Battling the boggy backyard blues? Northeast Ohioans learn about rain gardens
Jen Weisblat’s Willowick backyard gets pretty wet when it rains.
Our feet sink into the ground as we walk across her yard
“I have obviously a lot of water problems because [it’s] always just moist over here. It was always marshy ever since we moved in,” Weisblat said. “After we moved in, we noticed that the [sump] pump that sucks the water out of our basement area pumps water through here.”
When the water pumped away from the basement combines with falling rain water, the area gets pretty swampy.
“When it was flooding, we couldn't use our backyard -- we still sort of can't -- from what, like all spring, right? We can't use our backyard until like July-ish usually,” she said.
Weisblat is a gardener. She’d heard about rain gardens as a solution for standing water and flooding.
She was among the participants in the summer session of the Chagrin River Watershed Partners Master Rain Gardener Program who wanted to learn more.
The program was adapted from one created by Susan Brian of the Washtenaw Water Resources District in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and brought to Northeast Ohio in 2019. It offers a certification for residents hoping to build a rain garden for themselves and certification for professional landscapers and contractors hoping to expand their skill set.
Students learn in five weekly classes all about things like soil types, drainage and plants. They also hear from those who’ve taken the course and built rain gardens and visit plant nurseries for more hands-on learning.
Course co-leader Kaylee Acres said it’s about what makes a rain garden a rain garden.
“A rain garden is different in that it works with nature to kind of filter out all of those pollutants,” she said. “It's slightly depressed into the ground, so it's designed to capture and hold that water and let it slowly drain back into the environment instead of just sending it into a storm drain untreated.”
Pam Fidler lives in Lakewood in a home with a lush backyard filled with gardens and greenery. But, there’s a dip in her yard that collects water that inspired her to find a creative solution.
“The first time that we got into the house. It had low spot and I've always wanted to do a rain garden,” Fidler said. “So, we when I saw that there was a rain garden class, I said, I have to sign up for this because my yard is like a botanical garden.
But the class offers more than a way to get rid of standing water in a yard, Program co-leader Laura Bonnell said. Rain gardens benefit Northeast Ohio’s waterways by collecting harmful storm water runoff from rooftops and pavement that would otherwise make its way to Lake Erie.
"Along the way it picks up pollutants, which could be debris, litter, dog poop, even things you can't see like pesticides and fertilizers, and it all goes into our streams completely untreated,” Bonnell said. “Rain gardens are designed to capture that storm water and allow it to soak into the ground.
Class participant Jennifer Scheel from Lakewood doesn’t have an issue with flooding at her house after rain, but she said she wants to build a rain garden to help keep Lake Erie healthy.
“This class has made me realize ... I've been so close to Lake Erie and, in the watershed that we are, how important that is,” she said. “I've been very concerned about ... the algae blooms in Lake Erie, and so this this kind of just lined up with like everything that I'm already thinking of.”
Joe Roberts lives in Cleveland and deals with flooding in his basement. Though he’s primarily a vegetable gardener, he took the class in hopes of solving his problem and creating a new addition to his yard. He said the teachers helped create a collaborative environment that encouraged learning.
“I was amazed at the knowledge that that the teachers ... have,” Roberts said. “I mean, any question I had, they were able to answer and just real down to earth about it [and] don't make you feel like 'why are you asking that question?’”
By the end of the course, participants have plans for their rain gardens. The final requirement to receive their master rain gardener certification, along with a free t-shirt, is to construct a rain garden for themselves or their community.
Clevelander Brandon Weeber said he hopes to build one at his church that will grow fruits and vegetables for the community and help educate visitors.
“We need to incorporate sustainability not only within the church, but then use that as outreach,” Weeber said. “So, I thought this would be a great opportunity to also incorporate the rain garden and teach people about it.”
Some participants, like Jen Weisblat from Willowick, didn’t wait for her final plan. She got to work soon after the first class.
“I'd come out a little bit in the morning for like, like a half hour to an hour, depending on how hot it was,” she said, “and just dug and plopped and dug and plopped.”
Weisblat’s rain garden is still in its early stages, and the plants need time to bloom and fill up the space. But she’s hopeful it will solve her flooding problem and maybe kickoff a trend across her neighborhood.