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Better water and more pollinators, one garden at a time

Monarch butterflies cover a Liatris ligulistylis.1 / 4
Master Gardener Joyce Malinowski mulches next to the Blue False Indigo at the rain garden.2 / 4
Volunteers plant the Potter Park Rain Garden in 2008.3 / 4
Coneflowers and other natives blooming in the rain garden.4 / 4

By Terry Yockey, garden columnist

What if I told you that by planting even a small rain garden you can help improve the water quality of our Minnesota rivers, lakes and groundwater?

“The Blue Thumb Guide to Raingardens” by Rusty Schmidt, Dan Shaw and David Dods says: “Even a modest 1,500-square-foot house on a small lot may produce over 5,000 gallons of runoff from a one inch rain storm. Water runs off the roof, driveway, patios, and even compacted lawns. If one house produces that much water, imagine how much runoff might be produced by an entire neighborhood.”

But wait — there’s more! What if I also told you that not only would you be helping our water quality and recharging groundwater, a rain garden also provides food and shelter for bees, butterflies and song birds?

Helping our environment and the pollinators — sounds too good to be true, right? Well, I am here to tell you that is exactly what you could do by installing a rain garden in your landscape.

So I know you have heard the term, but what exactly is a rain garden?

A rain garden is a strategically located low area where storm water is captured and then soaks naturally into the soil recharging the ground water. The roots of the plants in the rain garden filter the water and help remove pollutants like fertilizers that would otherwise end up in the storm drains and eventually into our nearby streams, rivers and lakes.

Native prairie plants work very well for rain gardens because they are naturally tough and able to take whatever nature throws at them. Rain gardens seem to run the gamut. The majority of the time your garden will be hot and dry and then along comes a rainy day and your plants end up standing in six inches of water. Not a whole lot of plants tolerate those kinds of drastic conditions, but most native plants seem to thrive on the challenge.

Not only are native plants tough, but prairie plants also attract a wide range of wildlife. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds appreciate the abundant nectar and the seedheads are a good food source for goldfinches and other small birds.

A rain garden can be as simple as small plantings where your water drains from the downspouts. It’s a good idea to keep your rain garden at least 10 feet from your building foundation or a septic field so that you don’t end up with water in the basement or an over-saturated septic system. You can either make a depression to hold the water or build a berm around the perimeter of your rain garden.

Yes, there will be days when you have pooled water in your rain garden, but mosquitoes are not a problem. At least not a problem that comes from having a rain garden. A well-designed rain garden will completely drain in a day or so, which is not enough time for the mosquito larvae to develop.

The Pottery Park Rain Garden

In 2008, the city of Red Wing asked the Goodhue County Extension Master Gardeners to design a rain garden to hold the storm water running off the parking lot for the new Pottery Park in Red Wing. That May several members of the Goodhue County Horticultural Society, the Goodhue County Extension Master Gardeners and the AAUW met and helped plant hundreds of native plants into the newly constructed Pottery Park Rain Garden.

The Master Gardeners and horticultural society members have been maintaining the rain garden since that time and in 2011 we were very proud to accept the Minnesota Recreation and Parks Association Award from the Minnesota State Horticultural Society for our work on the rain garden.

I will admit that we have had some ups and downs being the caretakers for such a huge rain garden. One of the ups would be the enormous quantity of monarch caterpillars that we find chomping the milkweed in the garden. We are in the process of getting certified as a Monarch Waystation (, which we are very excited about.

One of the downs would be trying to keep that wonderful milkweed from taking over the entire garden.

RWAA Garden Tour

The Red Wing Arts Association Garden Tour on July 13 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. will include the Pottery Park Rain Garden. Master Gardeners will be in the garden with handouts that will help you choose plants and design your own rain garden.

We will also be happy to make an appointment to visit your home and give you ideas on siting and designing your rain garden. For more information on where to get tickets for the tour, call 651-388-7569.

A few of the prairie plants that you will see when you visit the rain garden:

•Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) This interesting plant can reach more than 12 feet tall. The common name comes from the belief that the leaves of Compass Plant always point in a north-south direction.

•Iron Weed (Vernonia faciculata) Bright mauve flowers on a 4- to 5-feet tall moisture-loving plant.

•Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) Deep purple flowers in May and June and later attractive black seedpods.

•Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor) This native blue iris loves it wet and thrives at the bottom of the rain garden.

•Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) A very tall plant with large rosy flower heads. For the smaller garden try the dwarf cultivars ‘Little Joe’ or ‘Phantom’.

•Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) The crimson red flowers are a hummingbird magnet.

•Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) Rose-colored snapdragon-like blossoms that really do look like a turtle’s head.

•Meadow Blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylis) Tall spikes of lavender to pink flowers that may be the best in the garden for attracting monarchs.