Rain Garden – Turn Rain Into Beauty In Your Garden

When it rains, we enjoy hearing the sound of raindrops on our roof.  After a drought of so long in California, those drops sound more like music to our ears. While enjoying the music, have you thought about where the stormwater goes to?  Well, most of it just goes down the sewer, into the creeks and rivers, and eventually out to the ocean.  What if that water is not sent away, but reused, such as, turned into beauty in your garden?

beauty in garden
Storm water: waste or asset

In the past, stormwater has been treated as something akin to waste in cities, something that is collected and sent out to waterways in nature as soon possible.   As people realize now, there are several issues of this.

First, a big chunk of water is lost.  Rainwater is freshwater that is basically clean in most circumstances. It falls right on our roof so no transportation is required to receive that water.  However, in the current infrastructure, that much freshwater is sent right away.

“Stormwater could be a significant addition to California’s water supply. Los Angeles estimates that rainfall could provide nearly half a million acre-feet (620 million cubic meters) per year. Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, said, ‘Stormwater could make a difference, it could see us through seven years of drought instead of five.’”

Another issue is pollution.  As it flows through the surface of the city, stormwater runoff collects all kinds of pollutants such as motor oil, gas, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  As the stormwater is discharged into the waterways untreated, the toxic substances can pollute the water and harm birds, fishes and other aquatic life that live there.

One more issue is the loss of deep water infiltration.  As the water that falls on impervious surfaces such as roof and concrete is sent right away,  water that would otherwise have gone into soil, percolated and recharged the ground water is lost.

It has become clear that rainwater is not a waste, but an asset, a valuable resource of water supply, something that we should capture and reuse.  While a common way to do so is using a rain barrel, there is another more direct way – build a rain garden.

What is a rain garden?

According to Wikipedia, “a rain garden is a planted depression or a hole that allows rainwater runoff from impervious urban areas, like roofs, driveways, walkways, parking lots, and compacted lawn areas, the opportunity to be absorbed. This reduces rain runoff by allowing stormwater to soak into the ground (as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters which causes erosion, water pollution, flooding, and diminished groundwater).”

“The purpose of a rain garden is to improve water quality in nearby bodies of water and to ensure that rainwater becomes available for plants as groundwater rather than being sent through stormwater drains straight out to sea. Rain gardens can cut down on the amount of pollution reaching creeks and streams by up to 30%.”

So exactly what is a rain garden? To understand, we just need to turn our eyes to nature.

Imitate the nature

In spring time, when we go to a nature reserve or park, chances are we can see fields and fields of wild flowers.  No one ever installs an irrigation system or waters these plants; they just live and keep turning out splendid blossom, year after year.  How do they do it?

The answer is, after tens of thousands years, the native plants have adapted to the environment.  In California where it rains in winter and gets dry in summer, another area in the world that has Mediterranean climate, plants take in all the water they can get in winter, grow rapidly, and bloom in spring.  When summer comes and it becomes dry, they slow their growth or simply go dormant.  They stay this way until winter, when the rains come again.  As the raindrops come down, they “wake up” from the dormancy, drink up all that water and start to grow and bloom again.

They don’t need any additional watering; they just take all the water there is and live throughout a year.  This is what plants in a rain garden will do.

At a rain garden, the depression or ditch will collect the rainwater runoff from a roof.  When it rains, water will be collected there.  The plants in the garden will absorb the rain water, and grow; When the rain season ends, they can just live on their own.  Very little or no additional watering is needed for these plants in most cases.  Just like their brothers and sisters in the nature, they can live with just the rainwater.

Compared with water supplied to each household, which is treated with chemicals to comply with the sanitary standards, guess which water the plants like better?  Plants watered with rain water can usually grow faster, bigger, and have brighter blossom.

