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Los Angeles finally got some rain recently, and again I was saddened to see multiple thousands of gallons of fresh rainwater rushing down the streets, into the storm drains and out to sea. Our infrastructure is simply not adequate to handle the runoff from the occasional downpours we experience each winter and spring. With all our paved streets and parking lots, the rainwater no longer seeps down into the soil, replenishing groundwater and aquifers but is channelled away from where it’s needed most. We even paved the LA River.

But lately we’ve been seeing interest in restoring the natural systems. Nature and ad hoc committees are slowly reclaiming the LA River, and we see evidence of progress in related projects around the area; for example, a collection area near the Hansen Dam parking lot that collects rainwater runoff and allows it to percolate into the soil, and bioswales leading to filtration basins cleverly hidden under the playing fields at Sun Valley Park. This project saves nearby streets from flooding and allows the rainwater runoff to recharge the local aquifer.

The bioswales at Sun Valley Park function like high-tech rain gardens, and are planted with native and California-friendly plants, like rushes (Junca), salvias, aloes, and even one lone fennel plant.

My favorite part is the area that incorporates the vintage light fixture into the garden area, as it creates a focal point and a feeling of permanence, history and age.

Seeing this project gave me encouragement for my own small-scale groundwater reclamation project: installing a rain garden at the house. I first applied for the LA Rain Gardens Program last year, and waded through the application, approval and installation processes for several months. But finally, it was installation day, and the crew arrived early in the morning with shovels and wheelbarrows and a truck full of mulch and plants.

We went to the back yard and the crew of four young men began to remove the sod in the garden area. They then dug down about nine inches, carefully removing bits of sod and mounding the dirt around the excavated area to form a berm about two feet wide.

Knowing how tenacious the previously existing St. Augustine and (especially!) the Bermuda grasses are, I asked about putting down landscape fabric or a weed block first. They told me that The Tree People, one of the sponsors of the program, did not recommend doing that. I asked if that is because it would prevent the new plants from spreading, but the installation crew couldn’t verify the reason. I also wondered aloud if they would add edging of some sort, but alas, no. (Keeping the mulch and the grass in their respective areas is going to be a big challenge without edging. So I hope to add a substantial steel edging later.) The crew carefully packed the berm and swale before bringing in the plants.

Of course, I had memorized my choice of plant palette. Of the four choices presented to me, I chose the Pink, Yellow, Purple and White option. The diagram featured about 30 plants, including salvias, coyote mint, yarrow, rushes and grasses in a 100 square foot area. Although I’m not a big fan of pink, the only pink plant listed was Muhlenbergia capillaris (Pink Muhly), which has a mere whisper of pink for part of the year, and all the other plants featured richer colors that fit well with my vision of the backyard rain garden.

Early in the process, I asked if I could request certain plants, and was assured that it was a possibility. Specifically, I was hoping for Romneya coulterii (Matilija poppy), white sage and fennel, as those are some of my favorites that I see and smell and sometimes even taste when hiking the nearby hills.

But as I watched them install the plants, it became apparent that the rain garden that was appearing in my back yard would be just the beginning, and I would be adding some  of my own favorites at a later date.

Apparently the LA Rain Gardens Program has been quite popular, and the crew had to substitute some of the plants because a few of those on the plan I had memorized were not available. Since I plan to expand the garden, I wanted to know the name of each of the 12 plants. They did know some of the plants, and promised to email me the names of the others. I figured I could just take pictures of the others and visit the conveniently close Theodore Payne Foundation to match them when the time came.

As some of the crew extended the downspout to route rainwater runoff to the garden, the others brought in the mulch and spread it in a 2-3″ layer around the new plantings. The rainwater entry point and exit point were reinforced with small river rocks, and the rain garden project was complete!

They gave me some paperwork explaining maintenance, and a survey to mail in later, and the crew was off to another project. I let the dogs out, and they gave it their hearty endorsement.

I immediately painted the downspout to blend in better, then began moving some vintage decorative elements into the swale area—inspired by the placement of the vintage light fixture at Sun Valley Park.

This was an invaluable learning experience for me, and it was a good start to the daunting project of reclaiming the backyard from post-construction chaos into a relaxing retreat for family and friends. I already have plans to expand the garden along the front of the barn (and get rid of the excess building supplies under the barn), and look forward to the next phase.

Until next time~