Rain gardens are working hard in winter, too

When we think of gardens, we think of spring and summer, and sometimes even fall. But we never think of winter!  Sure, some of the wiser gardeners out there plant certain species that will look nice in winter (providing “winter interest” such as berries or bright colored bark), but very few people realize that gardens are often functioning in ways we don’t even think about during the cold winter months.

Rain gardens are a unique type of garden that is designed to capture storm water from downspouts or the street and help that water infiltrate into the ground.  Through the infiltration process, the water is cleaned of dirt, fertilizer, chemicals, and other polluting agents.  The water recharges the ground water supply and eventually makes its way to lakes and streams.  When it gets there, the water is much cleaner than water that has taken the short cut through a storm drain and a pipe straight to a water body.

Rain gardens are fabulous in summer, serving the traditional garden duties of aesthetics, wildlife habitat, nectar source for butterflies, and perhaps a hobby for some.  When we tuck our gardens into bed in the fall, we assume that those plants are done for the winter and the ground will freeze just as it does elsewhere. This is where the magic of the winter rain garden (and other gardens) comes into play. The biological processes of decomposition that are happening in the soil create localized heat that helps keep the soil unfrozen for longer in the fall, allowing water to continue infiltrating.  Water from early season snowfalls or late season rains will soak into the ground rather than sit on the surface in a big puddle.

Those wise gardeners who planned for winter interest by planting species that look good in the winter can also enjoy winter rain gardens. Rain gardens are commonly planted with native species because of their deep, dense root systems that increase water infiltration.  Native plants can also provide some of the best winter interest. Many people choose Red-osier Dogwood (a native shrub) for its bright red winter bark. Species that produced seed in the fall act as food sources for birds and small animals during the cold days of winter when other food is scarce. All of these reasons together prove that while the rain garden may be most vibrant in the spring, summer, and fall, it is still doing its job during the winter months. Water quality is a year-round issue. Rain gardens help continue the fight during one of the dirtiest seasons, when the streets and sidewalks are covered with salt and snow.

If you are ready to start thinking spring and are interested in a rain garden, now is a great time to get started on planning.  Visit the Chisago SWCD’s website for more information about rain gardens at www.chisagoswcd.org. If you have specific questions, call or email Mary Jo Youngbauer at 651-674-2333 or mary.youngbauer@mn.nacdnet.net.

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