Raingardens in Rochester

What’s big, beautiful, green, and half-priced? No, not watermelons on sale after July fourth. Well, maybe. But I’m talking about raingardens subsidized by cities, counties, and watershed management organizations. Shallow depressions in yards, planted with drought- and flood-tolerant native flowers and grasses, raingardens collect, clean and infiltrate water runoff from impervious surfaces. Many local governments recognize the diverse benefits that raingardens provide: less flooding and irrigation and improved water quality and pollinator habitat, and are willing to subsidize property owners who install them.


In Minnesota, the Realize Rain Gardens Rochester Cost-Share Grant Program has been running since 2009, and helps fund 6 new installations every year.


Raingardens come in all shapes and sizes, and are installed by a variety of people in a variety of places. Megan Moeller, Stormwater Educator with Rochester’s Public Works Department, emphasizes, “One of my biggest messages is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to native plants. It is a spectrum and people can find the right spot for them based on their budget, resources, yard space, etc.”


The Realize Rain Gardens Rochester Cost-Share Grant Program was co-developed by a task force of interested citizens, landscape professionals, and City Public Works staff. Originally available only for residential rain gardens, but it was expanded to include rain gardens installed on school grounds and non-profit properties in 2014.


Moeller continues, “One requirement of the program is that the rain gardens are open to the public to view at any time. People have a lot of preconceived notions about what a rain garden has to look like and they are pleasantly surprised to see the wide variety of gardens in town.”


To find out more and apply for a Realize Rain Gardens Rochester Cost-Share, check out their website. For a list of funding sources available in Minnesota, Blue Thumb’s grant information and resources page is a good place to start.


IMG_0759The Walkers


Henry and Shawna Walker installed their newest raingardens in 2014 in the boulevard in front of their home. Henry explains, “We live on a hill so most of our roof surface, driveway, front lawn and some hardscape upstream of me drains to the [boulevard]. Before we installed the garden our boulevard was overfilled with soil blocking the flow of water, and all the water ran down the sidewalk as a result. It was a torrent sometimes.”


They dug up the boulevards after asking Gopher 1 to mark the utility lines, and removed enough clay soil to turn them into basins instead of berms. “We found tons of discarded construction materials buried in the boulevard, old bricks, pieces of boards and junk.  It was a little like a treasure hunt digging.”


Walker states, “I was skeptical at first but after installing three substantial gardens we have seen them in action and they work beautifully.”


He’s also got some free advice for other homeowners thinking about undertaking a similar project. “Unless you are an advanced gardener in this area, partner with an accomplished professional who does it for a living. We utilized the services of Sargents Nursery to help plan. Without their help we wouldn’t have had anywhere as nice of a final result.” They also rented a mini-excavator to make quick work of the large expanse of clay soils. Lastly, “be sure to invite friends and neighbors to help you out before embarking on a big project by yourself. Working with a good Nursery really made this fun as well as rewarding as did partnering with our city Realize Rain Gardens coordinator.”


Universalist Unitarian ChurchFirst Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester


The church installed raingardens in 2014, as part of a larger project to address ongoing, excessive erosion and considerable runoff to nearby storm drains. Kay Eberman, Master Gardener and member of the church, explains that “due to the scope of the project and the slope of the site, professional services were hired for both the garden design and regrading of the site. A crew of up to 20 volunteers at any one time, with a total of 32 individual volunteers, worked every Saturday from May into August to pick up compost, scavenge for/install rocks for the walking paths, and plant.”


“Two rain holding ponds were developed, positioned to capture all the runoff from the roof on the front of the church.  They were in the middle of an extensive rain garden planting. There was immediate evidence of success. The garden ponds hold all of the runoff that previously ran across the side walk, into the parking lot and to the storm drain.” 


For other congregations thinking of how they can improve their impact on their world around them by installing a raingarden, Eberman offers some excellent advice: “Expect that the project will cost more than a city grant can cover, so have good cost estimates. Publicize with the congregation early and enthusiastically! Develop a long list of possible volunteers and keep them all informed via e-mail. Take pictures of the entire project. Ask for plant donations. Contact local garden organizations for help. Celebrate both the process and the final product. Plan for long term maintenance.”


Kay Eberman also offers, “If anyone wishes to contact me for additional thoughts or to answer questions, they are welcome to do so. As a Master Gardener, part of my role is to teach about gardening.” Her email is ebermankay@gmail.com.


John Adams 2  John Adams Middle School


Raingardens aren’t just for adults, as the students at John Adams Middle School discovered in 2013 when a team led by Instructional Coach Ross Bergerson entered an E-Cybermission Science competition to improve water quality. “We applied for a matching grant to build a rain garden and we were off,” Bergerson says.


The students decided to put the raingarden next to the parking lot, to capture at least some of the runoff from such a large impervious surface. Bergerson explains, “It should have been 10 times bigger but we share the space with physical education.” They dug it out by hand, removing 100 wheelbarrow loads of heavy wet clay soil. With the help of the district’s head groundskeeper, they hauled in some sand to remediate the clay substrate, and topsoil for the garden. By using their own labor, “we were able to use most of our money to buy plants from Sargent’s Nursery—and we got a discount.”


It’s been a great success. “We use the rain garden as a nature area for students to observe butterflies, bees and other insects. Students also learn about gardening and ways to keep our waterways clean.” The kids help maintain it over the school year, picking up trash and keeping an eye out for any other problems. But there haven’t been many. Bergerson states, “It’s beautiful. The plants are spreading.”


Beyond the educational and water quality benefits that a raingarden provides for the school, Bergerson sees one more major benefit: pollinator habitat, specifically for one genus. “I love bumble bees and would like to get everyone in Rochester to start planting an area for them.  Honey bees get all of the attention but they are not native.” And it’s true. Bumble bees make up some of the over 425 bee species native to Minnesota, and are especially important for many of the fruits that flower early in the year and for flowers that hold tight to their pollen. With their large flight muscles and furry coats, they can begin visiting flowers in cooler temperatures and earlier in the year than honey bees, and are much more efficient at shaking pollen loose and carrying it from flower to flower.


For other schools with a raingarden project in mind, Bergerson “would recommend getting a local contractor to volunteer to help dig the rain garden. I was stubborn and wanted to get into the project and do it all by hand.” But it was hard work.


What about you?


Rochester is one of dozens of cities (not to mention counties, watershed districts and SWCDs) around Minnesota that offers grants to property owners who decrease the quantity and increase the quality of water running off their land. If you’re interested in learning more, or finding resources new you, check out our grant resources page.


And don’t forget, raingardens help more than water quality. As Henry Walker puts it, “The city and community benefit because less water is going to the drain system where it would otherwise have to be dealt with. The environment wins because less oil, salt and other from the road is flowing into the drain sewer system. I win because I don’t mow the boulevard any longer, a weekly pleasure not to do. The butterflies and bees have a hay day with the prairie plants; they are   numerous now when we had none previously. And maybe most importantly, we have a lot of people stop by and visit with us about the raingarden; it has a nice neighborhood appeal to it that instills community.”



Written by John Bly