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Rain gardens

07/10/06 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) The city of Winooski is considering an innovative idea for improving water quality. Commentator Ron Krupp has the story.

(KRUPP) For thousands of years, cultures all over the world have used rain gardens, swales, cisterns, aqueducts and green roofs to move and conserve water for use in farming, bathing and drinking. Water is also the subject of many conversations in Vermont of late, especially when it comes to stormwater runoff and pollution.

Heavy rainfall sheds off of impervious surfaces like roads, sidewalks and parking lots and generates immediate runoff, which damages streambeds and causes nutrient overenrichment. Conveyed away, rainwater is not there to nourish plants or replenish aquifers. Groundwater tables drop, and ground-fed streams cannot maintain their dry weather flow. Instead, streams dry up during times of drought or become turbulent rivers during extreme rainfall.

A Winooski environmental board would like to create rain gardens on public and private land around Morehouse Brook to improve water quality. In 2002, the Morehouse Brook watershed was identified as an impaired waterway, as the majority of its flow is from urban runoff. Residents will be offered rain barrels that can be connected to a downspout from roofs. Each barrel has a spigot at the bottom for a hose and another spigot that can be use for a watering can. Residents will also be encouraged to build rain gardens on their lawns as a household way to improve water quality. Rain gardens act like filters for stormwater runoff that would otherwise drain directly into brooks and streams. These gardens also provide a natural habitat for birds and butterflies.

If you want to create an urban rain garden, choose a proper location where the water can drain directly from a downspout into your garden. Use a rope or hose to lay out the boundaries, and dig down about four inches deep. Keep in mind that the garden needs to be positioned to trap water. A shallow grass swale will help to ensure that the water flows into the garden. The middle of the garden will hold water during a heavy rain, so the runoff can gradually soak into the ground. Finally, the garden can be planted with native species, mainly flowers and some herbs and leafy vegetables.

I have a close friend from Calais who created a tiny rain pond, fed by a spring from the adjoining wet hillside. There are many plants and creatures who live in and near the rain pond, including frogs and salamanders, waterlillies, watercress, bogplants like arrowhead and marsh marigold. Other plants surround the pond, like horsetail, violets, columbine, forget-me-nots, trilliums and ferns. Many birds come for a drink. The algae that grows on the rain pond is scooped up and fed to the chickens. There is a small circulating pump which moves the water around, making gentle trickles. Sounds like heaven to me.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.
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