The weather on Sept. 21 was perfect for a Saturday afternoon bike ride — blue skies, a light breeze and temperatures in the low 70s. Still, I wondered whether more than a handful of people would turn out for an event billed as a "Rain Garden Ramble," in which participants would pedal from the Prairie Rivers Network office in Champaign to four sites around town.
I needn't have been concerned.
By the time we set out, our group included nearly 30 people. Among them were two small children, conveyed by their father (one on a bike seat and the other towed in a trailer), some active retirees, undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Illinois, people who already had rain gardens of their own and people who were new to the concept but wanted to learn more.
After brief introductions and an overview by Stacy James, the Prairie Rivers water resources scientist who organized and led the tour, we divided into two groups to better integrate with other traffic on the road and pedaled away at a leisurely pace.
Our first stop was the least garden-like site on the tour. In a heavily shaded place at the back of his yard where water from his own home and the homes of two neighbors once ponded, Bob Hudson pointed us to a bed of rocks. Below that, he explained, vertical shafts had been dug to detain water until it could soak into the surrounding soil.
Next on the tour was James' own house. In order to reduce water seeping into one side of her basement, James explained, she extended a downspout away from the front of the house and created a shallow depression where water can pool before soaking into the ground. This small rain garden is planted with sedges, which are grass-like plants that grow in attractive clumps and tolerate occasional flooding.
Before moving on, we also took time to cross the street and observe a rain garden James helped her neighbor create in the right of way. This one featured a variety of flowering plants native to our area, including New England asters, showy goldenrod and black-eyed Susan. I found it especially striking to observe how much life was associated with the these flowers — in the form of various bees, butterflies and other insects — compared to the adjoining lawn.
Stop No. 3 on our tour was South Willis near John Street in Champaign, where the city finished installing much larger rain gardens in between the street and sidewalk last year. At this site, explained Leslie Mitchell, who is an engineering technician with the city of Champaign, the idea is actually to move some water off the street and into the rain gardens by means of openings in the curb.
While we were at this site, Mitchell took time to outline the incentives Champaign is offering to encourage residents to adopt measures to alleviate flooding. These include cash reimbursements of $25 for the purchase of rain barrels and larger payments to help cover costs associated with putting in rain gardens. (More information is available through the stormwater management link at http://ci.champaign.il.us/departments/public-works/residents/.)
The last stop on the Rain Garden Ramble was the home of Doug and Mary Eppich, just "upstream" of Hessel Park. Their rain garden, which they installed themselves 10 years ago, occupies a 400-square-foot area that was formerly lawn. It's a foot below the surrounding grade at its deepest point, but you don't see that from the street. What you do see is an artfully designed garden that's bursting with native flowers.
The Eppichs are retired, but in his professional life, Doug was an engineer whose work involved managing water in natural areas, and that's evident in their rain garden. It was designed to accommodate all of the water that would come off the roof of their entire house in a 100-year storm, which translates as 7 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. When such an event occurred in 2005, Doug happily reported to me, the rain garden performed just as intended. Beyond that, all of the water it held soaked into the ground within two hours.
Are you considering a rain garden of your own? Start with a visit to the rain garden pages at Prairie Rivers Network: http://prairierivers.org/raingardens.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.