The 100-square-foot rain garden that Eric and Lusana Cacioppo dug in their Melrose Park, Ill., yard two years ago works like a charm. No more waterlogged lawn, no more standing water and, voila, far, far fewer mosquitoes. The garden is thriving; the goldenrod is so happy it is getting too fat and bushy and will have to be thinned. That tends to happen with rain garden plants: They like the life.
What is a rain garden? It's not a water garden. Not a puddle (that's what the Cacioppos had before, kept wet not only by rain but by underground springs).
A rain garden is more like a sponge.
It's based on the idea that the right plants, given time to do so, can soak up vast quantities of water. They can absorb excess ground water, or - if you just hold rainwater around their roots for a while, less than 24 hours - they'll quaff it happily.
Holding the water is a pie-plate-shaped depression a few inches to a couple of feet deep, filled with a mixture of soil, sand and compost, planted mainly with native plants and mulched.
The result can be a powerful thing. Not only can it transform a water-laden spot. It can be a way for homeowners to redirect rainwater that otherwise washes off driveways, streets and lawns to overwhelm storm sewers, back up into basements and carry pollutants into waterways - "all the way to the Gulf of Mexico," says Sue Cubberly, whose Chicago-based firm, Rain Garden Network (consisting of her and her husband, Frank Maldonado), designed and installed the garden.
A rain garden is a way to use the water that falls naturally on your garden, instead of sprinkling with water that, after it fell as rain, went all the way out the sewers and through a treatment plant before it was pumped back to come out of your hose.
It's a way to spend less time watering and more time sitting on the patio. If you pay by the gallon, it's a way to save money on water. It can turn a terrible waste into something wonderful.
When Eric Cacioppo gets compliments on the bed of purple coneflower, cup plant, prairie dock, bee balm, switchgrass, blue flag iris and Culver's root, he seizes the chance to explain the rain garden and the stormwater problem.
The Cacioppos were so pleased with rain garden No. 1 that they dug and planted a second one to handle the outflow from their sump pump and are planning another in the front yard.
That's another thing that tends to happen: Once you notice how water flows around your land - much of it wasted - you see opportunities everywhere.
Cubberly and Maldonado started small, with a modest rain garden in the space between the garage and the side fence on a standard Chicago lot on the Northwest Side. Then they realized that by channeling the water from a garage gutter through a small rock-lined channel to another rain garden, they could dry out a corner enough to grow tomatoes. That led to rain barrels, a devotion to native plants and a business designing rain gardens and proselytizing for them. Now the pair is busy removing half the front lawn to make another one.
Black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed and spiderwort are among the plants Mea Blauer, resource conservationist with the Soil and Water Conservation District of Lake County, planted in the rain garden in her Waukegan backyard. "There's so much color and so much variety," she says. "I weeded them the first three years, but I didn't use any pesticides or fertilizers." Now they have filled in and shoulder weeds aside.
You don't have to use all native plants, Cubberly says, though they give you the most bang for your water-saving buck. You could tuck other perennials or even annuals around the edges. A rain garden easily could be just an area within a larger garden.
A rain garden can be as formal as you please, says landscape architect Marcus de la Fleur. But the more formal it is, the more you will have to fuss with it.
In front of de la Fleur's own yellow house in Elmhurst, Ill., prairie plants are interspersed casually as they would be in nature. There are lots of prairie grasses - "the backbone of the rain garden," he says, because they have the largest root systems.
Doing something about stormwater is why governments and environmentalists nationwide are trying to interest homeowners in rain gardens. The problem is getting harder to handle as ever more land is paved or covered with buildings, leaving less land for rain to soak into.
Making a rain garden takes a little thought - you have to do a little math, to get it the right size, and a little planning, to make sure gravity moves the water where you want it to go. But plenty of advice is available from municipalities and organizations that want to encourage as many people as possible to make rain gardens.
"If there's one person who does it, that's a drop in the bucket," says de la Fleur. "But if everyone on the block does it, that can make a real difference."
Beth Botts writes for the Chicago Tribune.
Before next downpour, plot a rain garden for your yard