Rain, rain, go away. Come back again another day. And judging by the weather pattern lately, it will. Probably the next day and the day after that.
The National Weather Service recorded 8.46 inches of precipitation for the month of May, and while that amount was not a record, it is on the high side of average.
Owning a home with a stone foundation and basement can present some challenges when it comes to keeping out copious amounts of rainfall. There have been occasions where there was so much precip and the ground so waterlogged that I could see and hear water streaming through a couple of cracks in the basement walls. This has happened on just a few occasions since we moved in, in 2008, and luckily there was but a minimal amount of pooling of water around the floor drain in those instances. We are now very deliberate with how we store things in the cellar and adopted strategies to keep things dry.
One of those strategies was to construct a significant rain garden. At the widest, it is 14 feet across and 21 feet in length.
The sides slope down to the maximum depth of two feet. Our rain garden was placed no closer than ten feet from the foundation of the home.
Rain gardens need not be so deep. A depression in the yard or an area that collects water after rain will suffice, provided the water percolates into the soil within 24 hours after the rain event.
Ten different native plants identified as being rain garden friendly were planted throughout the area. They are tolerant of moist conditions. All of the plants are doing well despite the depression being completely filled with rainwater on a few occasions. Our rain garden performs quite well, with water seeping into the soil typically within a couple of hours. Precipitation that makes its way into the basement has decreased significantly.
In 2006 the greater Kansas City area embraced citizen efforts to create rain gardens, and promotional efforts were enlisted with the goal of 10,000 rain gardens to be established. One of the goals of the program was to divert rainwater from sanitary sewers and keep it from overloading the system. When overloading occurs, massive amounts of water and sewage cannot be treated, and it flows directly into riverways. Many municipalities, including Kansas City, Missouri, are in the process of installing the infrastructure separating stormwater runoff and sanitary sewers.
Two noteworthy plants in our rain garden include Rose mallow and Buttonbush (pictured below, respectively). The Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is a perennial that grows from 3 to 5 feet tall, and as with other hibiscus plants, the flowers are relatively large. In the case of the Rose mallow, the petals spread 4 to 5 inches across. The blooms come on in rapid succession, but each one lasts but a day before withering up and dropping off the plant. In the fall, the stalks are cut back to within a couple of inches of the ground.
The Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), on the other hand, does not get pruned to the ground. It remains as a large open shrub that does require some of the dead wood to be cut out. I do the trimming in the spring when it is clear what branches are alive with growth and those that aren’t.
A plant that I hope to add to our rain garden in the future is Jewelweed, or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis). Many home gardeners recognize the plant as one they may put in their beds on an annual basis and simply refer to them (as the scientific name suggests) as Impatiens. A couple of characteristics of the plant helped to provide the plant its name. For one, small water droplets of the morning dew or misty rain bead up on the leaves of the vegetation allowing light to glisten and sparkle. The other is from the seed pods. When the seeds mature, they enlarge and turn a light brown in color. If an animal or human handles or brushes up against the encapsulated vessel, it erupts, dispersing the contents inside.
I spent many a day having fun as a child watching impatiens burst into action. However, I don’t recall if it was in my youth or as a seasonal naturalist that I learned the ripened seeds taste like walnuts.
Although the plant is annual, it readily self-seeds. Its preference for a moist environment probably adds to the success of future generations.
The wet weather also adds terrestrial interest with the emergence of fascinating fungi. Technically they do not flower, but their reproductive process is just as amazing as the floral kind.
One type of mushroom sure to get one’s attention is the puffball (Calvatia gigantea). An internet search will reveal that they sometimes grow to enormous proportions. Harvested in its early form and properly prepared, it can provide a sumptuous delight. As with all mushrooms, correctly identifying and preparing the fungi is needed to avoid poisoning upon ingestion.
Personally, I have not eaten a puffball, but I have been entertained with the globular oddities spore spreading stage. The white outer skin will turn brown and a bit leathery, and a small round opening will form on the top. Poking a finger into the mass will cause the spores to release much like a “puff” of brown smoke.
I discovered this phenomenon quite by accident as a teenager in Ohio. Our house sat on an acre of property, and one morning, walking in the backyard, my foot clipped a small puffball. Fortunately, I saw the smoke action and investigated. I discovered the puffing action is only good for one or two exhalations. I quickly sought more of the mushrooms throughout the yard and was happily rewarded.
Still to this day, when I see a ripe puffball ready for action, I can’t resist helping it complete its fruiting process.
Numerous fungi will reappear year after year in the same location. For some species it is due to the microbial action occurring with the roots of a specific plant, such as oak trees. That process may occur for many years even after the host plant above ground is no longer present.
There is a name ascribed to a set of mushrooms that form a pattern. One of those is known as a “Fairy Ring.” Typically they occur in September after a significant rainfall. Along with the occasional puffball, our homestead produced an annual “awakening” as I recall. Which made sense as the lot had been carved out of a wooded area and all the trees removed.
Female Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Asciepias syriaca (Common milkweed) is one of the 22 species of native milkweed in the region that plays host to the Monarch. All the local milkweeds are perennials and the common milkweed easily spreads.
Kansas City Kansas native Sara Dykman bicycled the entire midwest migration route of the monarch and wrote about her venture. She cycled over 10,000 miles starting at their overwintering ground in Mexico to southern Canada then back through the midwest and returning to their winter retreat south of the border. The book is titled “Bicycling with Butterflies.” Not only is Sara a great cyclist but a compelling writer as well. I strongly recommend her inspiring manuscript.
The prolific seed pods of the common milkweed remind me of an old horror movie. Regardless, when the pods open up, the wispy filaments catch the wind and carry the seeds significant distances. I like the fact that it is easy to collect the seeds and separate them from their silky parachutes.
A new addition to our landscape is the Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica). It is a semi-evergreen shrub that may grow to eight feet tall. The plant will reproduce from root suckers and may form dense colonies. The leaves turn red to purple and last well into winter. It tolerates a good range of soil types and pH levels. It flowers best with at least four hours of sun a day. Flowering occurs on new growth so pruning should be done after flowering is complete.
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted
About the author – Steve Oakes is a retired Main library associate and a former National Park Ranger at Denali, Carlsbad and Cuyahoga Valley National Parks. Oakes and his wife enjoy hiking, backpacking, bicycle touring, canoeing and other outdoor adventures including gardening and native plant landscaping.
For more information on planting native wildflowers in your landscape and the benefits thereof, visit the FL Schlagle branch of your own Kansas City Kansas, Public Library at Wyandottte County Lake Park, 4501 West Dr., Kansas City, KS 66109. There, you too, can see what’s in bloom. And checkout the butterfly garden as well.
Information constructing a rain garden can be found at the following website:
The following website provides tips on the growing trend of native landscaping www.grownative.org.
© Steve Oakes