Water is arguably the most important ingredient of a successful garden.
Not enough can slowly kill even the most drought-tough plants, while too much can rot roots and lead to the same outcome.
A hose (along with money to cover the water bill) is an antidote to the problem of not enough water.
However, it’s much harder to head off trouble from excess water after a heavy or prolonged rain has waterlogged our often clayish and poorly drained soil.
Now that excesses both ways seem to be the norm, a new word has crept into the gardening lexicon – “rainscaping.”
Read George’s column on weather lessons from the 2020 growing season
Read George’s column on how the changing climate is affecting gardening
Rainscaping is crafting the yard in a way that manages water smartly, both coming into the yard and leaving it.
Gravitating toward drought-tough native plants and covering soil with mulch, for example, are ways to make the most of limited water during dry spells.
Building a rain garden keeps rain on-site and lessens flooding when we get hammered at the opposite end.
And reducing pesticide use, cleaning up after pets, and cutting down on lawn fertilizer are ways to ensure that any runoff leaving the yard is as non-polluting as possible.
In other words, rainscaping is about making our yards water-friendly.
If that resonates with you, Penn State Extension’s Master Watershed Stewards and the Easton-based Nurture Nature Center have teamed up to create a new statewide program to encourage Pennsylvanians to create water-friendlier yards.
It’s called the Watershed-Friendly Property program, and residents whose yards pass a free, online certification test qualify for a Watershed-Friendly certificate and a Watershed-Friendly yard sign.
“This is a way to show publicly how you support this effort,” said Lehigh County Master Watershed Steward Julia Lukas in announcing the new program via webinar. “It also encourages neighbors.”
The idea is similar to Penn State Extension’s Pollinator Friendly Garden program, which offers certificates and yard signs to residents who maintain yards that are welcoming to bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators.
A watershed is an area whose land channels water into a particular network of waterways. Pennsylvania has six different watersheds.
The bulk of central Pennsylvania falls into the Susquehanna River watershed, which itself is part of the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed.
To qualify as watershed-friendly, Pennsylvanians fill out a five-page application on the Nurture Nature Center website that asks a series of questions about water management and practices.
If you meet at least 85 percent of the goals, you qualify. If not, the site is loaded with tips and links to help you make changes that then qualify you.
One reason is that flooding has been a big and increasing issue in recent years across Pennsylvania, which is second only to Alaska in the number of stream miles statewide (85,000 miles of them).
Some 18,000 of those stream miles are impaired enough to squelch aquatic life and limit their use for drinking and recreation, Lukas says.
The more rain that people can retain to soak into their own properties, the less runs off into downstream neighboring properties or into storm drains that flood creeks and streams.
Also, a problem is polluted runoff.
“Stormwater runoff is our biggest source of water pollution in Pennsylvania,” Lukas says. “We’re always going to have some level of runoff, but what does run off, we want to keep as clean as possible.”
All sorts of pollutants can be carried by rain runoff into our creeks, streams, and groundwater, including lawn fertilizer, insecticides, pet waste, driveway oil and gas leaks from cars, and salt from winter deicers.
“All of these things can be collectively carried by surface runoff,” says Brian Vadino, a watershed specialist with the Montgomery County Conservation District. “People don’t always realize our storm sewage systems are direct conduits to our waterways.”
The Watershed-Friendly Property program aims to help by targeting four action areas: 1) reduce stormwater runoff; 2) reduce water pollution; 3) conserve water, and 4) support wildlife and pollinators.
Ten steps that address them:
1) Plant trees. “Trees are fantastic for providing infiltration,” says Lukas.
One North Carolina study, for example, found that a wooded area absorbs three times as much rain as a typical lawn before runoff occurs.
Read George’s column on 10 native trees that make good landscape choices
2) Add garden beds, especially ones planted with native plants. Only about 10 percent of rain typically runs off of planted space, Lukas says, compared to as much as 55 percent from space dominated by houses, driveways and sidewalks.
3) Build a rain garden or two. These are well-drained, sunken beds planted with species that can tolerate occasionally wet soil and designed to absorb all captured water in 24 to 48 hours.
See Three Rivers Rain Garden Alliance website for details on how to build a rain garden
Read about Harrisburg Area Civic Garden Center’s rain garden
4) Install one or more rain barrels to capture water from downspouts. These intercept some of the water coming off roofs and store it for use later when the weather is dry.
Read George’s Q&A on how to build a DIY rain barrel
5) Minimize the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Or switch to less-toxic, less-polluting products and sweep up any lawn-fertilizer granules that end up on sidewalks and driveways.
Avoid using rock salt to melt snow and ice in winter.
Read George’s article on how to beat bugs without poisoning yourself
Read George’s post on how to grow “good enough grass”
6) Conserve water in the yard and gardens. Water only when plants need it, keep a two- to three-inch mulch cover over soil to reduce evaporation loss, choose low-water-need varieties, and consider drip irrigation instead of overhead hoses.
Read George’s tips on garden water-saving
7) Avoid bare soil. Bare soil allows more and faster runoff, which erodes sediment along with it. Add new grass seed to bare spots in the lawn, and either plant or mulch other bare areas, especially slopes.
Read George’s article on how to fix your ratty lawn
8) Create grassy or vegetated swales. Steer water away from houses or other areas where you don’t want flooding by digging slightly depressed channels that lead in a preferred direction, especially where water can soak into the ground.
If these swales are vegetated as opposed to concrete, some water will be absorbed as it’s redirected.
9) Be kind to Mother Nature. Plant trees to shade ponds and streams, remove invasive species, let grass clippings compost into the lawn instead of bagging them, allow brush piles that serve as shelter for wildlife, and don’t dump grass clippings or animal waste into creeks or streams.
10) Buffer those streams. If you have a creek or stream running through your property, plant the banks with native shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers to capture pollutants and sediment and to help hold the soil in place. Planted buffers are more helpful than keeping mowed grass right up to the water’s edge.
Penn State Extension Master Watershed Stewards are volunteers trained to foster water awareness and watershed improvement, such as coordinating stream cleanups, offering educational events, and carrying out habitat-improvement projects.
The program began in 2013 in Lehigh and Northampton counties and now comprises more than 500 volunteers in 20 Pennsylvania counties.
The Nurture Nature Center is a non-profit environmental education and protection group that was founded in 2007 in the wake of repetitive flooding in the Delaware River Basin.
Read George’s column on 10 ways gardeners can adapt to the changing climate