Recycle the rain

Not all gardens are made to only grow edibles.

Photos courtesy of SSC Services for Education

Rain gardens can have a number of benefits to a landscape, including an appealing look and being a sustainable component of an area. However, there are a number of variables that can cause the installation to go sideways. To find out more about rain gardens, we reached out to Brandon Haley, CGM – grounds project manager at SSC Services for Education, a provider of support services for educational institutions.

1. What are the basics a landscaping company needs to know about if they want to add rain garden installation as a service?

Rain gardens can be large or small. Their purpose is to slow runoff so it can infiltrate the ground instead of rushing into storm drains or streams. If the runoff ends up reaching surface water, it will be moving slower and will have many pollutants filtered out. Rain garden installation is more than just putting plants in the ground.

To get drainage effect, you want the soil to be sandy and have good drainage. It is also best to have the garden designed to hold water for up to 24 hours as it drains. This likely means that you will have to shape the land and replace the planting bed soil.

2. What type of maintenance is needed?

Rain gardens need management if you want them to grow and function as designed. Just planting some plants and walking away will leave you with a weedy mess that will not filter water, will be unattractive and could attract rodents.

Weed control programs will be critical for a rain garden to succeed. Rain gardens are prone to weed infestations. If you can, use pre-emergent programs to prevent the weeds from germinating and always check the product label to make sure it can be used in your circumstance. Also, use non-selective weed control methods to keep your planting area free of unwanted growth.

It is also important to keep debris out of the rain garden. Decomposing leaves may be a great form of organic matter in normal landscape beds, but they can alter the drainage properties of a rain garden. Make sure rain gardens are blown free of debris to prevent this. Quarterly visits outside of leaf season will be fine with as-needed visits during the fall.

While exact species will vary by region, plants for rain gardens should be able to survive droughts along with being partially submerged.

3. Where is the best place to install one in a home or business?

The best place to install a rain garden is wherever you have drainage issues or have free-flowing water that reaches a drain, water body or impervious surface. The goal is to slow down water and filter it before it reaches ground or surface water supplies. The sky is the limit.

For typical residential properties, this place is likely near gutters. Look for washout areas in mulch as well. Commercial properties can really benefit from using rain gardens in their parking lot edges instead of curb and gutters. Retaining this water instead of directing it into storm drains will take a huge strain off the local watershed. For large properties or projects, reach out to local Riverkeeper organizations to see if they can provide insight into the watershed and the impact that your project can provide.

4. What are the best plants to use, and does that vary on geography?

The best plants are ones that can survive being temporarily submerged as well as survive droughts. The best soil conditions for drainage in rain gardens also causes drought conditions when rainfall is low. Oddly enough, these qualities can be found in the same plants. In many plants, the same root structures that can hold water during droughts can also hold oxygen when submerged. Plants native to prairie and wetland ecosystems perform great.

Exact plant types will vary by region but will typically be grasses and flowering perennials that are native to your area. Throughout much of the country, black eyed susans flag iris and coneflowers will work great. Check with your state extension service for local recommendations.

Brandon Haley and SSC Services for Education provides support services for educational institutions.

5. How big can they be; what is average time to install?

There is no size limit, large or small, for a rain garden. To estimate installation time, expect to excavate the soil a foot deep and replace with a sandy loam. Also, look to see if any berms are needed to contain the water. This may be a good use of the soil that you removed.

6. What type of equipment is needed?

Small gardens can be planted by hand, but anything with size will need either a skid-steer, mini excavator or compact skid-steer to be efficient. Remember that you may need to remove soil offsite.

“Rain gardens need management if you want them to grow and function as designed.” Brandon Haley, grounds project manager at SSC Services for Education

7. Any advice on how to sell the services to consumers?

Rain gardens are an opportunity to sell your clients a project that will add lasting beauty to their property while making a positive impact on their local environment. Having clean, clear water supplies is one of our basic human needs and installing a rain garden gives an individual the opportunity to make impact on their local water supplies.

Show your prospective clients the benefits that rain gardens can provide to their local watershed. Then, show them that they can make a difference through adding flowers to their yard and that you can provide the installation and management services to keep it thriving. Never mind the potential for increased property values. It is a win for everyone.

8. Anything else a landscaper should know about installing rain gardens?

Like any other installation, the final result will depend on the quality of plants and the technique used to install them. Take your time. Research your plant choices and visit some local installations to see what you like and do not like.

July 2021
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