Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Slow the Flow lecture Thursday Oct. 18th 9:30 AM

Come and see the entire Slow the Flow relandscaping journey, with more before and after photos and tips than I could ever fit in this blog! You can even come over to my garden after and walk around (although it's quickly being buried under the leaves of 27 beech trees, 3 oaks and a few maples).

Thursday October 18th at 9:30 AM at the Ipswich River Watershed Association's Riverbed headquarters, 143 County Road (1A) in Ipswich. RSVP and more info below.

Friday, October 12, 2012

92,160 square inches of roof + 46.83 inches of rain = I'm gonna need a bigger rain garden!

Male fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, in the mini rain garden
This past week I was invited to present my Slow the Flow native garden project and storm run-off solutions to a Boston University class on urban water issues. And, as college students usually do, they asked me a lot of really good questions. The one that stumped me and made me head straight home to find a calculator was, "How many gallons of rainwater runs off your roof and into your mini rain garden?" 

Wow. I had no idea, all I know is in a heavy rain it fills up the rain garden.

There actually is a very simple calculation to figure this out. It's so easy it didn't even make me cringe in my usual manner when I have to tackle a math word problem. You can even try this a home!

My rear roof is about 32' x 20'. The gutter slopes towards the rain garden side of the house, so I can assume almost all the water goes down that one down spout. After the massive downpour on August 10th that caused my mini rain garden to flood in this picture (right) my rain gauge had 2" of rain in it. Now comes the math to figure out how many gallons actually did fill that rain garden:
  • Take the dimensions of the roof and convert them to inches. So my 32' x 20' roof is 384" x 240" or 92,160 square inches
  • Multiply the roof dimensions by the amount of rain fall in inches. For the August 10th storm that's 92,160 x 2" = 184,320.
  • Divide by 231 (1 gallon = 231 cubic inches) = 798 gallons fell on my back roof and flowed into the mini rain garden on August 10th (give or take a bit, my rain gauge probably isn't that accurate).
According to NOAA's climate data website Massachusetts received 46.83 inches of rain in the 12 months since we purchased our house. As anyone living in Ipswich knows we often vary greatly from the rest of the state but I will use this number as an estimate. If I redo the math for the last 12 months a whopping 18,683 gallons of water flowed down that one corner downspout and, until I built the rain garden in August, straight into the Ipswich river and out to sea not recharging the watershed at all. It was basically wasted water.

I'll have to add up the whole roof and find out how much rain water could be captured in rain gardens, or even better, a cistern for later use in the garden. With this math in hand you can imagine how productive a single rain barrel can be when placed properly. My two rain barrels only ran dry once this summer. It really doesn't take much rain to fill them.

As cute as the mini rain garden is it clearly needs to be much larger to capture the heavy rain we often get. Since I built the mini rain garden in August we've had two storms heavy enough to fill it, and it's only been two months.

Our long-term plan is to reposition the back gutter to slant towards the still unlandscaped other side of the backyard (left). You can see that the downspout extension hose drains to a very large sloped area. This is just begging to be terraced into a series of rain gardens.

But that is a project for next summer. I think it's time I put away my gardening gloves for the season and enjoy the view of the river.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's the point? Providing a rich place for my kids to explore, learn and appreciate the land.

My kids enjoying an evening paddle
When I was awarded the Slow the Flow grant I was asked 'what was the biggest reason for doing the project?' Besides the obvious reasons of improving river water quality and providing native habitat for wildlife the real answer is simple: I'm doing it for my children.

This week is national Take a Child Outside week. Luckily our family doesn't think about taking our kids outside. We just do it. A lot. Our two-year-old and four-year-old girls are outside at least two hours a day if not four or five. It saddens me when I meet kids who've never seen a snake, toad or butterfly in the wild or have never planted a seed or dug up a worm.

