Water quality team celebrates 100th birthday of Red Oak Rain Garden trees

November 19th, 2019 by

The Red Oak Rain Garden (RORG) was the first rain garden on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, and the two red oak trees that the garden’s name honors—fondly called the RORG sisters—have just turned 100 years old. To commemorate this occasion, the RORG team, led by Stormwater Specialist Eliana Brown of University of Illinois Extension, threw a surprise birthday party and created a video to celebrate the milestone and highlight the importance of green infrastructure in stormwater management.

The two red oak trees work with the 9,000 plants in the rain garden to soak up roughly 10,000 gallons of water per year. Rain gardens like the Red Oak Rain Garden, built in 2006, help reduce polluted stormwater runoff and flooding.

“This is really important,” said Brown, “because in our cities and towns, we create more impervious surfaces [like roads, roofs and parking lots]. They’re really great at doing things like letting us drive on them, but they shed off water, and so they’re not so good at soaking up water. So, we end up with a lot more water, and our streams just really aren’t designed to handle all of that, and it creates some problems with water quality. Rain gardens are a great way to combat that and make things better.”

The RORG team is managing a renovation of the rain garden, involving design and build phases of the project to help improve both aesthetics and functionality. The Red Oak Rain Garden website describes the purpose of the garden on UIUC’s campus: RORG provides flood protection, improves water quality and serves as a model for ecologically healthy landscapes. Prior to the garden, rainstorms limited sidewalk use and impaired the red oak. The updated design enhances the garden’s ability to absorb rainwater in a beautiful, educational way.

Layne Knoche worked on the landscape design, and Tony Heath completed the engineering design. Kate Gardiner organized the whimsical birthday celebration for the RORG sisters.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Writer: Hope Charters, 765.494.1614,

Videographer: Matt Wiley, University of Illinois Extension

Nationwide rain garden app now includes Indiana plants

August 20th, 2018 by

A smartphone app named “Rain Garden,” designed to help people plan and build rain gardens across America, is now customized with a specialized list of plants suited for Indiana. Through video tutorials, diagrams and tools, the app makes it easy to learn the basics of designing, installing and maintaining a rain garden.

Many people and communities use sustainable landscape design and management practices, such as rain gardens, to prevent polluted stormwater runoff from flowing into nearby rivers and streams and harming the water supply. To stop runoff from reaching water bodies, stormwater can be directed toward rain gardens to be absorbed by plants and soils.

Rain Garden app screenshot

Hoosiers can download “Rain Garden” for free through the Apple or Google app store. Created at the University of Connecticut, the app includes tools for determining soil type, measuring the area needed for the garden, and managing multiple rain garden projects.

The Indiana plant list was made possible by Kara Salazar of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Purdue Rainscaping Education Program, Rosie Lerner of Purdue Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, John Orick of the Purdue Master Gardener program, Kris Medic of the Purdue Extension Community Development program, Jane Frankenberger of Purdue Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and Laura Esman of Purdue Forestry and Natural Resources.

Intern gets his hands dirty building Peoria rain garden

June 12th, 2017 by

As a new intern with Illinois Water Resources Center, I attended a workshop last month with about 30 people from organizations including Peoria Public Works Department, Peoria Innovation Team, and Illinois Master Gardener and Master Naturalists at the Peoria Public Works building to learn the fundamentals of rain garden design.

Peoria’s interest in installing rain gardens has grown out of a pressing need to manage stormwater to help mitigate overflows from the city’s combined sewers into the Illinois River. Rain gardens can be part of an overall green infrastructure strategy that significantly reduces combined sewer overflows. IISG and the city of Peoria worked together over a year to finalize the details on this workshop, an important step towards addressing the the stormwater issue.

After an early-morning drive from Champaign to Peoria, I had the opportunity to listen to several guest speakers, including Kris Lucius, a landscape architect with SmithGroupJJR, and Eliana Brown, IISG stormwater specialist who introduced the group to rain garden design essentials. We also heard from Jason Haupt, Illinois Extension educator, who discussed details regarding plant species and best management practices for maintaining rain gardens.

Following a brief lunch, Kara Salazar, sustainable communities extension specialist, led the attendees on a group rain garden design scenario activity. Each group was tasked with a specific rain garden scenario that presented different planning obstacles.

