Wildside: Natural plants in a rain garden have many benefits
I think this year may be the year that I finally put in that rain garden I have been contemplating. We have a spot in our front yard that gathers rainwater; a depression that I think would lend itself well to this kind of landscaping. If you are not familiar with the rain garden concept, it is not a spot that holds water, like a pond or a water garden. It is a spot where rainwater gathers or collects, where you can plant a variety of grasses and flowers to slow down the runoff and help it soak into the ground.
The rain that falls on a city like Rhinelander hits a lot of hard, nonabsorbent surfaces, what we call impervious surfaces. It runs off roofs, parking lots, driveways and sidewalks into gutters and storm drains, where it rushes into local lakes, streams and rivers. When it leaves, it takes pollutants, fertilizers and particulates along with it. Capturing and slowing this runoff reduces the amount of transported material, improving water quality. Keeping rainwater also reduces the need to water lawns and flowers, and helps recharge what groundwater we have in the area.
Rain gardens are pretty straightforward, from what Tom Jerow with Master Gardeners of the North told me. You select a variety of grasses and flowers that grow well in the area, are not considered invasive species, and benefit birds, butterflies or other pollinator species. The concept is nothing new to me; when I worked in Minnesota, we would plant prairie restorations using native grass and flower seeds. I admit, I have been a little hesitant to bring this kind of management into my front yard because I know there is a kind of Midwest culture that makes people look at this as an ugly weed patch. People love their close-cut manicured green lawns and tidy yards. They spray and pull the plants growing in their gardens, then plant new flowers in nice tidy rows. Coming from three generations of florists, I have no problem with this. You will see the same kinds of flowers planted in our hanging baskets and flower boxes as well. But there are some beautiful, beneficial plants that are treated as weeds but that are really important to the ecosystem.
Take milkweed for example. This “weed” is extremely important for the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Upon hatching, the caterpillars go straight to work, chomping on leaves day and night. When these caterpillars eventually become butterflies, the milkweed they had ingested makes them toxic. Anything that tries to eat a monarch butterfly is going to end up very sick, and won’t eat another one. Of course, the flowers provide nectar for a variety of pollinating insects as well.
Pollinator species are in decline around the world, and there are a lot of different efforts underway to try to help protect and increase their numbers. For example, did you know May is Garden for Wildlife month? You can garden for wildlife right in your backyard—check out the National Wildlife Federation website for more information. You can also find information from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a new pollinator program through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. All of these, and more, have lots of helpful tips on how to make your yard and garden a mini-haven for insects and wildlife. Don’t forget to welcome toads, too.
Gardening is the number one outdoor recreation activity in the United States. You can take it a step further; be a habitat and runoff manager while enjoying a great hobby that gets you outside. This kind of gardening is an easy way to do a little something to help make a difference to species we impact in many other less beneficial ways. Thanks to one of my readers for inspiring me to write on this topic.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.