Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rain gardens grow from campus-community collaboration

Rain gardens grow from campus-community collaboration

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Last Saturday morning, the home of Anna Barnes and David Riecks on West Washington Street in Champaign was a scene of intense activity. A group of friends, neighbors, and other volunteers—27 people in all—gathered to transform the parkway in front of the house from a nondescript, mostly bare strip of land into a beautiful, functional rain garden.

Working from a design by U of I professor of Landscape Architecture, Gale Fulton, participants first removed some of soil from the site, a job made easier by the fact that it was begun with a small excavator earlier in week. With that finished, we loosened the soil that remained with a tiller, and then used shovels and rakes to create a neatly contoured basin, about fifty feet long and ten feet wide, with its lowest point midway between the sidewalk and the street.

Then we put in plants, lots of them, some 200 in all. The plants used in the project were selected by Fulton for their ability to thrive in a garden that, by design, fills with water during big storms, but which remains as dry as the rest of the landscape at other times. They include a mix of grasses, sedges and more showy flowering plants, such as cardinal flower and Siberian iris. (Some of us involved who value the potential for home landscapes to provide a food base for wildlife are encouraging Fulton to employ native plants more exclusively in future projects.)

Fulton’s involvement with this project stems from a course he developed with and U of I professor Tony Endress this past spring, which focused on sustainable approaches to storm water management in Champaign's John Street watershed. That course provided the foundation for an ongoing collaboration among students, faculty, U of I Facilities and Services, City of Champaign staff, and city residents who live in areas that flood regularly.

The sustainable approaches put forward by the class include the development of “green infrastructure,” including rain gardens, to complement conventional ways of handling rainwater.

According to Eliana Brown, an environmental engineer who coordinates the U of I’s storm water compliance efforts and was part of Fulton's class, the rain garden that went in last week should detain more than 1,200 gallons of water during a storm, or the equivalent of 23 rain barrels. [Photo: The finished garden after Wednesday morning's rain. It had filled up to the level of the curb before I got there to take a picture, but the water had then all soaked into the ground.] That would be all of the water from the roof that drains there during even a big rain event, one of the sort that floods local viaducts.

Brown acknowledges that rain gardens won’t eliminate the need for big pipes and large-scale detention basins. But she emphasizes that they reduce the burden on those parts of the system, and they provide the added benefit of filtering pollutants from the water that passes through them.

Funding for the rain garden at the Barnes-Riecks home was provided by the Illinois-American Water Corporation in the form of a grant that was secured by Prairie Rivers Network this past Spring. That grant is also being used to establish two other rain gardens, one in the John Street watershed, which was created earlier this summer, and another in the Washington Street watershed, which will be installed this Saturday, September 25.

Does the idea of a rain garden intrigue you? You could help out with the installation Saturday to get a sense of what’s involved. At the same time you will be helping to create a thing of lasting beauty and real utility. For more information or to volunteer, contact Stacy James at Prairie Rivers Network, (217) 344-2371, or

You can see a map with links to photos of some rain gardens around Champaign at