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Rain Gardens One Option When Downspouts Come Out

A colorful way to direct stormwater away from streets — and basements — rain gardens work best when landscaped with native plants like these purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and bee balm (below). Karen Cox, Ohio County extension agent, said such species are well accustomed to Appalachia’s cycles of flood and drought and also support regional pollinators and other wildlife. (Photos by Nora Edinger)

WHEELING — There’s the technical side of reining in the rivers that rush down many city streets and into more than a few basements when storms roll in — one after the other. Think the ongoing project that is separating Wheeling’s stormwater from its sewage system — and the related push to get residential downspouts out of the mix.

There’s also a surprisingly pretty side, according to Karen Cox, Ohio County extension agent. “They can be absolutely gorgeous,” Cox said of rain gardens, one option in controlling where water goes when it rushes off roofs or other impervious areas.

Such gardens are loaded with amended soil, grasses, trees and, mostly colorfully, with native flowers well accustomed to Appalachia’s cycles of drought and flood, she said. They mimic natural landscapes by giving stormwater a place to pool and then drain into the soil rather than rush into the streets, seep into basements or otherwise overwhelm neighborhoods and waterways.

While the agency will offer a class in the installation of such gardens at some point this fall, Cox shared a sneak peek with the Sunday News-Register.

FLOODED WITH NEED

Before discussing the hows of rain gardening, Cox said it is important to address the why. Her family saw the need firsthand in 2017, she said, when heavy rains wound up flooding their basement with a mix of stormwater and sewage.

“Right after that, every single one of these pipes came out of the ground,” Cox said with a wince.

Like many homeowners and business owners around the city, the Coxes had previously connected their downspouts directly into an underground system of terra cotta pipes that have traditionally drained roof runoff into the combined stormwater and sewer system.

“They’re 100 years old, and they’re terra cotta,” Cox said of a system that has aged to the point it is no longer meeting the city’s needs let alone reach modern standards. “When you look at any type of (current) stormwater management system, the goal of any of them … is to catch the first inch of rain.”

While the Coxes have not installed a formal rain garden, she said water is directed away from the house with elongated downspouts. Rather than shunting it into the street — which isn’t working well for neighborhoods, either — it is directed toward the sponge-like roots of a tree at their curb.

So far, that is soaking up whatever comes.

A rain garden, Cox explained, is simply a fancier version of that same idea. Stormwater is directed at least 10 feet away from a building — through some sort of pipe or via a grassy or rocky swale. The rain garden sits in a depression at the end of that inlet to collect and drain the water safely into the ground.

In the upcoming class, Cox will be explaining such details as how to do a percolation test to figure out how much the soil needs to be amended to accomplish that. “Some yards don’t need anything. A lot of that has to do with (soil) compaction,” she said.

Ideally, a rain garden will drain within 48 hours. That allows for short-term retention without creating a pond that will foster mosquito breeding, she explained.

The move is on to get downspouts like this one out of the city’s aging stormwater system — which is in the process of being upgraded. Rain gardens — one of several alternatives to sending roof runoff into the system or the streets — instead direct storm flow from downspouts into a beautifully landscaped depression, where it can drain into the ground.

There’s also a worksheet that converts the size of a homeowner’s roof into an approximate size — or at least depth, if space is tight — of rain garden needed to drain it. Gardens are possible on small properties, as well as larger ones, she noted.

“Even if you can’t capture an entire inch, every little bit helps,” Cox said.

The class will also include quirky tidbits from the rain garden trade, so to speak. For example, gardeners have learned the hard way not to mulch such planting areas with pine bark or cedar chips, she noted. Both float.

Plant lists — which recommend such native varieties as coneflower (Echinacea), bee balm, black-eyed Susan, cardinal flower, buttonbush, little bluestem, inland sea oats, paw paw, witch hazel and woodland sunflower — will also be available.

Prospective rain gardeners can get on the class list by calling the extension agency at 304-234-3673, Cox said. Callers will be contacted with class details as soon as a date is determined.

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