EPIC: PLANTING OUR FIRST RAINGARDEN (Week of Aug. 11) by Sandra Rodriguez

We spent Wednesday picking up trash around Miller, and Thursday hit the lakefront, where we met Miller Shoreline volunteers who clean up the Park and shoreline every Monday and Thursday starting at 9:00 am during the summer.  This is a cool thing about Miller as you will find many residents who care a great deal about nature, the lake, their community, and volunteer in many ways to pitch in and take care of things.  

We had a great day on Friday! In fact, it was epic. We planted our first rain garden around a stormwater inlet in Miller.  The GLRIgrant is intended to help Miller improve stormwater management practices and we are supposed to help implement BMPs or best management practices and educate residents on how to do it themselves.  We started by distributing and installing rain barrels.  We’ve been preparing to dig in and plant rain gardens up to this point.

We had gorgeous weather and great supervision by Scott fromJFNew, a highly regarded eco-restoration firm that has done a lot of work in the region and around the country. JFNew worked on Marquette Park and was hired to be a consultant on the GLRIcontract by the City of Gary. 

Previously we were given a map of all the storm inlets in Miller and identified those in locations which would accommodate rain gardens without needing intensive machinery.  That means they would be surrounded by grass or vegetation or soil, not surrounded by asphalt or concrete.

Our first garden was an approximately 12’ oval (120 sq. ft.) around an inlet on a downward sloping street. We learned from homeowners living around the inlet that stormwater pooling in the street was an issue, so the rain garden could help alleviate that problem.

Our first job on Friday was unsuccessful. We tried to install a rain barrel at the library. Our drill bit would not penetrate this heavy duty gutter. We had to return to finish that job after purchasing a stronger drill bit.

When we arrived to the garden site at 10:30, Scott was there digging out the border of the shape.  He wanted the garden to slope downward toward the outlet, and he wanted us to dig out an 18” deep depression around the storm inlet.  When Scott started digging around the outlet he found lots of rocks embedded in the soil.  Very likely they surrounded the outlet with them when it was installed.

Grayling volunteered for the job of digging around the outlet.  He got down on his knees and with his trowel started digging out those rocks.

The rest of us started digging our shovels into the sod and lifting that out of the 120 sq. ft. area.  Scott wanted us to give the sod a thorough shaking before tossing it into the wheelbarrow so as to leave as much of the soil matter with microbes and bacteria behind in order to help preserve that ecosystem.

Grayling worked steadily at digging out those rocks. Others helped him and there were still more rocks. Gray got down to 6” then down further to 8” and then to about a foot. There was no way Gray was going to get down to 18.” Scott had to reassess. “Okay, let’s move on”, he said.  A foot down will do. Now we would start digging a couple feet outward from the outlet. 

Guess what we found? More dang rocks.  Scott called that Sisyphean labor.  Just never ending hard labor. Like Sisyphus pushing a rock up the hill only to have it roll back down once he reached the top so he’d have to start all over. 

Finally a neighbor brought over a 4-tined rake and it worked great getting out those rocks.  Now work could proceed apace.  We finished shoveling out the soil to make the depression, grading the depression downward toward the inlet, and piled up soil around the rim of the garden, creating a little berm.

We also had to add in the extra work of loading two pick-up trucks full of soil and sod that we had dug out and then taking it and dumping it. When that was done we came back and found that the depression for the garden was pretty much dug out and it was finally time to stop digging and start planting!

Jessica ordered ¾ of a ton of pea stone, ½ ton of river rock, and ¾ cubic yard of compost from a local landscaping company called Hubingers.  The cost on that was about $280 which included $76 for delivery. We received ¾ CY of free mulch from the Gary Sanitary District.

I asked Scott if he had done a soil test, but he hadn’t, expecting it to be sandy. Most soil around Lake Michigan is very sandy. The compost was ordered to amend the soil that was there.  It just so happened we were working with some pretty rich soil. We added the compost anyway so our new plants would have a little more nutrients to establish themselves in.  Then Scott wanted 3” of mulch to bed those plants. 

We raked the new soil in to mix it with the old.  Then we laid 3” of mulch on top of it.

We laid the pea stone around the inlet which helps fix and keep the river rock in place. Because we had more rock left over, and we were installing this rain garden in a bit of an upscale neighborhood, we added the pea stone and river rock on the berm all around the garden.  The rocks around the outlet were at grade with the asphalt.

Scott wasn’t able to get quite as many native plants from theJFNew nursery as he would have liked because of the shady spot we were working in; difficulty finding natives that fit the requirements of this particular site at this point in the season. The challenge for our garden would be the shade. Many rain gardens enjoy full sun.  The long roots of the native flowers and grasses help anchor the garden by penetrating deep into the soil and absorbing lots of the stormwater that comes rushing through.  Scott explained we were working in a spot that was a bit on the shady side, only enjoying sun in later afternoon. That limited the type of plants we could use.

The plants we did have worked just fine and almost filled up the garden. Several rows of the water-loving iris were planted closest to the outlet; then a couple rows of a sedge called Carex pensylvanica was planted farther up the slope.  Scott said we would plant more as they become available at the nursery.