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Gardening Features

Riverwest “Garden of the Month”

Do you have a favorite garden in the neighborhood? Someplace that beckons and charms you as you walk past on the sidewalk? The Riverwest Currents would like to honor some of the more interesting and beautiful yards and gardens in the neighborhood. If you have a beautiful yard, or know of someone who does, please let us know. We’d like to spotlight some of the nicest yards in the Currents over the course of the summer. We don’t have any “rule” about this — beauty is in the eye of the beholder! So if you behold a beautiful garden, let us know! Email your garden nomination to

Rain Gardens: A Riverwest Natural

What do birds and bees, flowers, rain, and money have in common? All are saved when you create a rain garden, the hottest topic in conservation and gardening circles since night crawlers were introduced from Europe. What’s the buzz? Milwaukee area homeowners in the combined sewer area (which includes Riverwest) are being told by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to disconnect the downspouts coming off their roofs to help keep excess water out of the system to prevent sewer overflows. But once downspouts are disconnected, the water has to go somewhere — so homeowners are investigating rain gardens to soak up their rooftop water rather than let it go into their neighbor’s yards. While rain gardens sound completely different from traditional perennial gardens, they don’t have to be. They are also not algae-filled ponds with lily pads and ephemeral frogs, which is what one woman asked me one day as I was preparing a seminar for homeowners on how to install a rain garden. “While it’s easy to go to the garden shop and buy some plants, it takes a little more planning to put in a rain garden,” says Leah Duke, a Master Gardener from UW-Extension. But it doesn’t have to be more difficult than starting a small conventional garden or replacing an existing one with different plants — and it’s a lot of fun. Start with a small area (even 5 feet square is a good start), plant a mix of native flowering plants and grasses, and you’ll not only help capture more storm water than your simple grass will, but you’ll also create a more beautiful landscape. Reintroducing native plants back into our ecosystem will attract native butterflies, birds, bees, and other creatures that will restore the health and function of our ecosystem. The basic needs of a rain garden are simple: First, you need an area of lower elevation than the rest of your yard that will receive and be able to soak up rain water coming out of your downspout. If your property is relatively flat, you can grade an area away from your house to create the drainage needed. You can start a rain garden a few feet away from your house; even a garden with a mix of native plants growing right up against the house will function well as long as there are a few degrees of slope draining excess water away. Second, you need a diverse mix (at least 6-8 species) of native flowering plants and grasses that are adapted to wet soil conditions. See the resource box next to this article for resources to help you find suitable plants. Third, you’ll need a little bit of time to weed out unwanted plants in the first year or two, but once you do, rain gardens can be nearly maintenance free. Finally, a huge benefit of rain gardens is that you won’t have to mow, water, or fertilize them because they are self-sustaining — which means less money coming out of your pocket. Also, rain gardens filter out pollution from rainwater, leaving less pollution to flow into our rivers — which means fewer taxpayer dollars are needed to clean up polluted waterways. And last but not least, putting less water into the combined sewer system will mean fewer sewer overflows — which means fewer taxpayer dollars needed to increase our sewer capacity.