Designing a rain garden

Like so many lawns in California, Larry’s (not his real name) lawn turned brown during the historic drought. Though the drought ended and last winter was one of the wettest on record, the lawn did not come back . The brown lawn had been bothering Larry for a long time, but he was not sure what to do about it, until he heard that his lawn can be built into a beautiful garden; not just any new garden, but a rain garden!

One of the downspouts (the one on the left) is right next to the front yard. When it rains, the rainwater will just flow into the garden. The lawn is on a very slight slope from the house to the sidewalk, so the runoff will go outwards naturally. If a shallow basin is built close to the side of sidewalk, the rainwater can reach there and be stored in it.

That is exactly the design proposed to Larry. A small winding ditch will take the rainwater from downspout, and send it to this shallow basin. Some plants will be planted.  After they absorb the rainwater in winter, they may only need a little watering in the remainder of the year, saving a remarkable amount of water.

In addition, since the garden would meet all the requirements of Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebates program, the garden can apply for the rebate.

Larry liked the proposal. It was a “Go” for the rain garden!

Installing a rain garden
  • First, the shape of the garden needs to be defined.

For the safety of the foundation, the rain garden should be some distance away. Usually it is advised that at least 10 feet of space should be left between the basin and the house.

Distance

  • Next, the shape of the rain garden is outlined.

How big should the garden be?  It depends on how much runoff the roof can produce, and design an area that can take much of that runoff.

Suppose the area of the roof is 1000 square feet, with one inch of rain, it can produce about 600 gallons of runoff.  If the rain garden is 1 foot deep, to absorb this much water, it needs an area of about 80 square feet.  If the roof area is bigger, the rain garden should be larger too.

What shape can a rain garden be?  It can be of anything  – a circle, a bean, or a peanut.  The smooth, curvy lines of these shape not only look appealing, but also reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

  • Soil preparation

The bottom of a rain garden needs to be covered with a special type of soil, to help with water infiltration. It is a mixture of organic materials and coarse sand.  The bottom of the whole area that water flows by and stays should be covered with the mix.

  • Plant selection

Plants in a rain garden should be able to stand both conditions well: wet and dry. Their roots should be able to take moisture for a long time, yet also survive in hot dry summer.

One plant that fits this very well is the Douglas Iris.  A tough California native, it can be found close to beaches along the west coast.  Hardy, drought tolerant, yet tolerant of wet soil,  this is great choice for a rain garden.

The beauty of a rain garden

The garden is done!  This is before

and after

The rain garden

Rain Garden

When it rains, with a garden like this, the rainwater will be captured, and reused.  Something that was sent away before can be turned into so much beauty in our own garden!

Apple Park – a Spaceship and 9000 Trees

On Sept 12, Apple announced the launch of iPhone 8 and other products at its new Steve Jobs theater, which is part of the brand new campus Apple Park.  While the world finally got to see the next generation of iPhone and other hotly-anticipated products, it also got a glimpse of the near complete Apple park, a project that has been in the works since 2014.

Apple Park

Apple Park sits on a 150 acres lot , 1 mile from its current headquater in Cupetino, in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It  is the brainchild of the legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, a legacy project of his.  “I want to leave a signature campus that expresses the values of the company for generations.”   (Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, p.535).  Everyone were curious to find out: how would this be achieved?

Spaceship, and 9000 trees

The most famous part of the Apple Park, of course, is the unique shape of its office building.  As Steve Jobs said, “It’s like a spaceship has landed.” Creative, high tech, cutting-edge, futuristic… a very fitting image for the world’s most valuable high tech company.

Spaceship

Is the spaceship the only major feature of the Apple Park?  No.  If one takes a walk around Apple Park, he will see lots and lots of green – the campus is fully surrounded by trees and plants, not just inside, but also outside of the fence that separates the campus from the rest of the city.

Apple Park 2

Apple Park 3

Why all this green?  Two obvious answers will jump to one’s mind: beautifying the campus, and privacy.  Sure.  However, there are some deeper reasons.

