Maintenance of rain gardens is vital. If they aren't maintained and attractive, there will become eyesores, discouraging future garden construction.
Some rain gardens will cease to function if they become damaged or clogged with debris. City-built gardens on Keyes St. usually have clogged inlets. A large rain garden on the Edgewood College campus has an eroded berm, reducing its capacity by half (right).
Orange Schroeder has a City-built rain garden on the terrace in front of her house. About two years ago in June, she asked me to help her identify which plants in the garden were weeds. There were several look-alike species I couldn't identify. I took samples to a botanist Ph.D., but he couldn't identify them without flowers. Since we didn't know what species were planted, I was stumped. To pull or not to pull....
A record of what had been planted, and where, would have helped. What's needed is a database on all rain gardens in Madison with these basic facts recorded, plus who is responsible for maintenance.
Adopt-a-spot in Lansing, MI
When it comes to rain gardens downtown, the capital of Michigan is far ahead of Madison. Lansing has 55 large rain gardens not far from the capitol building, plus 170 flower gardens. The rain gardens are large and well-engineered--with an attractive iron fence.
"The rain gardens were built in 2008 with $1 million in grant money. ...The city does 'infrequent' maintenance, but it does replant flowers twice every year in the spring and fall. Downtown Lansing Inc. is in charge of overseeing maintenance of the rain gardens, which is done mostly by volunteers. It trains volunteers on how to clean the basins."
"Troy Anderson has been the part-time adopt-a-spot coordinator since May. Adopt-a-spot is a program in which individuals, businesses and organizations can adopt rain gardens and be responsible for maintaining them."
"Routine maintenance includes removing trash, pulling weeds, watering, replanting, mulching and trimming, Anderson said in an email. But if it’s not done by volunteers, the responsibility falls on him. He's still out every week getting his hands dirty in the gardens."
"Anderson said there are 65 volunteer groups that help with maintenance. He said so far this season, 170 volunteer hours have been logged and 3,400 gallons of trash have been removed. Anderson said it’s recommended that groups who adopt rain gardens perform maintenance every other week, but there’s no required time commitment." Source
There have been some problems with Adopt-a-spot. One bank has failed to properly maintain the gardens it adopted. Several business owners have been forced to fish trash from the gardens out front, and find it difficult to climb over the fence without a key for access. These owners feel the City should be responsible for maintenance.
When I photographed the gardens in the summer of 2013, I found the native plants flourishing, with little trash visible in the basins. More photos.
Maintenance in Madison
When the City resurfaces a street, they will share costs of rain garden construction with residents. But the residents must maintain the gardens.
The gardens along Adams Street, built as a community effort organized by FOLW, are maintained by adjacent residents.
The Friends of Lake Wingra has a grants program, providing funds to schools, churches, and community centers on the West Side to build rain gardens, but maintenance adds a layer of responsibility that may discourage potential grantees.
Jim Baumann's views
Jim--a board member of the Friends of Lake Wingra--maintains the large rain garden below the parking lot at Odana Golf: "I'm not sure how many homeowners have interest in maintenance. More and more I see lawn services providing mowing and the homeowner does next to no maintenance."
"For rain gardens on commercial sites, again I think that there are some that will pay to have rain gardens maintained and others that will do absolutely no maintenance. For example, the ...rain gardens on the Smart Motors property have had zero maintenance. Given the current state of maintenance of park property (parks can't do everything that they used to do) I don't see rain gardens maintained on park property."
"Some will argue that groups, such as FoLW, can do the maintenance. The South West Bike Path is an example. More than 10 years ago well intended groups and individuals called for sustainable native species to be planted along the path and that they would provide the maintenance needed. Today there are a few 'restored prairie areas' that are well maintained by volunteer neighborhood groups. But the bulk of the maintenance (or lack of maintenance) is provided by the city."
"Part of the solution... is to broaden our tools to include other infiltration practices -- even ones that can be mowed. I'd rather have the colorful plantings and the deep roots, but if the option is a mowed infiltration area (even oversized) or nothing, I'm for the mowed infiltration area."
"Thought should also be given to use of the storm water utility fees to hire maintenance services. I presume that this would be limited to rain gardens and other practices on public lands or public rights of way."
Nik Simonson's response (updated 11/20/14)
The clear place for you to begin is by working through the Madison Area Municipal Stormwater Partnership. You’d need to research how to utilize MAMSWAP (and specifically the funding contributed by the city of Madison) for the “Adopt-a-Spot” program ---Could this be an extension of the “Don’t Leaf Your Lakes Campaign?” You’d have to check with the new coordinator in 2015.