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How to plant a garden that slurps up all that water
Rain gardens can handle even this soggy spring in Northeast Ohio

Plants with deep roots are key to a rain garden.
Courtesy of Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District
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It’s springtime and many people are putting on their gardening gloves and planting some tomatoes or maybe tulips in their backyard. But there’s another kind of garden that you might want to consider, especially here in rainy Northeast Ohio. For Ohio Public Radio, WCPN’s Anne Glausser digs in.

LISTEN: How to plant a rain garden

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Jen Greiser is a natural resource manager for the Cleveland Metroparks and I met up with her in Parma, a couple streets down from their new Watershed Stewardship Center at the West Creek Reservation.

It’s a typical residential neighborhood with homes, lawns, and sidewalks, but in some spots, there’s something missing: the grass. “So for homeowners that signed on to the project,” said Greiser, “we installed what we call right-of-way rain gardens. We worked with a contractor to take up the grass and dig some depressional planting beds and install some plants.”

This project is one of many initiatives in this area, and across the country, that use plantings and greenery to help trap storm water.

Northeast Ohio is a rainy place and much that water — if not absorbed into the soil —runs off, mixes with pollutants and sewage, overloads the wastewater treatment plants, and ends up spewing out untreated into Lake Erie. Not a good thing, for people or wildlife or the lake’s overall ecology.

Do it yourself
So one of the key strategies for keeping storm water out of the lake, and in the soil, is to create what’s called “green infrastructure.”

This can be done on a large-scale with stuff like urban trees, wetland protection, permeable pavement, and floodplain management. But it can also be done on a smaller scale, by individuals.

So in the spirit of springtime, I’m here to learn about how to plant a backyard rain garden.

To get started, Greiser suggests a little observation during the next rainy day.

“Just put on a raincoat, grab an umbrella, run outside and stand out there for a little while,” she said. Your neighbors might wonder what you’re doing, she warned, but don’t let that deter you.  It’s important to find out where the water’s pooling up.  This is the spot to plant your rain garden. And it doesn’t have to be huge — it can fit right in to other landscaping schemes.

Get dirty
Next, it’s time to get your hands dirty with some digging. “Instead of our traditional planting beds that are raised above the ground,” she said, "we’re kind of flipping that over and we’re going to have a more bowl-shaped area for planting.”

You want to fill out your bowl with plants that have deep root systems. Native grasses and shrubs take their roots deep into the ground so they loosen up the soil and allow for more water to seep in.  A mowed lawn, in comparison, has a really shallow root system.

Prepare for deer
You can also pick pretty plants, whatever suits your fancy, but watch out for the more tasty varietals, which Greiser says can just be deer candy.

You might want to also consider some soil amendments, especially if you’ve got a lot of clay.

Then, that’s it.  Wait for the rain.  Your garden should soak up the water in just a day or two, so there’s no standing water.

Greiser says backyards are an important part of a city’s overall stormwater management.

“While they seem small in and of themselves, the residential areas make up such a great percentage of our land use here, so they’re really critical and to the extent that we can get whole neighborhoods involved--it’s a cumulative effect,” she said.
Some communities even offer incentives to residents who plant rain gardens in their yards.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District will knock off 25 percent from a homeowner’s stormwater fee—if and when those fees resurface after ongoing court battles.

Other cities give a major rebate to cover the cost of a rain garden installation.  One pilot program in Cincinnati actually paid people to plant them.

Jen Greiser says would-be rain gardeners should aim to get their plants in soon to soak up the May showers.

Then you can proudly tell your friends you’re home to a “green sewer.”

Click here for a quick guide to planting a rain garden. 
More on rain gardens in Northeast Ohio. 
Click here for a complete rain garden manual 


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