Rain gardens are low maintenance, help the environment

rain garden at Crane Library Buffaloby Connie Oswald Stofko

Whether you’re striving to protect our natural resources, or you just want to create a low-maintenance garden, a rain garden may be what you’re looking for.

Pictured here is a rain garden that was created in June at the Crane Branch Library, 633 Elmwood at the corner of Highland, in Buffalo.

As we explained in an article on rain barrels last week, the biggest pollution threat to Lake Erie and the Niagara River is sewage runoff. Sanitary sewers and storm sewers are interconnected. On a wet day, rain water can overwhelm the system.

To keep the water from backing up into your house, a relief valve dumps raw sewage–yes, raw sewage– directly into the river! That’s why our local beaches are often closed after a heavy rain.

“Four billion gallons of raw sewage winds up in the Niagara River every year,” said Larry Brooks, who does communications for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers. “If rain was retained where it fell, we wouldn’t have a problem.”

“Sewer overflows are killing our waterways like a thousand cuts,” said Julie O’Neill, executive director of Buffalo NiagaraRiverkeeper. “Rain gardens are like a thousand liquid bandages.”

A rain garden is basically a shallow depression designed to collect and soak up rain and snowmelt from roofs, sidewalks, driveways and lawns. A rain garden allows up to 30 percent more water to soak into the ground than a typical patch of lawn, according to Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers.swale in rain garden in Buffalo

The idea is to soak up the rainfall so the rain doesn’t overwhelm the sewer system.

To do it right and maximize the water you retain in your rain garden, you have to do some calculations and planning. You need to measure the slope of your yard, how far away from the downspout your rain garden will be and the area of your roof that feeds water into your downspout. You must also take into consideration whether your soil is sand, silt or clay. All of this helps determine how wide and how deep your rain garden needs to be.

A “swale,” or low pathway, directs the flow of water from the downspout to the garden. You can see the rocky swale from the Crane Branch Library in the photo at right. If your lawn is between your downspout and rain garden, you could use a grassy swale.

Very helpful and detailed instructions for designing a rain garden are available at the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers web site.

The plants in the rain garden also help retain water in their roots and leaves. When you choose native plants, you won’t have to water. Native plants are hardy and can basically take care of themselves, so a rain garden is low maintenance. In a future issue, we’ll talk about some native plants you can use in your rain garden.

The rain garden at the Crane Branch Library was a collaboration between the Green Team leadership of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and Crane Branch, the Vogt Family Foundation, Elmwood Village Association Green Committee, Premium Services Inc., and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper with consultation by landscape architects Renata Kraft of Buffalo Micro Parks and Joy Kuebler.

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