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Does Your Garden Need a Diaper?
updated: Feb 23, 2013, 12:00 PM

By Billy Goodnick

If you're crankcase leaked, you'd probably do something about it. Same probably goes for your toilet. But have you paid attention to what's been leaking off your property this winter? In the dark ages of subdivision design, the rain that fell on roofs, patios, and oil-stained driveways was treated as the enemy. "Get it the hell out off the property," was what I learned when I was studying landscape architecture.

"What's the fuss?" you might be thinking. "Water is supposed to find its way to the ocean; that's what nature does." True, but nature didn't intend for it to carry all the crap we've allowed to pollute it, like motor oil, dust from brake linings and tires, lawn chemicals and the like. And nature didn't know we'd be paving nearly every square inch of the civilized world and building over the wetlands and lagoons that used to slow, filter, and detain a large amount of that runoff.

So far this year we've been blessed with a pretty damn good rainy season, exceeding typical average totals and it looks like there's more on the way. Even better, it's arrived in well-space intervals, allowing that wonderful life-sustaining liquid to soak into the friable soils of our gardens. (Of course, if you suffer from Compulsive Raking Syndrome and have turned your soil into a water-repellent crust, there's not much sinking in.)

Fortunately, for the sake of our streams and shoreline, the Age of Enlightenment has shone upon the discipline of stormwater management. Words like bioswale, detention basin and permeable paving are commonplace in the design world. Organizations like the Surfrider Foundation are spreading the word through hands-on educational projects like the recent small-scale landscape installation at the lawn bowling clubhouse at Spencer Adams Park (1216 De la Vina).

They're not alone. The City of Santa Barbara's Creeks Division has been developing educational programs an undertaking a variety of projects aimed at improving water quality. Some improvements are at a grander scale than homeowners can execute, but there are take-aways you can apply to your own yard.

The benefits? More water stays on your property irrigation bill. Additionally, allowing rainwater to seep into your garden helps leach out salts that accumulate in the soil from the municipal water supply. There's also the good you'll be doing for the environment by lessening the impact on storm drains, reducing algae build-up and releasing cleaner water to the natural waterways.


Any golfers out there? If you've played Muni lately - the public course along Las Positas - you've witnessed a massive renovation by the Creeks Division. On a recent very cold, but unfortunately not rainy late afternoon, I jumped in a golf cart with George Thomson, Creeks Planner, for a grand tour of this ambitious $2.1 million project, funded by grants and Measure B.

Alongside fairways and out-of-play areas, more than 5-acres of have been scooped out and dammed up, some filled with native vegetation that slows the flow of water, traps sediments and sequesters nitrogen while creating some pretty robust habitat for beneficial microorganisms, bugs and birds. "This series of swales and ponds create a ‘treatment train' that receive flow from not just from Muni, but also a 160- acre watershed that includes the surrounding neighborhood," Thomson says. "It also ensures that the water leaving the golf course, doesn't overload the downstream areas that lead to Arroyo Burro."

Meanwhile, at a Nearby Park…

Just a shanked tee-shot across Las Positas is Mackenzie Park where a less sexy but equally important project was completed. Next time you're in the area, cruise through the lower parking lot. Here's what you'll find:

Due to the flat topography of the lot, rainfall had nowhere to go but up, in the form of evaporating vapor, leaving behind the "load" that accumulates from parked cars. Now, the impermeable asphalt has been replaced with attractive paving made of concrete masonry units with gravel-filled gaps in between. Water seeps through the spaces and into a thick substrata of angular, crushed rock. The voids between the rocks act as a temporary sponge. Slowly, the water seeps into the soil below, helping to recharge the water table while sequestering pollutants and allowing soil organisms to neutralize them.

Foodies Do Their Part

Not far from these projects sits the beautifully landscaped parking lot at Whole Foods, adorned with an out-of-the-ordinary plant palette of ‘Jervis Bay After Dark' peppermint willow (Agonis species), purple heart (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart'), white Texas sage (Salvia greggii ‘Alba') and flows of ornamental sedges and grasses.

