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Solving a Water Problem with a Conservation Landscape Addition

Water Problems

Time sure flies when you’re having fun. On the other hand, after nearly eight months of restricted activity due to the Pandemic, the time seems to just blur from one day to the next. Such are the joys of retirement. I’m a believer in vaccines. I hope that in the new year, vaccines will become available and we can begin to return to a more-normal existence, especially you younger folks who have been so hard-hit with loss of jobs, day care issues, or telecommuting. And my heart goes out to everyone who, like us, has lost neighbors, friends and loved ones.

After 36 years in the same home, I finally had a landscape project that was beyond my skill set to accomplish. Gardens evolve over the years, and my wooded quarter acre has suffered loss of trees, especially in the last several years. We are at the bottom of a modest slope, and we get a lot of runoff from adjacent yards which are mostly in grass and lacking in the shrub/perennial beds and borders that would intercept some of the water. This collects in the low spot in our back yard, where, many years ago, I decided to install a pond.

We have had so much runoff in the heavy storms of the last few years that the pond edge was regularly breached with muddy water, so it was time to either redo the pond or deal with the runoff. We decided to fill the pond in, turn the area into a rain garden, run a ditch to the front yard, and drain the surplus from the backyard and most of the water from our roof into an second rain garden in the front.

Water Problems

This seemed like a lot of work. I was also concerned about the ditch, as the ground toward the front actually slopes upward a bit so I could see that a lot of soil was going to have to be moved and someone who understood surveying was going to need to make sure everything sloped and drained properly.

I looked on the Montgomery County Rainscapes website for companies that had experience in rain gardens, and I went with Backyard Bounty. Rebecca, one of their designers, worked with me on a plan for the area, following the requirements for a rain garden rebate from the county. We worked from a list of (oh, please!) deer-resistant native plants.

Collaborating with a designer was all new to me. Working at Behnke’s over the years, my style (such that it is) has been to buy three of this perennial and three of that and try them out to see how tough they are. Thus, my landscape plan has been to plant things in the most logical available spot based on light requirements. That is to say, no design plan at all. [I’ve written in the past about which perennials survived and thrived in my yard.

I have to say that the majority of what I have planted over the years has gone on to greener pastures. [Oh, Heuchera, you little heartbreaker. Tiarella, you meant it when you said moist, rich soil. Dwarf Ophiopogon…really? Practically a weed, but not at my place. Pardon me while I go get a tissue and blot my tears.] So, it was really exciting to see a real, to-scale plan of my yard on paper, executed by the crew that just finished four days in my garden.

The plan had three adjoining projects:

1) remove the pond liner and rock edging and fill it in; grade it such that pooling water in storms drained to a…

2) river-rock lined trench leading to the front yard, with adjoining berm along the neighboring property to keep the water on our side of the trench; and

3) dig a depression in the front to intercept the water from the trench before it got to the street. Besides water coming from the back yard, most of the rainwater coming off our roof would also drain to the ditch and depression in the front.

Water Problems

Before the digging began, there was the formality of a perc test. In order to have a functioning rain garden the water must drain into the soil within a certain amount of time. The perc test evaluates how quickly water percolates down out of a test hole. Unfortunately for me, the soil in the areas we had designated for the rain garden was both low and somewhat compacted, resulting in soggy soil even while the upper yard was quite dry. This was exacerbated by some heavy storms this fall.

The area failed the perc test twice (failed even though we knew the correct answer!), so we went from a rain garden plan to a conservation landscape plan. It isn’t really much different, except that one has to concede that more water will runoff to the street than we originally hoped. The installation took four days, with Mark making sure the grading was correct and that the planting plan was followed, and Omar and a crew of three doing the heavy lifting.

The aim of a rain garden is to intercept storm runoff from hard surfaces and allow it to percolate into the soil instead of running into the sewer system. This is better for Chesapeake Bay water quality. The conservation landscape will accomplish some of this, and still has the benefit of providing food and shelter for wildlife (except deer, see above).

Wildlife in this case being mostly bugs and birds. For Montgomery County, an approved rain garden can qualify for a $10 per square foot rebate, while a conservation landscape only qualifies for $5 psf. So it goes.[Note that Prince George’s also has a Raincheck Rebate Program, and other counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed program do as well.]

Today is the first test of the system. It hasn’t rained heavily yet, and I see water in the ditch and in the reservoir in the front yard. Things seem to be working. It’s nice when things work.

Larry Hurley, Behnke’s Emeritus Horticulturist


Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this project. I have a question about maintaining the trench. With silt and soil run-off building up over a long time, the trench might become less effective thus requiring cleaning it out. Wouldn’t the rocks need to be removed in order to perform this maintenance?

    While researching this type of project, I encountered the idea of encasing gravel with non-woven landscape drainage fabric in the bottom of the trench, then topping it with the larger decorative rock, but I’m not convinced this plan would be free of backbreaking maintenance.

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