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!

Fall is a great time to install a water efficient garden

As the leaves on the trees have started to turn yellow, we know that fall is here.  Here in the Silicon Valley in California, quite some  lawns are also brown.  Though California’s historic drought already ended in spring, many people keep the habit of water conservation and continue to let the lawns go brown.  While this shows we have all been doing our part to conserve water which we can be proud of, the lawn, well, can look a little bit nicer……here comes the good news:  fall is a very good time to remove the lawn, plant water efficient plants and have a beautiful garden! Not only is the time great for plants, thanks to landscape conversion rebate programs such as the one offered by Santa Clara Water District, by doing it now, you may also receive some rebates.

Brown Lawn

Fall is one of the best times for planting

Fall is one of the best times in the year for planting. There are several reasons for this.

  • Temperature.  Very cold winter and very hot summer days can be harsh for young plants.  Fall offers the optimal temperature.
  • In time for the rainy season.  After plants are placed in soil, to establish and grow in the new place, they need the soil to be wet enough so the roots can stabilize and grow.  With California’s Mediterranean climate, the rainy season comes in winter and early spring.   When planted in fall, the plants have the right amount of time to settle in the new environment, and take the full advantage of rains when they come in winter.
  • Great for spring bloomers.  A lot of plants bloom in spring.  If they are planted in fall, by next spring some of them may grow enough to bloom. Blossom in spring – what a lovely view!
  • Good for pollinators.  Most of the plants in a water efficient garden can provide food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, which are so important for us.  However, their population have been on a decline.  Bees need more plants that they can feed on.  By growing plants in fall, come spring time bees will have much more places to go to have their meal.
Many beautiful plants to choose from

There are a large collection of plants that are both water efficient and beautiful.  If the lawn is replaced with plants that are on the Qualifying Plant List of Santa Clara Water District Landscape Rebate Program, it is eligible to receive the rebate of $1 per square feet.  Browse some of these water efficient plants here.

Flower

Planted in fall, bloom in spring

These two gardens were planted in last fall, after just a winter, they all grew phenomenally and bloomed in spring this year.   Last winter was one of the wettest on record, which definitely helped.

This California native garden was installed last October.  How long did it take to bloom?  Less than half year!  And it lasted all the way through summer.

Fall
Oct
Spring
May
Flower in spring
May

This garden was installed in late last fall.  It also bloomed in early spring, just several months after the installation.

Garden in Dec
Dec
Flower in spring
May
Conserve water, enjoy the garden

A beautiful garden is not only something you can enjoy everyday, but will also go a long way to conserve water.  Although California’s drought already ended, as Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement, “This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner.  Conservation must remain a way of life.”

Outdoor watering for a lawn typically accounts for half or more of an household’s total water use; to convert a lawn to a water efficient garden, the water consumption for outdoor watering can be reduced by 30 to 60%, for total household 15 -40%.

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.

Water saving by water efficient garden Why wait?  Now is the great time to plan and build that lovely water efficient garden!  Find out more information at WaterEfficientGarden.com.

water efficient garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Water conservation: how did Californians do after mandate (Part III)

How did Californians do for water conservation since the last report of Oct. and Nov. 2016 ?  In addition to the normal question of “does mandate make a difference”, another big question that comes very specifically with this winter season is : do heavy rains make a difference?

From the numbers of the 3 months from 11/2016 to 1/2017,  Californians did a great job conserving water, despite of no mandate and the time period being one of the wettest ever recorded in California’s history.  Here are the numbers: In November, December and January, Californians reduced water usage by 18.3%, 20.6% and 20.5% vs. 2013.   They are very consistent at about 20% level, slightly increasing from that achieved in Sept and Oct at about 19%.

ca water conservation

Remarkable Achievement

The water conservation achievement in the 3 months of 2016 winter season is very remarkable.

First, it is the first time that Californians conserved more than they did in the same months of 2015.  After the statewide water reduction mandate ended in May 2016, water-savings had been less than those achieved in same months in 2015, until Dec 2016, when the water-saving turned in 13.2% higher. January was even better at 19.2%.

water conservation

Even more amazing is this was achieved in an unusually wet winter.   To start off, winter normally is a slow time for water conservation, witnessed by last year’s lower levels in all cold months.  To top it off, last winter was one of the wettest ever recorded.  From the Northern Sierra 8-Station Precipitation Index, in Nov, Dec and Jan, the rainfall volumes this year almost double those of the average, and more than double those of 2015 at the same points of time.  In the face of such heavy precipitation, water-savings not only did not decline, but increase slightly by 8% is truly significant.

ca precipitation

While many factors might contribute to this great level of water-saving, one possible reason might be that some of the habits or products people acquired during the drought period stayed, for example, taking shorter showers, using high efficiency washing machines, etc.  As a lot of lawns were converted into water efficient gardens, with rain sensors and smart controllers installed, landscape irrigation might have saved a sizable amount of water too.