According to “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, “One of his (Steve’s)  lingering memories was of the orchards that had once dominated the area, so he hired a senior arborist from Stanford and decreed that 80% of the property would be landscaped in a natural manner, with six thousand trees.   ‘I asked him (the arborist) to make sure to include a new set of apricot orchards, you used to see them everywhere, even on the corners, and they’re pare of the legacy of this valley. ‘’’  (p.536)

So the trees and plants here are not just to to green up the space, but to serve two other very important purposes: to honor the legacy of the area, and create an environment that will look like the natural landscape around here.

Steve Jobs liked to walk at Stanford Dish, a trail around a large satellite dish with views of rolling hills that make up the valley.  He admired the hundreds of live oaks there so much that he asked his people to track down the arborist who planted them, and hired him to be the senior arborist of the new Apple Park.  As Steven Levy of Backchannel said,  Jobs “wanted to create a microcosm of Silicon Valley, a landscape reenactment of the days when the cradle of digital disruption had more fruit trees than engineers. In one sense, the building would be an ecological preservation project; in another sense, it’d be a roman a clef written in soil, bark, and blossom.”

Dish
A view on Stanford Dish; the dish can be seen on the left

The result is a 150 acre campus that is 80% landscaped, with fruit trees, Califonia natives, and drought tolerant plants from other regions.  The campus now has 9000 trees, 50% more than Jobs’ original number.

Bring back the “Old Valley” with California native plants

Just from the outside, one can see how Jobs’ vision is being realized.

Here, you can see lots of oak trees.  Per Re-Oaking Silicon Valley, “In Silicon Valley, oak ecosystems were the defining feature of the landscape before large-scale transformation. Oak savannas and woodlands were so extensive that the valley was christened the Llano de los Robles, or Plain of the Oaks, by early explorers.”  While we are far away from that now, these oak trees and others can bring us one step closer to it.

Oak

Here, you can see oak, strawberry tree, and perenials of yarrow and Douglas iris, all “big” California natives.  All of them adpat well to California’s mediterrian climate, very drought tolerant and hardy.

Douglas Iris is a beautiful plant native to California coast.  They bloom in spring, with purple blue flowers amid long green leaves.

Apple Park 4

Manzanita, another big California native

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Seaside Daisy.  You can find them at many coastal locations.  They thrive in windy, cold and dry environments, with all the pretty purple blossom.

Seaside Daisy

California Lilac

All these California native plants not only render the campus a beautiful place, but help bring back an old valley that existed before the transformation.  What is more, since they are all drought tolerant, much less water is needed, helping to conserve  a large amount of water .

When we are planning our own gardens, we can borrow a page from Apple, to build very water efficient yet pretty gardens with mostly native and drought tolerant plants.  If you replace your lawn with a water efficient garden, you may receive rebate by removing the lawn and putting in water efficient plants now ($1 per square feet if all requirements are met).  Find out more about the Santa Clara Landscape Conversion Rebate Program here.

Irrigate trees with recycled water

While most plants are native and only need a little water once established, when they were just planted, they still need quite some water to settle.  As we can see, all the trees and planting areas are equipped with automatic irrigation, receiving regular watering.

9000 trees on the campus need a lot of water.  To address this need, Apple planned something well ahead.  It partly funded a project to lay pipes and bring recyled water to the campus.   Per Jordan Kahn of 9to5mac.com, “Apple catalyzed talks among the various water stakeholders in the area, making plain its desire to use recycled water on its new campus, said Katherine Oven, deputy operating officer of the water district… ”Apple drove this project,” she said. ‘It really is a true partnership of both public and private agencies.’”  The project finished in late 2016, in time for most of the trees and plants’ arrival.

By using recycled water, Apple can further reduce its net water usage, conserving more water.  In a world where water the resource just keeps getting more scarce relative to our demand, recycled water has become a bigger and bigger part of the overall water strategy.  How Apple waters its vast campus sets a good example.

