Thinking spring: Rain barrels, gardens are easy ways to start greening your gardens

BY KAY SEVERINSEN

February, meh.

Wouldn’t you rather ignore the snow outside and dream of spring and summer, landscaping and gardening? Maybe even take it another step and plan to do something green and good for the environment.

Here’s an idea, that’s relatively easy on the budget, brain and back: Add a rain barrel under one of your downspouts or a rain garden, which captures rain run-off and can keep water out of your basement.

Conservation enthusiasts point out that, if you live in an average suburban house, a short, ½-inch rainstorm deposits 500 gallons of water on your roof.  All that water funnels through your gutters and downspouts and out into the storm water system. Multiply that times every home in your area, and that’s a lot of extra water that dumps into the overloaded system, all too often flooding streets and basements in the process.

Rooftops are one of the impermeable surfaces that, along with streets and parking lots, are causing metropolitan areas to suffer more flooding after heavy rains. That’s especially a problem since the Chicago area is having 40 percent more heavy rainstorms than it did from the 1940s to the 1980s, according to the Journal of American Water Resources Association.

Yet, with a little effort, homeowners could recapture some of that rainwater, use it on their plants, and keep a percentage of that floodwater out of the system. Proponents of rainwater management and harvesting, such as Jack Pizzo, owner of Pizzo & Associates, an environment restoration company based in Leland, try to educate homeowners about the advantages of keeping your water to yourself.

At The Old House New House Home Show, scheduled for Feb. 12-14 at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Pizzo will be sharing the basics of rainwater capturing and explaining how you can get started.

“A good first step is a rain barrel,” he said, “and some native perennials.” Rain barrels, which typically  hold about 55 gallons of water, are enclosed at the top, but attached to the home’s downspout. A spigot drilled near the base lets you attach a hose or pour out water to fill a watering can.

A half-inch rain will fill a rain barrel in a heartbeat, he said, but you can also hook the barrel up to another one to catch the overflow, or you could add one at another corner of your house. The Conservation Foundation (www.theconservationfoundation.org) based in Naperville sells recycled barrels already outfitted with the funnel and spigots starting at $85.

Some come in colors and can be painted or decorated to add interest to your garden. In fact, my guess is that within five years, rain barrels, perhaps painted with daisies, butterflies or pop art, will be the hot new lawn accessory. And, whether or not they really add value to a home, rain gardens will start getting listed with other features on a home for sale listing.

It’s a fairly new phenomenon, says Karla Lynch, horticultural education manager for the Morton Arboretum. “Two or three years ago when I started researching this, I only found companies in Texas and (other southwestern states). You didn’t used to be able to find rain barrels. Now every big box store and catalog sells them.”

It’s a line of products that business partners Mark Moxley and Andrew Clauson have found profitable at Lake Street Landscape Supply in Chicago. They opened four years ago selling mainstream landscaping materials, but soon realized that there was no local supplier of eco-friendly landscaping supplies.

“We started carrying a variety of sustainable products because we felt the need to do something that would make a difference,” said Moxley. “There weren’t suppliers that were focused on that, especially in the city. Rain barrels are ubiquitous now, but we go way beyond rain barrels.”

Rainwater harvesting systems, such as underground cisterns, can be installed for homes, but will tend to cost $3 per gallon stored, or more. A 1,000-gallon cistern, therefore, will be base priced around $3,000, not a small purchase for many homeowners. Add in an irrigation system, an aeration system and other components, and it can go higher.

“Right now, water is cheap and in 2010,” admitted Clauson, “ and (the cost of a cistern) is prohibitive for many people if they are not doing another project at the same time. But if you need to do something to keep water away from the basement and keep the yard dry, then this is an easy, smart and common sense solution for managing rainwater.”

For beginners, these experts say, a good place to start is with a rain garden.

Start by finding a damp spot in the yard, probably where water runs out of a downspout. It should be at least 10 feet from the house. Excavate a shallow flat depression just a few inches deep. Add perennials that are water loving, particularly Illinois natives, such as, Pizzo says, sun-lovers like Northern Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose), which offers showy clusters of orange flowers in June and, as the name suggests, attracts butterflies, and white heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), which has a deep root system and white flowers. For shady areas, try figleaf aster, Virginia bluebells and tufted hairgrass.

“You want to keep all the rain that falls on your site if you can,” adds Lynch. “We have compromised our watershed so much with pavement and rooftops we no longer have water sinking into the soil and replenishing our aquifers. It’s nice to be able to harvest your rainfall and keep it from going into the storm sewer. I have a feeling this is here to stay. If everybody did just one thing, there would be a lot of change.”

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