective in the scheme of things. Today my thinking changed.

I attended a class on rain gardens at the UW Arboretum taught by landscape architect Molly Fifield Murray, the Arb’s education director. She showed us the numbers for Dane County: When you subtract the water we lose through storm runoff, evapotranspiration, and groundwater pumping from the amount of rain we receive, we’re left with a deficit. That means the city has to dig deeper and deeper wells at greater and greater cost to keep us hydrated. It also means springs and streams are drying up, which we homeowners may not notice but is apparent in the Arboretum, where a number of springs have been lost.

Hearing this, I realized that the space I inhabit—my house, my driveway, my walkway—is an impermeable barrier that upsets the natural water cycle. Creating a rain garden is not a frill—it’s my responsibility. It’s part of what I owe for the privilege of occupying this piece of the planet.

The other thing I learned from Molly is that rain gardens are not that hard to make. Another landscape architect had discouraged me from attempting the job myself. I needed a specialist—him! Not so. Sure there’s some digging involved and a few calculations to do to ensure the garden is sufficiently large so that run-off from the gutter doesn’t form a standing pool. But it doesn’t seem very complicated.

I picked up a how-to manual from the Arboretum bookstore, and I’ll investigate the city’s program, which offers a rain garden workshop, as well as plants at a reduced price. This spring, I’ll visit Adam Street in the Vilas neighborhood, which was the state’s first “rain garden street.” Wouldn’t it be great if our neighborhood had a rain garden street, too?

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