Benefits of Trees

Trees can provide many benefits in addition to honoring a place’s legacy.  They can

  • Improve air quality by reducing pollution and filtering out a big portion of the fine particle pollutants, and noises.  In places with many trees, the air just feels more fresh and the environment quieter.  In a city like Tokyo, although it has a population of over 9 million people and heavy car traffic, abundance of trees and vegetation must have played a big role in making it very clean (air) and quiet.
  • Reduce stress.  Last year a study found that simply looking at trees can reduce your stress.  If one gets more active by taking a walk or jog in the trees, the health benefit can be more significant.
  • Cool down the environment during hot summer days and reduce air conditioning energy and cost.  While we are having more and more heat waves and extreme hot weathers in summer, the cooling effect of the trees have become ever more important.  By reducing the energy required for air conditioning, we can further cut down the green house gas and its warming effect.
  • Increase biodiversity.  A big tree like an oak can support a big ecosystem, with all kinds of insets, birds, small animals such as mouses and squirrels, as well as the plants that have been living close to it for tens of thousands of years.  Each ecosystem can contribute to the health and richness of the much bigger ecosystem of the whole area.
  • Manage storm water and reduce the hazard of a flood.  During storms trees can absorb a large amount of water, reduce runoff, reduce the speed and power of the rainfall, thus reduce the hazard of a flood in the city.

With all these benefits and more, it is easy to see why we should plant more trees.  At office parks, at our own gardens, in the streets and parks.  Include a tree or two when planning a water efficient garden.

Office and Trees: Yin and Yang of an Office Park

When Steve Jobs presented Apple Park’s plan to the Cupertino city council, he said, “I think we have a shot at building the best office building in the world.”

On the one hand, the Apple Park has a building in the very bold and creative shape of a spaceship; on the other, 9000 trees that take up 80% of the space.  One is for innovation, technology, and products; another is for environment, nature, beauty, and inspiration; one eyes the future, the other ties to the place where we come from.

The building and trees are like Yin and Yang for Apple Park.  Together they make this environment where people want to absorb the best the nature offers, and create the best technology and products in return.

 

 

A Floral Dream Blooms In Spring

After experiencing one of the worst droughts in the state’s history from water year 2011-2016, California went to another extreme since the start of water year 2017, receiving so much rains that it became one of the wettest for the time period so far.  We know generally plants like rain, but how about the drought tolerant plants and native plants that were planted in water efficient gardens last year?  Did they survive?  How do they do after all the rains?  Recently I went back and checked on those gardens, what I saw totally blew me away.  A floral dream is blooming!

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A floral dram came true

In the design phase of the garden, one plant chosen to be the anchor was Pride of Madeira (Echium), a drought tolerant plant. At 6-8 feet when fully grown, their big spikes are like flower towers in a garden.  With them in the picture, there is no chance a garden is plain or dull!  However, the Echium was just this small plant when the garden was installed.  It would take quite a while before it could grow to 6-8 feet and bloom, everyone reckoned.  “Let’s just wait, and it will come in some years.”

But, as it shows, you don’t need to wait that long!  In a mere 3 months of time, during which it rained heavily, it grew from one foot to 5 foot, with 4 huge spikes of flower tower in full bloom.  It is a spectacular view.  The owner took a trip before it bloomed.  When she returned and saw those spikes, “I was so surprised! It was gorgeous!”

Jan 2017

Echium

Apr 2017

Echium 2

Apart from Echium, other plants also grew and bloomed beautifully.

Jan 2017

Sage 1

Apr 2017

Sage 2

More flowers

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Rain help make floral dreams come true

While most of the drought tolerant plants are tough and can thrive in new environments, without a doubt, the heavy rains in the last winter and spring helped them grow so well as they did.

One might ask, since these plants are drought tolerant, why are the rains still so important?  Yes, it is true they adapt to dry conditions and can survive in a low water environment; however, most of them would still like a certain amount of water to bloom, or bloom well.  If it was dry in the last season, they can still live, but likely not produce such splendid blossom.