Jason Haupt, Illinois Extension educator, speaks during the classroom session at the Peoria rain garden workshop.

My group was responsible for developing a rain garden in a typical suburban home setting. The role and functions of landscape architecture, which I’ve learned from my graduate studies as well as this workshop, can encompass numerous realms, including urban planning and design, architecture, and economic and community re-development.

Tuesday’s events brought many of these fields together. Designing and planting the rain gardens served as both a conceptual and physical implementation of green infrastructure and development. How this small project will serve as a precedent for the City of Peoria is one of many aspects of landscape architecture that interests me.

Cameron Letterly, left, helps distribute mulch at the rain garden build in front of the Peoria Public Works Department.

Darren Graves, intern at the Public Works Department in Peoria, designed the project that the participants then planted in front of the building.

“I wanted to add some color and some diversity in plant material to Public Works Department,” Graves said. “The more diversity we have in plant material creates a habitat for wildflower, pollinators, bees, hummingbirds, butterflies. This is one big cycle that can benefit everybody through our health as well as our crops.”

“I think landscape should be more than just shrubbery,” Graves added.

Anthony Corso, chief innovation officer and director of Peoria’s Innovation Team said this project would help the Peoria Public Works staff “understand what the maintenance looks like of this [rain garden] plan” and that it would serve as a model for what is “supposed to be expanded over two decades into about eight square miles of the city and beyond.”

All the participants gather for a photo in the new rain garden.

I initially had no idea of the scale, nor incredible enthusiasm of the volunteers for this project. However, after consulting the master plan and after digging the numerous holes for plants, I knew this experience was a step towards greater green infrastructure awareness for all involved.

Through our combined efforts, we were not only able to construct a functional rain garden in under two hours, but also able to involve an incredible array of volunteers from a multitude of disciplines.

To best summarize my experience, when our team began a system of handing river stones to each other, roughly defining the edges of the garden, I remembered a quote from earlier in the morning from Peoria Innovation Team’s Anthony Corso, “It’s easier to learn when you do some hands-on.”

Cameron Letterly is a summer intern with the Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC) where he is currently working on several projects in coordination with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Cameron is a student in the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a prospective Illinois MBA candidate.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.


My Rain Garden Walk: A community rain garden is born

November 4th, 2015 by

During my internship for Sea Grant I have been fortunate to not only learn about rain gardens but also be able to see one garden come to life. I saw the area beforehand, while the garden was built, and after the final flower was planted. I saw the change in the landscape. I sat under a tree just next to where the garden is today. I had the opportunity to speak with park experts to gain more insight in what it took to build the garden. But above all, I have been able to see the beauty of the garden as it grew.



The idea of planting a rain garden in Clark Park in Champaign began in September of 2014 when presented during a John Street watershed meeting. This led to a three-month-long period in which different designs were presented to the community. The final design was presented at a public meeting in February. Unfortunately the actual digging did not start until mid-June and the planting was not finished until July. This was due to excessive rain, ironically, and the maintenance of other park amenities such as pools, and tennis courts.

Eli Tabova, a park planner, explained to me that the garden was meant to have distinct patches of native plants. During the design process she and her boss Lead Park Planner Andrew Weiss chose plants that were hearty—mostly ferns, sedges and grasses. But they did not want the garden to look messy. The garden has brown-eyed Susans, columbine flowers and Ohio spiderwort to add color. Plants such as Gray’s sedge and switchgrass make the garden look full of life despite the lack of many blooming flowers. The plants attract pollinators and are shade resistant.
The garden came to life.

When I recently went to visit the garden, it was very rewarding to see how much it had grown. Even if I was not personally involved in making the garden a reality for this park, it was rewarding to see what can happen when there is a community willing to be involved as well as a park district willing to make this a reality. It didn’t matter that not all the flowers bloomed this season or that the flowers didn’t grow as much as they could have. I could see what the garden was bringing to the community. It was an environmentally conscious way of collecting water, attracted wildlife and added texture to the park.

