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The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power claims that “Los Angeles County has 300 million gallons of drinking water running off of dry and impermeable surfaces daily.” With that in mind, they are encouraging homeowners to install rain gardens—even paying for installation for over 300 rain gardens in the northeast San Fernando Valley.


The purpose of a rain garden in the Los Angeles basin is to collect precious rainwater in a shallow planted depression surrounded by a berm, allowing it to percolate down to the groundwater instead of being washed down the street.

Illustration courtesy of LA Rain Gardens

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has established wells in this area and is funding this program to encourage water infiltration into the soil, thereby filling the wells and reducing our dependence on imported water.

Since rain gardens in this area are planted with native or otherwise California-appropriate flowering plants and grasses, they play an important role in restoring animal and insect habitats as well. Oh, and they can look pretty, too.

So I applied, met the requirements, went through the site assessment with the team from Generation Water (who is a co-sponsor along with The Tree People), signed the legal agreement, and had an appointment for Installation Day.

To prepare for this, we had installed two sets of gutters and rerouted another, and removed a horseshoe pit (a Father’s Day gift from a few years ago) that was directly where the site assessment team determined the rain garden would be located. I was ready.

Early on the appointed day, there was a knock at the door. Six young men in matching blue T-shirts were at the door with tools, ready to go to work. They were quite early—I hadn’t expected them until later in the afternoon. When they said the installation they had planned for that morning didn’t work out, I had a little shudder . . . what if ours didn’t work out and we were left without a rain garden, too?

No, no . . . we had done all our homework and the site was approved and ready. What could possibly go wrong? I put those thoughts to the back of my mind and went forward.

The crew entered the back yard with shovels and wheelbarrows. We discussed the site and I explained the ideas I had. They were more used to following a standard plan, but were open to suggestion as long as it didn’t stray too far from the norm. (So I quietly scaled back my ideas . . .)

We marked out the garden space in the shape of a rounded triangle to fit the space. They didn’t want to deal with a small tree trunk stump that was on the edge of the garden space, so they decided to go around it. Although I was hoping they’d just dig it out and proceed as planned, that was not an option for them. So I said I would remove the stump later and reshape the berm if necessary. They were happy with that—the crew started digging and I went into the house to get them all something to drink.

Soon there was a knock on the back door. Three young men with worried looks on their faces told me there was a problem. A big problem.

I went out to see the problem. Three more young men with worried looks on their faces showed me a hole. A big hole.

At first I didn’t understand—what’s the problem with a hole? Aren’t you digging holes anyway?

But they were afraid that they had found a massive gopher complex that would collapse under them. Although I hadn’t seen a gopher in the back yard since we moved in over a decade ago, well, it could be possible. Our neighbors across the street had gopher problems, but they didn’t have anything like our on-the-job team of dogs and cats to keep the gopher population away. My cheery suggestions that the lads should just fill in the hole and continue with the project were met with icy stares, and it was abundantly clear that not one more shovelful of dirt would be moved that day.

“We’ll have to call the supervisor.”

I knew what that meant.

My earlier premonition came true, and the crew packed up their shovels and wheelbarrows, thanked me for the refreshments, and left. Quickly.

I watched sadly as the truck full of plants and mulch and my rain garden drove off, then I returned to the hole with my own shovel and, with the help of our canine dig team, started digging more.

About 30 inches underground, there was a horizontal sheet of very old metal that crumbled when I tapped it. I dug more, and found there was a distinct hard edge to this hole, like a tank. There went the gopher theory. About this time my son came home, so I handed the tools to him and he was on the job, too.

Before long, he had excavated the site.

We found that it was an old dry well from before our pool was installed in 1955, with a drain pipe entering the top. The metal was rusting and brittle, so we pulled the top off and left the vertical section buried deep in the ground. Problem solved.

I emailed the supervisor, David, explaining the situation. He said he would talk to the crew and get back with me. I left the hole open so someone could examine it if necessary, but it’s a bit of a hazard with dogs and people and horses in the yard. It’s been three weeks and I still haven’t heard back from him. I’m optimistic that he’s just been busy, but I will try to contact him again today to make another appointment for installation.

In the meantime, I have had the offending stump removed. I had to fill in the holes a bit to keep small children from getting buried alive, but it’s still a mess. And I’m beginning to wonder if I should explore the LA Rain Gardens Program’s “do-it-yourself” option because homeowners can be reimbursed for materials for two gardens (up to $500 per garden or a total of $1000 per household, which would not go as far as you might think). The City of Los Angeles has a Rainwater Harvesting Guide that is comprehensive and very helpful for homeowners, and with the Theodore Payne Foundation nearby as a fabulous resource, I could do this.

“We’re always happy to help!”

The weather is warming up, and planting season is nearly over, so either way, I’d better get busy and finish this project!

Until next time~