Adding over sixty varieties of native plants and shrubs, a vegetable garden and a fairy garden only enriches the time my little girls spend outside. They will grow up seeing beautiful butterflies visit their flowers, learning the species of birds that visit their yard and exploring the river that flows past their little sliver of the world. 
My older child already has a sense of stewardship over our property and gardens. She took this photo (left) of the signs that greet visitors along our front walk proclaiming that we're certified with the National Wildlife Federation as well as with Monarch Watch.  Clearly she's proud of what she's helped me plant all summer. Come and visit and she'll happily show off her fairy garden.

Lizzie releasing one of her raised monarchs

Over in our organic veggie garden my kids have eaten their way through an entire tower of green beans and a bed of carrots.  Barely one bean or carrot has made it into the house, most have been outdoor snacks. They're so used to eating in the garden that in the winter it's hard to get them to eat store-bought veggies.

From the Monarch Waystation we've raised eight caterpillars from eggs all the way to butterflies and let them go.  Now we're having fun sending the milkweed fluff off in the wind laden with swamp milkweed seeds. If there's a profusion of swamp milkweed in the neighborhood everyone will know why. And that would be great. More monarchs!

Our pictorial yard list
Unfortunately, since we've only been here a year, I can't compare our yard birds before and after the relandscaping. But we've seen over sixty species so far including hummingbirds that have been chasing goldfinches off the cardinal flower right in front of my kitchen window. The kids keep a pictorial yard list (left) and we just started one for butterflies so I can learn them too.

Our family is only passing through our one third of an acre along the Ipswich River. In a thousand years I doubt any evidence of us will be left. Yet I'll know that at least while we lived here we did our best to let nature live side by side with us, with only our observations (and occasional toad catching) getting in its way. And I guess, after all that work, that's the point.

Friday, September 7, 2012

I'm done! "Nothing to native paradise" accomplished!

Giant swallowtail butterfly feeding on our torch sunflowers
Yesterday afternoon Nancy Pau, the brain-child of the Slow the Flow Grant program from the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, came by my garden to check it out and call it done! And what did I do afterwards? I picked up eight 75% off wild geraniums at Home Depot which I will plant tomorrow.

So now that I am mostly done I thought I would share the best before and after photos of the project. The way the house is now (below) is definitely less "neat and tidy" than it was before but it provides habitat for so many more birds and insects than it did one year ago when nothing would have been flowering in late summer.
"After", September 2012

"Before", Summer 2011 (


Side of the house "after", September 2012
side of the house "before", October 2011

The woodland island garden and border above has six species of ferns in it along with culver's root, solomon's seal, Canadian ginger, jack-in-the-pulpit, goats beard, foam flower, bugbane and other native shade plants. One year ago this was bare mulch over plastic sheeting with one giant yew shrub (right).
Last fall our backyard was also mostly mulch over sheets of plastic (left). Over the course of the spring and summer I removed all the plastic, my husband built a fence to keep the kids out of the river, the bare area by our neighbor's wood pile has been landscaped with mostly ferns and I let my kids plant their fairy garden. I also incorporated a rain garden in the lower corner of the fenced area (below) to catch all run off from the roof and side yard.

Backyard "after", September 2012

black-eyed susans, blanket flowers and cardinal flowers
I think the most important part of this landscaping project for the little ecosystem that is our 0.3 acres is the removal of nearly 4,000 square feet of plastic. For me, adding hundreds of native plants to that newly permeable soil just completed the property's transformation from a typical suburban landscape to a native paradise. I am glad to be (mostly) done so I can sit on my garden bench and enjoy it before the winter sets in (oh, and finish painting the house too!) And I am so much looking forward to that first fiddlehead emerging next spring. 

A big thank you to the team at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge for awarding me this grant. Without it I would not have accomplished so much this year and there would most likely be large areas of plastic still on our property. I haven't tackled the other half of the backyard, but that's a project for next summer.