Shortly after it was planted I wondered how the garden was going to be able to grow. The seedling were small and fragile. Even with the rain that fell in July it still needed to be watered about every three days. What about children and pets who might trample them? But Horticulture and Natural Areas Supervisor Randy Hauser was not worried about this. Residents, in general, were careful of the garden. But that didn’t mean it was quarantined. People were welcome to interact with the garden even if the plants were very young.
“Not everyone wants to go in deep with [the plants and] bugs, but I’m not going to chase the ones who do,” Hauser said.
This is the goal of the garden—to be inviting and influential to the community. The garden is just as much a part of the park as the swings or tennis courts. It exists to be enjoyed as well as to work for the community. Weiss hopes residents will use this garden as a resource for plant and design ideas. I know I picked up some ideas. I hope the residents did as well.
Victoria Figueroa

Follow the Water: Master naturalists play detective

October 29th, 2015 by
Downspouts, asphalt grading, sloping lawns were some clues the budding master naturalists were given when they got the chance to play “stormwater detective” at the Anita Purvis Nature Center in Urbana, Ill. in October.

The sleuthing was part of a rain garden talk IISG Stormwater Specialist Eliana Brown (pictured fourth from left) presented to 42 students enrolled in the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program given through University of Illinois Extension.

Using a fictitious “unlimited budget,” the students suggested installing permeable pavers, rain barrels, and solar tiles to make the water’s path more nourishing and less destructive.
Adrienne Gulley, IISG pollution prevention outreach specialist, (pictured handing out pens) closed out the session with a presentation on natural lawn care and the Lawn to Lake program.

The East Central Illinois Master Naturalist training sessions are typically offered one day a week over a two-month period and are led by expert educators in the region.

Approximately 70 hours of classroom instruction and field study and 60 hours of volunteer work are required to complete the program and become certified. In order to remain a certified Master Naturalist, 30 hours of volunteer work and 10 hours of continuing education or advanced training are required each year.

My Rain Garden Walk: Good gardens make good neighbors

October 21st, 2015 by

It is not uncommon for more than one home on a block to have excess water due to stormwater runoff. The good thing about a rain garden is that they can adapt to suit the need of the homeowner. They can be placed wherever on the property they are needed.
Originally Dan and Libby Reimann’s Mount Prospect, Ill. home did not have any problems with standing water. It was not until the couple had an addition built onto their house did they encounter problems. During the construction, their sump pump began to run continuously, flooding their front yard and a portion of the neighbor’s driveway. When the couple contacted local authorities, they were given two suggestions, the Reimanns could tap into the sewer system or they could build a rain garden. 
The couple didn’t want to tap into the sewer system if they could avoid it and the village encouraged the idea of a rain garden. With some deliberation as well as online searching and learning more about rain gardens, Dan and Libby decided they would try to build one. 
In Dan’s research he came across Kevin Herbert, a landscaper in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. They contacted Herbert to design and construct their garden. Not knowing exactly what they wanted or what to put in the garden, they gave Herbert free reign.  From the shape of the garden to the flowers in the garden, Herbert did it all.
Not only did Herbert take charge of the whole design process but he also helped in the garden’s maintenance. The couple hired him to take care of the garden following its first year of installment. In that year he taught them what to weed, when to cut down plants and provided the couple with pictures of what each plant should look like when fully grown as a way to tell them apart. He left them the initial sketch of the design of the garden with what flowers go where. 
The Reimann garden is full of blooming flowers. They were particularly happy with the selection because they were picked to ensure that flowers are always in bloom, spring through fall. In the spring, the garden is adorned by blue and pink from the blue flags, blazing star and prairie smoke. When summer begins, the Reimanns can start to see white, purple and yellow from the meadowsweet, Monarda and black-eyed Susans. Black-eyed Susans are joined by white turtlehead and New England asters bloom in the late summer to early fall. The garden keeps these colors until the frost.
Dan’s advice to homeowners who know little to nothing about rain gardens, is to not let fear stop them. “They should just go for it,” Dan said. “And don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
When their neighbor Amy Hempleman saw how well the garden was working she took his advice, even taking their suggestion of having Herbert help create their garden in the spring of 2014.
The Hempleman garden was different in one major way—the location. While water was spilling into the front of the Reimann’s yard, Hempleman had to solve a problem in the backyard. The back corner just behind the garage began to flood from excess water coming from the gutters. Hebert used this as well as the natural slope of the yard to his advantage when he designed this garden. The water is routed along the sidewalk downspout and into the garden. 
Hempleman is very happy with the garden, describing it as attractive and bright in the summer. When in full bloom, the garden has bluejackets, broad leaf goldenrod, nodding onion as well as ivory sedge and plantain leaved sedge. The balance between flowers and grass-like plants creates a full garden that does its job as well as adding to Hempleman’s yard.

