Don’t fight storm water, use it

It was a grey and cool Sunday morning, rain clouds looming, when a dozen neighbours and their young children cheerfully gathered for a group photo. They were proud new owners of rain gardens.

Led by local homeowner Marc Yamaguchi, a freshly minted park ranger for the David Suzuki Foundation’s Homegrown National Park initiative, this neighborhood project provided a solution to their previously damp basements, puddles in their driveways, and plain front yards.

“It seemed like a no-brainer,” said Tara about why she wanted to be part of the pilot project. “It was a great opportunity to do something for the environment, and at the same time it’s really improved the aesthetics of our front yard.”

A dozen houses in the East End recently built rain gardens in their front yards through a grant from the Toronto Foundation Vital Innovations Award. PHOTO: Martina Rowley
A dozen houses in the East End recently built rain gardens in their front yards through a grant from the Toronto Foundation Vital Innovations Award.
PHOTO: Martina Rowley

A rain garden is designed to catch and slow down – and even prevent – stormwater entering the sewer system. In the city, the water source typically is a disconnected downspout, which is redirected into the garden to allow slow infiltration. Its layers of mulch, sand, compost, and peat moss filter out pollutants, help recharge groundwater and aquifers, reduce local flooding and drainage problems, and lower the potential of overloading sewers.

Compared to a patch of lawn, a rain garden allows about 30 per cent more water to soak into the ground. A ‘soak-away’ pit in a rain garden helps direct the collected water towards the water table below, instead of allowing it to disperse and evaporate close to the surface.

Marc, who is an English teacher, got started as a volunteer with the David Suzuki Foundation and then became one of their Park Rangers. In search of a solution for his leaky, wet basement, he attended a rain garden workshop at the library, held by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. He saw a rain garden as a landscaping solution. Plus, he adds, “I wanted to move from my armchair philosophy into taking action.”

Then he met Karen Buck at her tour of rain gardens in Riverdale. Through Citizens for a Safe Environment, she got 11 rain gardens installed throughout Riverdale and East York a few years back (see Environment Views, May 13, 2014, ‘Celebrating the green heroes of the East End’).

Through this knowledgeable mentor, Marc connected with TRCA and then his personal green intervention grew from merely installing his own rain garden to applying for and in June 2015 winning a Vital Innovations Award from Toronto Foundation to install 10 rain gardens. In addition to the $10,000 grant, he gathered in-kind donations that allowed installation of an additional garden to make it 11.

It was easy finding other homeowners to participate. As Kate, who joined the kickstarter program even before Marc got the grant put it, “The installation cost was reasonable, and having this kind of a capital improvement was a good investment.”

Rain gardens divert rain water from entering - and sometimes overflowing - the storm sewer system. PHOTO: Martina Rowley
Rain gardens divert rain water from entering – and sometimes overflowing – the storm sewer system.
PHOTO: Martina Rowley

Word spread quickly among neighbours on Woodington Avenue, Sammon Avenue and nearby streets and in June installations started for the Rain Gardens of Danforth East Village.

The project’s landscape designer, Gillian Leitch of Alter Eden, said “the families are so wonderful and have an amazing sense of community.”

Entire families came with their young children to help dig, put in different layers, and place and plant from a list of 30 native, drought-resistant plants, to create habitats that provide pollen, nectar, and foraging materials for bees and butterflies.

Native Plants in Claremont provided the plants and created a “raingarden wildflower kit” to suit any combination of sun exposure. In addition to columbine, Solomon’s seal, trilliums, bloodroot, Joe pye-weed, swamp weed, milkweed, Cardinal flowers, and coreopsis – to name a few – each garden received 10 lobelias, which the bees seem to go crazy over. Catherine already had numerous milkweed plants in her garden, which self-seeded three summers ago and attract many butterflies and even hummingbirds. “Next year, I want to add more native plants.”

Native plants are drought-resistant and require no watering once they are established, yet can also handle being soaked for a few hours after a rainfall. Despite the gardens’ name, a rain garden does not stay wet nor create a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Typically it drains within two to four hours after heavy rain.

As for the cost, existing plants were kept in place and included in the design. Based on Marc’s project, the whole thing ran at $1,000 per square metre installed, which included design, excavation, soil and plant materials, and labour.

Homeowner Steve was considering a far more costly approach to his front yard until the rain garden project came along. “Our lawn sloped towards the house. Water used to pool on the sidewalk and run towards the house. The puddles were great for the kids to play in, but we had water in the basement,” he said.

By teaming up with his neighbour, both homes’ downspouts were disconnected and extended towards the front lawn, where a small rain garden with an improved slope and a soakaway pit now provide the water with somewhere useful to go.

Marc would like to see other neighbourhoods lead similar projects or build their own rain gardens using the TRCA’s installation booklet “Greening Your Grounds” ($12) or by hiring a landscape designer. He also thinks the City of Toronto should take this on as a municipal project to improve stormwater management and offer a financial incentive or rebate program.

Even expert gardener and broadcaster Mark Cullen sings the praises of retaining stormwater. His permeable gravel driveway also fits the new design idea of Low Impact Development (LID), which can even help reduce home insurance rates with some providers.

For now, the new rain gardens in East York, with their signs proudly announcing participation in the project, are a good conversation starter for passersby. Now, Barb says, “One of my neighbours wants to participate in the next rain garden project”, and Tara’s mother, who lives in Barrie, wants her own to solve her flooding problems.

As several proud rain garden owners happily exclaim in unison: “And it’s no-maintenance!”


Martina Rowley is an environmental communicator  ~  ~  647-208-1810

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The rain garden experience was so amazing! I love that my neighbors are willing to get out there and do something new to improve the green space we call our ‘hood. Love to see more of this spread across the east end!

Exactly, Kate: Much power lies with each citizen and resident to contribute to, or even initiate and drive the beautification and environmental improvements of one’s street, neighbourhood, and town or city. I like your enthusiasm! Keep spreading it. 🙂

What a Sweet piece!
So many Sweet circles intersecting together in this project. Loved learning that a fellow Toronto Beekeepers Co-op member is the aunt of one of the garden stewards. Pollinators are extremely well supported by this fab group who are themselves pollinators of Joy.

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