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The Rain Garden: An Earth-Friendly Solution for Stormwater Runoff

I live just a few miles from Lake Champlain, the sixth largest lake in the U.S. My front yard drains into Munroe Brook, which winds its way to the lake. The health of Lake Champlain, as with most fresh water systems in America, is being compromised by sedimentation and pollution from development and poor land-use practices in the surrounding watershed. Globally, cleaning up watersheds will be one of the biggest challenges we must solve in the 21st Century.

Rain garden site
Before: A plain front yard can be transformed by a rain garden. What's more, the garden helps clean up runoff before it enters the watershed.

Here in Vermont, the Lake Champlain Committee has been working to protect and improve water quality for 42 years. The organization recently issued a Lake Protection Pledge to guide individual actions for a cleaner Lake (See sidebar, at right.) This Pledge recommends ten smart actions we can take to protect the water quality of lakes and rivers.

My wife and I moved to a new home several years ago, and our gardens and landscaping were designed with most of these Lake and watershed-protecting steps in mind. We live on the edge of an old rock quarry and there's very little native soil. So we brought in tons of compost (from Intervale Compost). At our old home we had a half acre of garden and a quarter acre of lawn. We now have a quarter acre of garden and 200 square feet of lawn—just enough to lie down and watch the clouds.

A rain garden
This rain garden in the Midwest takes advantage of subtle contours in the front yard. A cut in the curb ensures that more runoff will be collected in the garden.

There's one major project remaining before I can feel good about signing the Lake Protection Pledge. When it rains, water from our gravel driveway, garage area and half of our roof drains over a steep bank on the north side of the house, and then down a hill into Munroe Brook. I want to capture that water and filter it before it joins the watershed.

We have already solved a similar problem on the south side of our house by using a recirculating pond and water garden. But the north side is steeper, shadier and the water flow is greater. So a current project is building a "rain garden." What makes a garden a rain garden? First, the garden will be designed with a low spot in the middle to collect and absorb rain water and snow melt. This depression can range from a few inches in a small garden, to an excavated trough that's several feet deep. Second, rain gardens are usually located where they'll catch the runoff from impermeable surfaces like sidewalks and driveways, or from gutters and roof valleys. Third, rain gardens are usually planted with native wildflowers and grasses that will thrive in tough growing conditions. Finally, rain gardens are designed to channel heavy rains to another rain garden or to another part of the garden.

If you are interested in making your own earth-friendly rain garden, I hope you'll take a look at our how-to bulletin: All About Rain Gardens.

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