CA Drought Situation

As of March 14, 2017, according to the US Drought Monitor, 77% of the state is out of drought, with only 23% in slight or moderate droughts.   This is a huge decline from last year when most of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought.

ca drought

Keep Conserving Water

Even though we have had a hugely wet year, we can not lose sight about water and assume we will always have a lot of it.  During the 5 years of drought, groundwater was heavily pumped, which was so depleted that it will take many years and a huge amount of water for it to recover. With climate change and a hotter environment, consumption for water will go up while the snow storage we have been relying on will shrink down, creating a severe demand and supply situation.  It is projected that the Sierra snowpack can drop by half by the end of the century if greenhouse emissions continue at current speed, which can be disastrous for the state’s water supply.

It is clear water conservation should be our way of life, whether we are in a drought or not. Limit outdoor watering, as about half of water consumed by Californians is used outdoors.  Replace the lawn with a water efficient garden – Calculate how much water you can save here.

A water efficient garden will not only save water, but be beautiful as well. They can be full of California native charm, or fulfill some gardening dreams you have had for a long time.  Whichever design you choose, the water efficient garden can help us conserve water, and deal with water shortage now and in the future.

water efficient garden

From a Weedy Turf to a Dream Garden

From a weedy turf to a dream garden:

beforenafter

Against a full wall of Camilla trees, Lucy (not her real name)’s lawn used to be green and lush.  With the drought, however, parts of the turf just went bare, with the remaining thin and weedy.  Then rains – lots of them- came, the turf just turned into this big bed of wild weeds.  Lucy had been wanting to replace it with a much nicer “dream garden”, but with her really busy schedule, she did not even have the time to think about it.

Graden - Before

Graden - Before

After Lucy heard about the Santa Clara Landscape Conversion Rebate Program, especially the way her project will be done, i.e., all the paper work will be handled, the project will cover the entire process of design and installation, the only time she needed to be involved was the design of the garden – she happily got on board.

Landscape Conversion Program Application

To apply for the Rebate Program, a pre-inspection was scheduled.  At the end of pre-inspection, the application forms were provided.  For the application, the filled forms, along with the design of the garden were to be submitted.

Rebate Program Pre-Inspection

Designing the Garden

This will be a water efficient garden, meeting all the requirements of the Rebate program, i.e., using only native or drought tolerant plants, using drip irrigation, applying mulch, etc.

The next consideration was the look.  There was a wall of the camellias at the back of the front yard; in addition, two small fruit trees in the middle. The camellias were in their full blossom, sporting bright pink and red colors, against thick green leaves. It was a beautiful view.  A good design should add to the view, not take away from it.

At the time of plant selection, when Lucy spotted a picture of a lavender, she cried “that is it!” A path with lavender on both sides, with its strong scent – that was something of a dream for her.  Very luckily, lavender is one of those low water-use plants that qualify for the rebate. Now she could have her dream realized!

The application was submitted with the garden design.  After a week or so, the Notice to Proceed was received.  The project could kick off now.

Installing the Garden

The weeds and turf were removed, plants purchased and placed.  For mulch, it was bark chips, which came in different colors.  The mulch can effectively prevent evaporation and keep the soil moist longer.  When the chips decompose, it can add to the organic matters of the soil, improving the its quality and water holding capacity, which in turn will save more water.  Lucy chose the black color, which turned out to be a great choice.

Installing a Water Efficient Garden

A Dream Garden Came True

Beautiful Water Efficient Garden

The clean design and black surface from mulch make the Camilla’ colors really “pop” out.  The light step stones surrounding the two small trees in front not only provide something very functional, but accentuate the trees and add liveliness to the garden.

These plants dot the garden space with colors and textures, without distracting from the main view of Camilla.  They are all drought tolerant and qualify for the Rebate program.

Water Efficient Garden

Water Efficient Garden

While the garden already looks nice, there is more to look forward to. When the lavenders grow up and fully bloom, walking in the middle will be like walking through a purple corridor with that wonderful lavender scent.  Now that is something to wait for!

Dream Garden with Lavender

 

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.

WaterEfficientGarden

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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