Not only was Hempleman happy with the garden’s appearance, but she also feels good about the way it took care of the water problem. This experience has given Hempleman a new interest in plants, to be more specific, with native plants. As she has seen the beauty and functionality of them firsthand, she has started to notice and look for them. She expressed a wish for clearer labels of plants, to make it easier for gardeners that want to find native plants. This would also educate people who may not know the native plants of their area and could pique their interest.
Hempleman looks forward to watching her garden grow in the upcoming years.

-Victoria Figueroa

Rain Gardens: More than just pretty flowers

August 3rd, 2015 by

The first thing I noticed when walking toward Bob and Nancy Larson’s house is the beautifully manicured centerpiece in his perfectly trimmed lawn. It’s hard to miss. The tall plants grab your attention long enough to realize that not everything is green. A closer look and little spots of color start to stand out. There is purple from the Joe Pye Weeds, yellow from the black-eyed Susan and light blue from the wild prairie petunias. The garden shines.

But this garden is more than a centerpiece. It is a tool.

When the Larson’s moved into their Champaign, Ill. home in 2009, they were excited to settle into their new neighborhood. However, just three days after they moved in, their basement flooded from the sanitary sewer backing up. It was then when Larson was made aware of the stormwater issues in his neighborhood. It also did not help that 2009 was the fifth wettest year on record since 1889. Seeing how having a flooded basement could become a continuous problem in the future, he decided to research ways he could prevent the buildup of water. That was when he discovered rain gardens. In conducting his research he became more and more interested in installing one of his own.
With the help of The Blue Thumb Guide, he started to design his own garden. He drew inspiration from designs he found in other books, online, and from visiting other gardens. When it was time to pick plants to place in his garden, he was drawn to native plants and made a conscious effort to seek those out. He visited nurseries to find the best plants for his garden, as well as using the book Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest to organize his choices.
When it came time to start digging in his yard, Larson was optimistic, that is until he discovered there were layers of rocks under his soil. Even though this was an inconvenience for him, he patiently relocated the rocks and continued to carefully dig.
He placed the garden in the center of his front yard, to draw water away from his home. Blooming flowers on the outer part of the garden act almost as a lining. When in full bloom, there are many colors jumping out–they are very pronounced against the white of his house and really do act as a centerpiece in his lawn. In the center of the garden are plants with thicker stems as well as grass-like plants, such as purple coneflowers, sideoats grama, little bluestem, and big bluestem. This creates a very full yet manicured garden, yet the chaos that could happen with such a large array plants is contained.
Larson advises people to not over plant their garden as it can become more difficult to maintain a clean look, if that is what they want. He also stresses the importance of knowing the soil type. He has very fertile soil that drains well, so he chose not to add sand.
“I think it would have helped if I would have added sand to cut down on the fertility so stuff wouldn’t grow so big,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to do that afterwards.”
When installing a rain garden it is important to know what kind of garden your want, so even if you choose to do it on your own like Larson, it is still very manageable and attainable. 

-Victoria Figueroa

How does green infrastructure happen on the ground?

July 15th, 2015 by
How does “green infrastructure” go from being just a good idea to actually being implemented in municipalities? At the recent Resilient Chicago workshop, we learned how this happens from a variety of perspectives.
Blue Island, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a growing problem with flooded basements, has become a leader in executing green infrastructure initiatives in recent years.
Jason Berry, deputy director of planning and building, described how at one point, even city engineers needed convincing that green infrastructure is not a “feel-good” project, but an effective and sustainable way to address stormwater issues.

Much of the city’s success is due to grant support from local, state, and even national sources. And, there is public involvement. As part of its Blue Island, Blue Water project, the city engaged many of its residents in installing rain barrels and planting rain gardens. The city is putting in permeable pavement, a bioswale, and numerous rain gardens.