What's especially great about what would usually be a landscaping afterthought, is a fully functioning bioswale that handles much of the runoff from the lot. Surface flow is diverted between gaps in the curbs and through the vegetation. One of the "tributaries" sends the water under raised walkways built from recycled plastic lumber. Hat's off to whomever conceived, permitted and executed this innovative, community-minded project.

Do Your Part: There are lessons in these projects you can apply to your own yard.

Bust the crust: Lay down your leaf rake and pick up a cultivator. Hard-packed soil repels the rainfall you should welcome into your soil. Top off your beds with a generous layer of bark mulch every few years and allow it to gradually decompose into your soil to keep the root zone loose.

Control your flow: If your rain gutters deposit all your roof water into underground pipes, look for opportunities to divert some or all of that flow into a part of the garden where it's welcome, like a lawn or flowerbed. Hardware stores sell gizmos you can slip over the end of your downspout (I didn't mean it like that) that unravel like a party noisemaker, directing the water away from the house.

Strain your drain: If there's nowhere to retain the water from your roof and hard surfaces, could you slow its journey to the street by creating a swale lined with plants or a dry streambed that will filter out some of the nasty bits? Every little bit helps.

Dig it: Next time you embark on a bed renovation or garden make-over, work in a few out- of-the way low spots where diverted water can gradually soak into the soil without becoming a nuisance. You can find information about plants that don't mind having their feet wet during the winter by visiting < a href= "http://www.sustainablehort.com/?p=200">Sustainable Horticulture (Caution: Be sure to maintain a buffer of soil that slopes away from the house to avoid excess moisture around the slab or foundation.)

With any luck, we've still got a few generous showers coming our way. When the next one arrives, go outside, pop upon your bumbershoot and see what's really going on. If nothing else, you'll have fun splashing in the puddles.

Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff. Learn more about his design work, his book YARDS, and his public appearances at www.billygoodnick.com Looking for design ideas and cool plants? Subscribe to Billy's Buzz newsletter by dropping him a line at billygoodnick@yahoo.com

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 377871 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-23 01:40 PM

Excellent post. These are quite common in Portland and make even more sense here where water is precious.


 COMMENT 377926 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-23 05:10 PM

Great post Billy


 COMMENT 378077 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-24 08:22 AM

Interesting article. It struck me, however, that the "dark ages of suburban design" are not in the distant past. When I built my house about 10 years ago I was surprised at the extent to which I had to go to divert all water from the building envelope. This was, of course, mandated by the County Building code and may have been due, in part, to the fact that my house sits on top of a ridge. I would have liked to create a "grey water" system but was strongly discouraged by Environmental Health and Safety. Perhaps things have changed.


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-24 08:54 AM

Thank you, Billy, for an interesting and educational post; nice pictures. I would like to know more about why RDH had to divert all the water off his property, doesn't seem right to me. Maybe he/she could now incorporate some of Billy's sound ideas.


 COMMENT 378094 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-24 09:36 AM

RDH: away from the foundation, I can understand. But you were mandated to divert rainwater flow away from your parcel entirely? This doesn't sound right. Ridgetop location would have meant it was going that way anway.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-24 10:33 AM

Regarding RDH's dilemma, 10 years ago is a long time in terms of land-use requirements. I haven't researched current county regs, but I'm betting they're more enlightened now. Same for grey-water systems. They used to require a lot of review and permitting, but a few years ago, some of Santa Barbara's very own folks (Art Ludwig at Oasis Design and City Water Conservation's Alison Jordan) had a major impact on state of CA regulations and it's now a very simple process. More about grey-water here... http://oasisdesign.net/index.htm


 COMMENT 378119 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-24 11:36 AM

About the rainwater diversion. We lost our house in the Tea Fire. It sits on two acres. When we rebuilt we had to install raingutters and divert the water to another part of the property (which of course, we then had to worry about erosion from the overflow from the french drains). We never had any trouble with rain water in the past. It just sank into the ground and provided water reserves for our trees. Talk about senseless regulations, we obviously weren't diverting to a street drain, just moving the water around on our property at large expense.


 BONNER agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-24 12:15 PM

This was a great post, with so much good information and education and best of all "common sense" that can be applied to many of our outdoor spaces. I've often found channeling water to benefit various parts of the garden as well as controlling runoff is fun and not that hard to do, like solving a puzzle to help nature. Thank you!


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