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Originally published Saturday, September 11, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Plant Life

Local waters will benefit from Seattle's program to install rain gardens

Seattle Public Utilities is sponsoring a citywide effort to install rain gardens in residential yards. The effort is part of a larger program to help meet federal requirements of the Clean Water Act. The city will pay for design and installation of the gardens, which help minimize storm- and wastewater runoff that compromises the quality of local waters such as Puget Sound.

To get started

The city of Seattle will finance thousands of new rain gardens over the next decade. Seattle Public Utilities websites offer a wealth of information, including design standards for rain gardens. To find out more about the program, check out www.rainwise.seattle.gov, e-mail your questions to rainwise@seattle.gov or call the Garden Hotline at 206-633-0224.

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"IF YOU DON'T already have rain gardens, there's no excuse not to do this," declares Eleanor Trainor. Her freshly revamped Ballard garden is the first one completed under Seattle Public Utilities' ambitious new residential rain-garden program.

Over the next 15 years, the city will spend $500 million to reduce storm- and wastewater pollution and clean local waterways. The extensive program is necessary to meet water-quality standards of the federal Clean Water Act. SPU has divided the city into 15 combined sewer overflow (CSO) areas. Ballard is first up, followed by North Union Bay and Montlake slated to come online in 2011.

Within each area, the city is staging a three-pronged effort. Phase one is already under way. The city is installing roadside rain gardens with swales and curb cuts that'll make our parking strips look and function differently. Starting next year, alleyways will be converted to permeable pavement so water will slowly percolate through rather than run off them.

The third prong, in which Trainor participated, is residential. The city is offering rebates to homeowners who install rain gardens and cisterns. The Rainwise Program hopes to inspire 600 households, or 15 percent of residents in the Ballard CSO, to upgrade their gardens' water-handling capacity.

Trainor's basement has flooded twice, so she paid attention when she heard her neighborhood was the first eligible for the program. It didn't hurt that Jessi Bloom, an old friend from her Rat City Rollergirl days, was one of the contractors qualified by the city to do the work. Bloom's little display garden full of sustainable features won the People's Choice Award at the 2010 Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

It's not difficult to qualify for the program, says Trainor. "The idea is to collect as much water as possible from the roof and use it on site." The process began with a perk test, then a pre-construction inspection by the city. The worst part was demolition because Trainor, a contractor herself, volunteered to remove all the old sod. Then Bloom's crew came in to dig out the rain gardens, haul in rock and a bioretentive mix of native soil and compost, then install the plants. "They taught me how to maintain the gardens and clean out the catch basin," says Trainor. "The city has been accommodating, and Jessi and her crew were a dream to work with."

Trainor's front yard, which used to be grass and ratty roses, is now sculpted into two rain gardens that stretch from house to sidewalk. Rain chains cascade from each side of the front porch, directing water from the roof into a river of stone that drains down into the rain gardens. Rain barrels at every corner of the house collect and store runoff to irrigate the garden. There's a third rain garden in the backyard.

Bloom helped Trainor save many of her plants and reuse them around the rain gardens, including grasses, hydrangeas and a favorite smoke tree. Down in the depressions, Bloom favors plants that thrive in dampness, including ornamental horsetail (Equisetum hymale), and rushes like Juncus ensifolius and J. acutus.

"I got Jessi Bloom to design my garden, and the city paid for it!" says Trainor. Then she gets serious and points out how Ballard is wedged between Puget Sound and the Ship Canal. "We can see where our runoff ends up, and this program really helps with that," she says. "The rain gardens appeal to my aesthetic and my sense of responsibility."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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