Save water and money: plant a rain garden

I have buried a TON of money in my yard.

Shovel in the ground

Sorry, treasure hunters, you won’t find it with a shovel. There’s almost no evidence left. Because I’m talking about the money I spent and lost on plants and grass seed that withered and died in this Kansas drought, compounded by our lack of proper gardening knowledge. Rest in peace, blueberry bush. Feed the worms well, dead tulip bulbs. And fescue, you were just too freakin’ thirsty.

But this year’s gonna be different.

Back in February, my husband took a K-State Research and Extension course on best practices for Kansas lawns and gardens, and it was a major eye-opener. He texted me excitedly during the breaks about how we’ve been composting wrong, trying to grow plants in worthless soil, and watering all wrong. One of the big drivers in our quest to green up these thumbs has been the drought. Years of hot, dry summers have baked our clay-heavy soil like a kiln, parching our reservoirs above ground and our aquifers below. It’s annoying for me but it’s deadly for farmers.

So. We’re going to do our part to use less water. The irony: we’re going to do it by planting more – native, drought-tolerant plants – and by hoarding water.

Rain barrels and rain gardens are getting more attention in Kansas. They’re a great way to hang on to what we do get from the sky when it seems to come less often. When I see the gutters on my street flowing with rain water, I see water that’s being thrown away and wasted. And it kills me. What can I say? I’m a saver. Just check under our beds.

Flooded street

A big Kansas downpour means sending lots of water down the street.


When you build a rain garden, you landscape a small depression with grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees that put down deep roots and pull water into the ground, rather than channeling it out to the street. That also keeps pollutants (fertilizer, dog poop) from traveling down the storm drain and into our streams and lakes. Which is where our drinking water comes from. Ew.

A rain garden doesn’t create standing water in your yard – it alleviates it. Which is good news for parents of kids who think a backyard pond is the best, dirtiest playground EVER. The plants and gravel in the garden also filter out the gross stuff, so you’re sending clean water back into the earth. Win!

Think about the sound of rain hitting your roof. All the water that lands on buildings and driveways usually gets directed to the gutter – not your lawn. According to the Rain Garden Network, the right cluster of native plants can absorb runoff more efficiently, as much as 30 to 40 percent more than your average lawn.

Here in Wichita, we’re almost guaranteed to be on water restrictions this summer. I mean, have you seen Cheney Reservoir? At this rate they say it will be dry by 2015. That’s two years away, people. It’s bad enough for boaters that the dock yards away from the water right now. What will we do when the city’s drinking water supply is cut in half?

We’re likely to feel the drought in our wallets, too, as the city considers charging tons more for high water users. Watch out, swimming-pool owners and lush-lawn lovers. I happen to agree with that approach myself, because I am the scolding type.

But, I know, no one likes a nag. So I’ll lead by example, maybe, as we carve out a little dip in our expansive back yard, put down a layer of gravel, then soil and some compost, then fill it with amber waves of native grasses, butterfly-attracting milkweed and cheery red Mexican Hat. We’re also getting rid to kill the stupid fescue that’s already half-gone to weeds and replace it with buffalo grass, which requires very little water OR mowing. With a quarter-acre lot and walking mower, my husband is stoked about that.

If all goes – and grows – as planned, we’ll still be putting money in the ground. But this time, it’s liquid assets.

Happy planting,

Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Kansas Women Bloggers

Fountain Grass

Fountain grass. Source: K-State Research and Extension