From Rain Barrels to Rain Gardens

Lorrie Otto (left) and her sister, Betty Larson, with one of the colorful rain barrels painted by Ruth Grotenrath.

The early seventies. It seems like a long time ago when an urgent phone call awakened me. The night before, Harry Hendrickson from one of Wisconsin’s governmental agencies had attended one of my lectures on healing the earth by abolishing lawns. Now he was insisting that I include “non-point-source pollution” in my next performance. The concern was understandable but it was such a mouthful of words, and would also sound quite dull on a poster. The EPA had a goal of “fishable and swimmable waters by 1984” but after clamping down on source polluters the scientists were claiming that we were only half way there. General run-off from construction sites, farm lands and lawns were the culprits now.

Of course, I could see and understand the problem, but how could I attract an audience to come to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center on a Saturday morning to hear me?

As I was getting out of bed, the trash collecting truck was driving down the road with a bunch of 50-gallon metal barrels. Rain barrels! This would be my hook! I persuaded some of the Milwaukee artists to decorate them for an auction at the nature center. (Schomer Lichtner, Betty Greaves, Tula Erskine and Ruth Grotenrath painted two cans. One sold for $400.00.) Harry cut open the tops for screens and added a faucet on the bottom of each one. The morning was such a success that it touched off a spate of rain barrels much as Wild Ones members make Leopold benches today. However, we were more than surprised to discover how quickly 50 gallons can come off of the roof during a short shower. And wriggling the hoses around was a bit of a nuisance especially at night.

Next I tried terraces and swales where it was wonderful to watch birds bathe after summer cloudbursts. Then, less than 30 years ago I installed turfstone into my sloping driveway. This catches the first load of pollutants from cars which rain once rushed directly down into the ravine. Those hundreds of little squares make such a charming design especially after a light snowstorm.

Then, finally, I began constructing rain gardens, the loveliest idea of all. There is one at the end of each of my downspouts plus a surprise pool which catches water from the ditch along Lake Drive. It’s a surprise because the water was expected to seep away within five days but because of the fine soil under it, the pool has remained for six years! Reeds. Rushes. Sedges. I sit on my Leopold bench, peek through the Queen-of-the Prairie on the border and marvel at the shadows. However, all is not well there. Nothing ever moves in the water. I thought that I might bring back the toads, frogs, or salamanders of years past, but there is no food in that little pond; not even mosquito larvae! Lawn-care services treat the properties around me, and their insecticides rain-wash into the ditch. It troubles me to watch the migrating warblers as they bathe in the reflections of my water-plantain, arrowheads, and bur-reeds.

As I write I look out on the downspout plantings: bottle gentians, iris, Joe Pyes, and marsh milkweeds. On the other side there are marsh marigolds, boneset, and glade mallow which provides shade for the Jack in the pulpits. These gardens which are so enchanting not only satisfy my aesthetic hunger but it so pleases me to be a good citizen, a good steward and be truly patriotic. A flag on my mail box is not enough!

Lorrie Otto, upon whose philosophy Wild Ones was founded in 1977, continues to be active in Wild Ones and maintains her membership with the Milwaukee-North Chapter.

Here are some more excellent articles for you to read to help you get started with the development of your own home water management systems.

Rain Garden Puts Run-off to Work by Mandy Ploch.

Rain Gardens on Clay Soil Sites by Beth Storey.

Home Water Management using Rain Barrels by Donna VanBuecken.

How to Build a Rain Garden by Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission.

Rain Gardens – a how to manual for homeowners by UW-Extension.

Home Water Management by Kristin Kauth and Donna VanBuecken.