Rain gardens make sense

It’s startling news to many people that the main source of water quality problems in the United States today isn’t factory waste or sewage leaks or any of the other usual suspects but instead runoff of rain.

Picture it: stormwaters that wash over pavement and front yards and farmland, picking up chemicals and crud such as pet waste along the way, ultimately washing into streams and ponds.

Increasingly the word is getting out about the polluting potential of rain runoff, not to mention the flooding potential – thanks in part to public education campaigns.


The timing is good, because rains have been getting harder, particularly in the Northeast, and are projected to get worse in a changing climate.

The other day I took in a rain garden workshop in Keene, New Hampshire that showed about 30 homeowners how to cut rain runoff from their properties by creating spaces on the lawn that that suck up rain and rain runoff, and then help it settle into the ground.

The venue was Antioch New England Graduate School – an innovative center of higher learning that’s long been known for its environmental concerns and community engagement. The other sponsoring parties were the Keene Public Library (an institution that’s previously shown that libraries are about more than books) and the Cheshire County Conservation District, which among other activities sponsors a region-wide gardening-education program called “Monadnock Grows Together.

The presenter was a representative of Soak up the Rain, a state-run and federally funded rain garden education outfit.

The setting was right. Antioch’s campus sports a mature rain garden whose varieties of vegetation help cleanse runoff of chemical pollutants as rain soaks into the ground. Keene’s public library also has a rain. Garden, as do half-a-dozen other public places in Keene.

Building a rain garden involves more than digging a hole in the ground and filling it with loam, as this how-to from the Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District in Vermont makes clear.

Likewise this manual from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

In fact, while rain garden concepts are pretty straightforward, it takes a trained eye to strategically locate the right place and then make the land ready – a job that can require a bit of muscle and fortitude in occasionally rocky regions for which New England is known.

Lisa Loosigian, the principal presenter at the workshop who works for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, said, “We’ve put in rain gardens where we’ve had to hire an excavator!”

The effect, in the end, can be quite striking, not only in controlling local flooding but in enriching otherwise monotonous lawns with plantations of shrubs and flowers. Take a look.