May Meeting Recap – Water Doesn’t Lie: A Native Plant Solution to Drainage Problems

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It was another well-attended meeting for our May 2017 chapter program. Amy Dickinson and Jim Futransky presented their informative and interesting story on how they managed stormwater runoff and flooding problems using rain gardens and bioswales.  


Here is a couple who love their 1953 home on a 1+ acre near the Des Plaines River but hated their wet basement and flooded garage. Over 30 years, they fixed, re-fixed, overlooked, or tolerated these problems and strove to understand them until finally, in 2009 they were determined to find the solution. 

 Their home is located on land lower than their neighbors, on a private road without drainage ditches, in a township with no agency to guide them and in a state whose law says, ?Water? Send it all down stream!? Well, they were very much ?downstream?! They felt they were on their own until they found Marcus delafleur, a landscape architect who recommended bioswales and rain gardens to solve the problem. 

 A bio-swale is generally long and narrow, like a ditch, and designed to help collect water but allow it to flow out slowly, limiting erosion. A rain garden is more pond-like, intended to capture water and allow it to flow out or be absorbed over a period of days.  Both are planted with sedges, grasses and native flowers. The root systems of these grow deep and can break up the clay layer under much of our soil, allowing for better absorption and retention of  water.

For budget purposes the work was divided into 3 phases:  


Phase 1, 2010– Three bioswales were constructed along their eastern property boundary and the private road, directing water north to the highway ditch.  A rain garden divided from the swales by a berm was also dug out on the eastern side of the property to catch water coming off the garage and house roof.  These were planted with a cover crop of rye and oats so Marcus could fine-tune any flow issues.

 In 2011, they took a year off from major projects. The time was used to check on the water flow and fix any elevation issues.

 In June of 2012, the rain garden and swales were prepped with herbicide, topsoil was added and 9000 plugs of grasses and sedges were planted. ( Bioswale & Rain Garden Plant & Seed List ) All this was topped off with pea gravel as mulch. To protect the young plants in case of too much rainfall, a temporary sump was installed where a portable pump could be set to pump out water.

Ironically, that summer we suffered from drought conditions and they needed to water the rain garden to save their impressive investment.  It took 5 hours a day!


Phase 2, 2013– A second rain garden was built on the west side to take rooftop water. Spring produced maximum rain, caused flooding and some leaks
(or breaches) to show up in the system.  A ?turf channel? was added along their highest boundary (south side) to send water to the west side of their lot and to the 2nd rain garden and finally to another wetland just before Rockland Road ditch.Three I-beams now act as super gutter carrying run-off  from house to turf channel and 2nd rain garden. Since one of the house sump pumps exits into the west rain garden and provides a wetland environment, a decision is made to increase the size and depth of the rain garden and add wetland plants. 

In 2014, they paused any new planting and watched for any design issues. At the end of the season they excavated the west rain garden.


Phase 3, 2015– Goal: To prevent the garage and a separate circle drive from flooding. Solution: Dig and create a concrete channel in front of garage & connect it (by a new turf channel) to wetlands.

 Is the work  done?  Of course not. There is the regular mowing of  lawn, swales & turf channels.?plus weeding, mulching and adding of new plants.


 In 2017, they plan to build up/repair the Phase 1 berm.

An annual spring burn of native plant areas (by professionals) to control growth.

When will the project be complete? They have adopted a? Wait and see? attitude. Each season differs. Each year brings surprises.

Have they met their goal to improve their space without negatively impacting others? Definitely.

Are the owners happy with their decisions? Yes! It was expensive? but they are dry and surrounded by a native paradise of flowers & frog song and that is very, very good! 


Our thanks to Jim and Amy for taking us on a walk in their world without getting our feet wet.