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Viewpoint: Raingardens spread like wildflowers

This raingarden is located in the Mahtomedi area. (Submitted photo)

Between 1965 and 2004, the Washington Conservation District (WCD) installed 197 water quality improvement projects, or roughly five per year. These projects helped to repair crumbling ravines, prevent stream banks from slumping and reduce erosion and runoff from farm fields and residential areas. In the next four years, the conservation district and local watershed agencies worked in partnership to install 80 water quality projects in Washington County, bumping the average up to 20 per year. Along with traditional rural and agricultural projects, raingardens and shoreline plantings began sprouting up at churches, businesses and residential neighborhoods. Now in 2009, partners have nearly 130 new projects completed or underway for this year alone, many of which are raingardens and shoreline plantings. You could say that the gardens are spreading like wildflowers.

In other parts of the metro area, a similar change is underway. A couple in Minneapolis gave the gift of 11 new raingardens to neighbors on their block this year, in honor of their 50th anniversary. Dakota Soil and Water Conservation District installed 35 raingardens at homes and businesses in 2009, and nonprofit Metro Blooms is working with Minneapolis and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to install 150 raingardens in Central and Powderhorn Park neighborhoods in the coming year. These and hundreds of other native gardens, raingardens and shoreline plantings add to the impressive collection of erosion control projects that Minnesota soil and water conservation districts continue to install on farm fields and rural lands around the state.

Armed with deep roots and fiery blossoms, gardens are eager warriors in the battle to protect lakes, rivers and streams from runoff pollution. We know from the Burnsville Raingarden Study that a mere 17 raingardens strategically planted in a neighborhood can reduce stormwater runoff by 80 to 90 percent. We also know that an intact buffer of native vegetation along a lake or stream is the best protection against erosion and water pollution.

The explosion of new native plantings, raingardens and shoreline projects throughout the area is due in part to the tireless efforts of local watersheds, cities and conservation districts but also due to programs like Blue Thumb. Planting for Clean Water ( marrys two things we all love, clean water and beautiful landscaping. Showy blossoms attract butterflies and bees, while deep roots prevent erosion and help water soak into the ground. Taller flowers and grasses planted along a shoreline create a privacy screen, while also discouraging geese from congregating. These gardens come in all shapes and sizes. Some have a structural appearance; others are wild and woolly. Some feature trees and shrubs, providing habitat for birds and wildlife, while others use low-growing cultivars of native flowers to create a seasonal palette of colors.

It seems you can hardly drive two blocks nowadays without passing a water quality improvement project masquerading as a simple garden. Raingardens large and small have sprung up in front yards and back yards, at parks, churches, strip malls and apartment buildings. Visit almost any lake in the area, and you'll find at least part of the shoreline restored with native plants. Usually, these projects blend so seamlessly with existing landscaping, that the untrained eye would never realize how effectively they work to reduce erosion and runoff pollution.

With hope for the future of our lakes and rivers, I welcome the spread of these water-friendly gardens. May they multiply like rabbits and appear in the most unlikely locations.

Angie Hong is an educator for the East Metro Water Resource Education Program. Contact her at (651) 275-1136 extension 35 or