 For an overview of the other PIEs Slow the Flow Grant Program awardees please watch this short video:

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Mostly-Native Fairy Garden

Cucumber leaf fairy stepping stone
When trying to design and build native gardens that make my entire family happy I quickly realized it meant creating a space just for my two children, both under the age of four. And so we built their Fairy Garden.

When I garden in an area I don't really want them digging in they can go to their Fairy Garden and dig all they want. I divided up some old hostas from near the greenhouse and let them decide where to plant them. I even splurged and let them have some newly purchased native lady ferns and bunch berries (which my two-year-old just trampled last night). We also poured our own concrete stepping stones with cucumber and hosta leaf impressions for their fairy path, which they move around daily wherever their fairies apparently need them.

When I decided to deed over a patch of earth to them I picked an area where I couldn't really fit anyway: the secret spot under the hemlock tree. I often found them hiding under there on warm winter days, so it was the perfect place. I edged the area, left a path all around it and let them go crazy.

Mini turtle bird bath under ginger

No Fairy Garden would be complete without a pile of sticks for fairy houses!


I have to say not only do they love the Fairy Garden, my older child knows the names of all the plants she's planted. She also feels a sense of stewardship over everything in it from the ginger to the mini concrete bird baths we made with their turtle and sea star beach molds. The Fairy Garden may not be the most attractive part of our Slow the Flow Grant native garden makeover, but I don't care. I love it just the same.

Just the other day my older child asked, as she was planting a baby hosta, "Mommy, is this hosta native?" When I said no she was disappointed and a little confused. When I explained that since it was already here when we moved, and it wasn't invasive, then it was OK. And she said "good, then all the hostas can live in my Fairy Garden."  

The Fairy Garden has definitely worked its magic. Its given my kids their own patch of earth to work and make beautiful, or destroy, depending on their mood. They're learning what plants are native, what animals use them and how to care for a garden. I'm looking forward to watching the garden grow as they grow. And I already know where to look when I can't find my garden tools. Apparently fairies need ALL my watering cans!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The mini rain garden doing its thing

first you dig a trench down the slope
 On the upriver side of our new fenced in child safety area we have a drainage problem. Most of the water from the rear roof drains to this side of the house, forming a lake on the rear patio and leaking back into the basement in a heavy downpour. One of the first things I did when we moved in last fall was to extend the downspout past the patio and away from the house. But then the run off just makes its way straight down the sloped backyard (right) and into the river. We can't have our basement flood, but I knew there must be a way to capture this water and let it soak in to the watershed, preventing it from just flowing straight out to sea. One of the main objectives of the Slow the Flow Grant funding my landscape makeover was to do just this.

the trench with gravel filled channel

 To fix this issue I dug a trench along the new fence and filled it with gravel (left). Then I planted the edges of the trench with lady ferns, male ferns, sensitive ferns, dwarf goats beard and a few non-native hostas divided from existing ones on the property from the old owners. 

ferns and other plants are planted

The gravel-filled trench continues right under the fence and ends in a small circle scooped out like a bowl and filled with compost, loam and more lady ferns. The trench and bowl is edged with plastic landscape edging to hold back run off, preventing it from flowing over the last 30 feet of backyard and straight down the riverbank.

If any of you experienced the heavy downpour that passed through Ipswich this past Friday night you'll know this was the perfect moment to put the mini rain garden to the test.

And it worked.

The water bypassed the brick patio (and our basement), flowed right down the gravel channel and filled up the bottom of the rain garden. From what I could tell little water spilled over and washed into the river. The garden remained flooded about five inches deep until dark but was empty the next morning, with very happy plants that loved their soak.

This was an easy project, and a great solution that keeps our basement from flooding and replenishes the watershed at the same time. It certainly slowed the flow this past Friday evening!

flooded rain garden "bowl"
flooded rain garden trench

Sunday, July 29, 2012

It's OUT! Finally, a plastic free yard....I think.

