Rainy Days in the City – Urban Rain Gardens

Watering your garden was once a simple matter of hooking up your hose to a sprinkler and letting it run for a few hours. Today, amid growing concerns about the planet’s water supply and what seems to be an increase in home flooding, people are turning to another option: rain gardens.

Michael Albanese is a rain garden expert who specializes in ecology and the management of urban green spaces. He founded Avesi Stormwater & Landscape Solutions in Hamilton four years ago out of concern for managing storm water and to help people be good stewards for the environment. His clients are mostly residents, although he works with gardening groups, non-profit organizations and conservation authorities in Hamilton and Halton. “Our stream quality is getting worse and a lot of the living organisms that live in streams are under a lot more stress now, so people concerned about storm water management are getting more and more focused on the use of water as a resource,” says Albanese. People are a lot more environmentally conscious and want to do more than the bare minimum but, according to Albanese, they don’t have the time or resources to know what to do.

Rain gardens are a good way to start and are fairly simple to design. Every one is different but they all contain the same elements. They must be built to absorb rain water so they’re usually shallow and bowl-shaped, like a sunken garden; they rely on biologically active soil, which is a healthy soil that contains microbes and organic matter that can help in water absorption; and they must have deep rooted native plants and grasses which are designed to capture, absorb and filter storm water. The garden can also be topped with shredded mulch.

It’s extremely important to choose the right plants, says Albanese, because native species perform better in our climate. These include the coneflower, aster, Indian grasses, native shrubs, wildflowers and ground covers. “The main point is that those plants are adapted to our climate,” he says. Rain gardens are excellent for the environment because the elements create a garden that intercepts the flow of polluted storm water and allows it to infiltrate into the ground rather than going into our creeks and sewers. 

Albanese notes they’re also perfect for people who have experienced drainage issues, including puddling and erosion, as they’re like having your own custom drainage system. When it comes to other home flooding prevention options, Albanese also designs and builds proper downspout arrangements. He says many people attach plastic extenders to their downspout and hope for the best but if there’s tons of water or if it’s a windy day, they can be easily ripped off. Water can also be redirected away from the house and toward your plants, garden or lawn with the use of rain barrels. Some people prefer these because they don’t like that city water has fluoride in it. However the downside is that rain barrel water can contain other deposits from your roof.

Green Venture, the City of Hamilton’s lead agency that promotes sustainable living ideas, runs a program called Rangers Rain Garden that educates students about the natural and urban water cycle. As of last December, students had built 11 rain gardens within the Hamilton Harbour Watershed area. “The more people manage water, the more of a collective impact we can have,” says Albanese. “You may think that one person putting in a rain garden is only a drop in the bucket but what you’re doing on your property can impact a lot of the properties around you.” 

Local Links

Aves Stormwater & Landscape Solutions, Hamilton
avesistormwater.com

Green Venture, Hamilton
greenventure.ca

Hamilton Conservation Authority
conservationhamilton.ca

Conservation Halton
conservationhalton.ca/healthyneighboursheds

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