“Green infrastructure is visible infrastructure,” explained Berry. “You can see it work.”
It also takes maintenance, which Berry described as a challenge for the city going forward.
Most communities will need to fund green infrastructure through limited municipal budgets, according to Josh Ellis, program director with the Metropolitan Planning Council. But he thinks green infrastructure has the possibly of becoming the new normal for infrastructure through “optimization.”
Optimization, as done by the City of Chicago, means maximizing investments through partnerships, leveraged funds, and multiple goals. Aaron Koch, deputy commissioner for sustainability, explained that the city has been employing green infrastructure for many years with green roofs and alleys, for instance. Now efforts are being planned more strategically.
For example, through the Space to Grow program, the city is partnering with Chicago Public Schools and nonprofits to “green” Chicago schoolyards. By planting rain gardens, and adding landscaping and playgrounds, students have a dryer, safer, greener, and more fun environment to play.

Argyle Street on Chicago’s north side is in the process of getting a facelift with porous pavement, planters, and trees that will go far to create community gathering spaces as well as enhance stormwater management. The Argyle Streetscape will be Chicago’s first “shared street” where pedestrians, cars, and bicycles will all co-exist in a curb-free world.

One way to normalize green infrastructure is to incorporate it into comprehensive planning. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) provides assistance for municipalities to do this.

According to Kate Evasic, associate planner, CMAP provides a process to collect data related to surface drainage, including historic conditions, topography, impervious cover, land use, and repetitive flood claims. And, the process provides the opportunities for shared solutions. CMAP has 50 projects underway right now.

-Irene Miles

(Photos from the Blue Island and the site design group, ltd. websites)

My Rain Garden Walk: Trials and tribulations on the streets of Champaign

July 7th, 2015 by

When Anna Barnes and David Riecks originally installed their rain garden in 2010 they knew it might take a little work, but they were in for more than they thought. Ranging from the uncontrollable to the unavoidable they had their fair share of trouble. But it was nothing they couldn’t handle.

The couple took the opportunity to build their rain garden when the City of Champaign was putting in new sewer drainage and a driveway for their neighbor. Along with their neighbor, they decided to build their garden in the lawn space along the side of the road, as the city was going to dig up the whole area.

The garden itself is made up of two basins. The lower basin is along the road and the upper is on the main property, the sidewalk separating the two. The lower basin contains a variety of flowering plants and grass-like plants. When in full bloom the garden contains lavender, daffodils, black-eyed Susans as well as obsidian heuchera and dwarf goldenrod. The basin is lined with Pennsylvania sedge and Ice Dance sedge. The sedge helps keep the soil in place as well as protects the garden from things such as too much snow build up and salt. The upper basin now has brunnera, Pennsylvania sedge, and ‘Ice Dance’ sedge that shares space with the walnut tree in the front yard.

In the garden’s first years, it suffered from back to back droughts as well as a surprising foe, dogs. The upper basin originally had astilbe, ligularia, and osumnda. Not only were these plants unable to compete with trees roots, they were not drought proof either. Plants such as turtle heads, cardinal flowers, and ligularias in the lower basin could not survive with the extreme lack of water. Also, the garden did not thrive because their street is a popular path for dog walkers, so it was frequently urinated on. Dog urine contains chemicals that dry out plants and can lead to leaf burn. In addition, dogs walked through their garden, unintentionally damaging plants.

Barnes explained that too few people understand that a single perennial can cost as much as a bag of grass seed, and that some people believe dog urine is no more harmful than water. She added a sign in the garden warning of the dangers of dog urine on their plants asking people to curb their dogs.

This led to changes in the original garden layout. The plants that couldn’t survive were replaced and some plants were moved around to protect others. For example, the Ice Dance sedge is now along the road in the lower basin, replacing the Pennsylvania sedge. Barnes did this strategically in response to the amount of snow and salt the area is exposed to. Barnes noticed the snowplow that cleans her neighborhood tends to pile up excess snow, and therefore, salt as well, along part of her garden. This damaged the Pennsylvania sedge that was supposed to keep the soil together and protect other flowers in the garden.

Barnes advice to homeowners who wished to start their own rain gardens, is that patience is key. “Really watch the site for a full year,” she said. She remembers that their landscape architect only saw the area of their potential garden in the fall, which heavily influenced the types of plants picked and their arrangement.

But these difficulties don’t discourage them. They look forward to watching their garden grow throughout the years.

“As time goes on it will look like a little prairie,” Barnes said.

They will have their little prairie in the midst of their city.

-Victoria Figueroa

Skip to content