 Another two hours of backbreaking work this afternoon and the last of the plastic sheeting is out. I hope. With my luck I'll find more when I tackle the other half of the back yard next year. But at least it's all out in the areas where I planned this year's landscaping for the Slow the Flow Grant. And this last 30' by 30' tarp, below, was the worst. It had a thick layer of landscape cloth over it with up to one inch roots all through it, and another six inches of compacted soil on top of all that. Needless to say I've already taken some Tylenol anticipating the pain I'm going to wake up with tomorrow.

I started its removal in June, but my four-year-old has decided she no longer wants to help Mommy with landscaping projects, no matter how much I promise she can play in the mud. So our work-time during my two-year-old's nap has come to a stand still and my Slow the Flow landscape project hasn't progressed much since June (hence the lack of blog posts). I'm lucky if I get a few minutes of weeding here and there, or moving a plant around until I'm happy with its location. But today, thanks to my wonderful husband who distracted the kids for two hours, I finally finished this, and it was worth it. It's done and now I can plan the fun part of planting! Of course my four-year-old was perfectly happy to sit on the tarp while I took a picture of it. Figures.

 And she's also perfectly happy to eat her way through our veggie garden. Especially the beans she's in front of in this photo, which I thought I'd throw in as an 'after' shot for something pretty to look at. Where she's standing was a yew shrub a year ago, now it's pole beans, sunflowers, nasturtiums and my tomato and carrot patch. We've noticed the cabbage white butterflies are really enjoying the nasturtiums and the swallowtail butterflies and hummingbirds are loving those sunflowers.

 Here's a shot of that sunflower patch from the other side, the hummingbirds love those red cardinal flowers by the kitchen window so much I went out and bought more. Almost every time I look out the window there's a hummingbird feeding. And the best part about the cardinal flowers is, even though they can grow right in the water, they are amazingly drought tolerant. I never water them and they're always beautiful!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Total water ban? $2,000 of new plants? No problem!

Last week the Town of Ipswich enacted a total ban on outside watering due to a malfunction at one of their pumping stations. A neighbor of mine came over to ask how I was faring, he was concerned that I wouldn't be able to care for everything especially after the money I've put into the new plants. I simply replied, "Hasn't affected me one bit." And here's why:

I have two 50 gallon rain barrels attached to my two most productive downspouts. The first one is tucked in next to my vegetable and herb beds by the side door. It's the same color as the house, so it camouflages nicely, I think.

The second one is on the other end of the house by the shade garden. This one overflows into a pipe that runs under the path and into a t-shape perforated pipe under the three ostrich ferns in the middle of the island shade garden below. So when it really pours instead of overflowing onto our foundation it gives an extra soak to the plants that love that.

drought tolerant monarch waystation
All the full sun plants are drought tolerant so once they get a week of supplemental watering after planting they're all set for a week of no rain. The monarch waystation to the right hasn't been watered in weeks, it's pretty happy, we have at least six baby monarch caterpillars munching away and dozens of eggs waiting to hatch.

The shade plants that do need a bit of extra water do fine with a little bit from the rain barrels. And if those run low I stick a bucket under our shower and let that fill up while the water warms up and when I'm not rinsing soap and shampoo. I can usually get another 2 to 3 gallons that way. I know it sounds like a bit of work, but 2 or 3 gallons waters all my planters and my three compact sweet pepper bushes that droop when it's hot and dry.

I do all these practices even when we don't have a water ban. The minute it was lifted I heard the tell tale sounds of sprinklers shifting back and forth around the neighborhood. My garden looks just as green and lush as everyone's and I haven't touched a hose. It's not hard, just takes some planning and thinking and a little bit of help from Mother Nature to fill up the rain barrels every once in a while. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pollination Celebration!