For plants like Echium and Seaside Daisy (the purple flower above), which originate from areas of Mediterranean climate (Canary Island and California coast), they are accustomed to rains in winter and very little to no water in summer.  They will grow rapidly in the rainy season, then go dormant or grow slowly in the dry summer season.  It is amazing how we can observe the same wonder of nature in our garden.

A beautiful view, and conserving water

In addition to providing us with a beautiful view of all the blooming flowers, water efficient gardens like this can conserve a lot of water. Compared to a lawn, such a garden can save water by 15 to 40%.

Yes, with the heavy rains, California is out of the 5-year drought. However, with population growth and climate change, water the resource will just become scarcer relative to its demand.   Water conservation is a way of life in California.  By building a water efficient garden, one not only can live in such a way, but enjoy all the beautiful views from the many blossoms nature has to offer.

 

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From Brown to California Native Charm

The brown lawn has been an eye sore to the owner of the house for quite a while.  He had been wanting to replace it with something more beautiful, but did not know where to start.   Since California’s drought five years ago, he put in his effort to conserve water, turning off the sprinklers. Sure enough, the lawn went brown.  He heard about Landscape Conversion Rebate Program, but did not know how it worked.

Water Efficient Garden Conversion

When he had a chance to talk to the designer, he was happy to find out everything would be taken care of from end-to-end.  Not only will they design a water efficient garden to replace the lawn, but also take care of the program application paperwork.  Hassle free – that was exactly the way he wanted.

Designing the Garden

The owner favored a natural and easy look for the garden; he also had some pebble stones from his last project, which he would like to repurpose for the new garden.

The designer decided to do a “California Native” garden.  The selection of plants showed this focus.

California Native Plants

California has many native plants, which are great for gardening.  Adapted to California’s dry and windy environment, they are hardy, strong and can thrive without any care.  There are a lot of benefits gardening with native plants:

  • Water efficient:  they do not need that much water; compared to a lawn, a garden with mostly native plants can save a significant amount of water;
  • Low maintenance: they can thrive on their own; no or little care is needed.
  • Attracting pollinators:  the bees, birds and butterflies sure like the plants that they know well for tens of thousands of years.  Those bees and birds need more food, and this will provide them.

These California Native plants are picked for this garden.

Douglas Iris:  beautiful blue iris, native to areas along west coast.

Native Plants for a Water Efficient Garden

Buckwheat: pretty small pink flowers will bloom most of the year, its nectar is the favorite of butterflies.

Monkey Flower: The full yellow blossom can be seen everywhere along the coast in spring and summer.  Some cultivars have bright red flowers, which are equally pretty.

California Poppy: the golden state flower.

CA Golden Poppy

Matilija Poppy

Native Plants for a Water Efficient Garden

The designer included the design into application materials and submitted it.  2 weeks later they received the Notice to Proceed.

Installing the Garden

All the materials were purchased.

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The brown grass was first removed.

Next was to create a miniature “nature”.  The curves for “mountains” were added, and a “river” was made with the cobble stones.

Then the piping was done, all the plants planted.  The whole area was covered with black mulch, which contrasts nicely with the river and the colors of the flowers.

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The California native plants: Douglas Iris, Golden Poppy, and Monkey Flower

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Irrigation Equipment Upgrade

Along with the lawn conversion approval, the garden also qualified for an upgrade with automatic irrigation controller and rain sensor.  Both were installed after the garden.

With the rain sensor, when it rains, it will detect and transfer the information to the controller, which will shut off the next watering scheduled.   This way the irrigation water can be saved.

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It rained right after this was installed.  It worked!

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Within a couple days, a brown lawn was successfully transformed to a beautiful water efficient garden.  The eye sore is gone, and the owner has something nice to enjoy and more to look forward to.

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