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Drawing a Line in the Soil: Why Stormwater Professionals Fight Over Rain Garden Design

Question on Rain Garden SoilsWant to have some fun?

Lock an engineer, landscaper, hydrologist, and conservationist in a room and tell them they can’t leave until they agree on a rain garden design.

Then sit back and enjoy the fireworks as these professionals devolve into a lot of finger-pointing and name-calling.

Why the fighting?

That’s easy, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let’s look at some of the design options I’ve personally seen defended in some of these colorful debates that often take place in monochromatic boardrooms.

Different Rain Garden Designs

So why the variation?

Simple.

We Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

We are trying to view rain gardens as a form of landscaping rather than an element of landscaping.

What do I mean?

Let’s say that we ask the same people to agree on a vegetable garden design instead of a rain garden design.

No problem, right?

Any one of them could sketch out a design that would likely be agreed upon with little or no debate.

What’s the difference here?

The difference is that we understand that a vegetable garden is an element of landscaping and that these gardens can take on many different forms through which we grow our vegetables.

In much the same way, rain gardens are an element of landscaping and these gardens can take on many different forms through which we capture our rain water.

There is no one design, or spec, for a rain garden, just as there is no one design, or spec, for a vegetable garden.

To illustrate this point, here’s my attempt at some word associations.

Vegetable garden is to raised bed as rain garden is to basin.

Vegetable garden is to food as rain garden is to drinking water.


Developing a Rain Garden Vocabulary

Returning hydrology to the landscape is in its infancy.

And like infants trying to express themselves, stormwater professionals lack the language needed to communicate their thoughts and ideas.

I believe this language will come in time as we experiment with all the new possibilities that come with using rain in the design of our gardens.

Rain Gardens Big and Small

Thanks Eric!

We will develop universal terms to express the difference between the various rain garden elements such as the large, highly complex, high liability, bioretention cells with engineered soils and the small-scale basin on existing soils that solves the common drainage problems landscapers see the most.

Right now though, just agreeing and understanding that rain gardens are an element of gardening and that there is no one single rain garden design will allow us to begin to develop the language we need to describe the different forms rain gardens take to return hydrology to the landscape.

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