Gaillardia aristata, Blanket Flower
Did you know it was National Pollinator Week? I didn't either! Not until I opened up a copy of National Wildlife magazine and read a little write-up about it. According to the Pollinator Partnership website, who coordinates this international celebration:

"Five years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of the final week in June as “National Pollinator Week” marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations.  Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles. The growing concern for pollinators is a sign of progress, but it is vital that we continue to maximize our collective effort."
Before (

I thought in celebration of pollination I would take a break from posts about plastic removal and compost and bring everyone some beautiful photos of what's getting pollinated in our yard. Remember, a year ago (left) none of these plants were here. To a hummingbird, bee, butterfly or moth our former yard was basically a suburban nectarless desert. Now, thanks to a little help from Slow the Flow, it's dessert! All photos are from my garden, enjoy! (click on them to enlarge)


Asclepias incernata, swamp milkweed in the monarch waystation about to explode in color
Ceanothus americanus, New Jersey Tea, getting ready to be in full flower. I have been desperately searching for this shrub and just found it this weekend at Garden in the Woods! Everybody should have this  in their garden: it tolerates poor, dry soil, fixes nitrogen and is a buffet for butterflies. I bought four!

Heuchera sanguinea, coral bells, blooming in the shade border
Penstemon digitalis, Beardtongue, a favorite of our
neighborhood hummingbirds

Coreopsis lanceolata "Tickseed" in the sun border
Flower stalk of foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia,
a beautiful shady groundcover.
Penstemon and Achillea millefolium,
common yarrow
Bee pollinating my common yarrow
Anemone canadensis, another great shade plant.

A pea flower

 And don't forget the veggie garden. I have eleven varieties of herbs growing plus flowering tomatoes, peas, squash, and pole beans. All of which are relying on pollinators to turn those blossoms into food for my family.

Even tomatoes provide food for pollinators

I hope you enjoy Pollinator Week! I just harvested my first tomato of the year, it was a great way to appreciate all the pollinators that have been hard at work in my yard.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The 'Woodland Island'

An old stump planted with new trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit  
I have never owned a property with shade. I've always longed after the subtle plants one sees on a woodland hike - the trilliums, wood ferns, trout lilies, wild ginger, jack-in-the-pulpits - but I've never had the shade to grow them. Until now.

I have been itching to get my hands in the dirt along the side of house where dense shade lurks. Having already planted the shade border nearer to the road I've had a chance to play around with foam flower, coral bells and solomon's seal. But the area where I've been planning my 'woodland island' is where I really get to play with native woodland plants. The path through the area will create an island of plants with a border all around it,  allowing a lot of frontage in which to display smaller, more subtle specimens that might get lost in a deeper border. 

This area had been yet more bare mulch with an ancient yew shrub that was going (left) and a cool, old, mossy stump, which I was definitely keeping (above). It was a large area to tackle so breaking it up with an island of plants with pathways around it not only avoided a very wide border, but it allowed pathways for my kids to explore, hopefully keeping them from bushwhacking their way through the tender new plants.

Island prepped

After we removed the yew I painstakingly removed the plastic sheeting from the marked-out island area, added a bird bath and outlined the outer path (right). One of my rain barrels in also adjacent to this area and in need of an overflow solution to keep the extra water out of the basement. I plumbed the overflow line from the barrel into a pipe buried underground which drains out under the 'island', making this area slightly wetter than normal.

Finished woodland island
Before I tackled the plastic in the rest of the area I rewarded myself with a shopping trip and native planting session to finish the island (left). Species in this area include bugbane, ostrich fern, sweet pepper bush, lady fern, sensitive fern, wild ginger, trillium, foamflower and goat's beard, all plants that should not only tolerate but do well with the rain barrel overflow.

Plastic removed from the outer border of the woodland garden

Now that the island was done it was time to deal with the rest of the plastic. I brought in reinforcements in the form of two college students who made short work of the remaining sheeting (piled up to the right). It is nice to know it's no longer blocking the flow of rain into the ground. And now I was finally able to brick out the inner pathway with bricks removed from the back patio, leaving a spot for a garden bench along the right side. I only have a few unplanted plants left with which to landscape the outer border, which means one thing: another shopping trip to my favorite local nursery. Oh twist my arm!

The woodland island awaiting its woodland border