Rain garden both practical and pretty

Unless they frequent the city’s skate park or bike and walk along the Thunder Bay River near the Ninth Street Dam, area residents may not realize that Alpena boasts a rain garden.

Over the last few weeks, the garden has been at a peak bloom time with lots of yellow and purple coneflowers, joe pye weed and other native perennials offering a profusion of color. While the 600-foot stretch of flowers and shrubs provide an eye-catching sight, the garden also serves a practical purpose, said Elizabeth Littler, the driving force behind installation of the garden five years ago.

“The most important thing for a rain garden is growing plants for a clean river,” said Littler, who was asked by city officials to take charge of planting the garden on the swath of city-owned property. “When you can’t drink water in places like Toledo, it’s because of runoff. Rain gardens are designed to capture the runoff and absorb the water for the most part and clean it up.”

Littler said major environmental reclamation projects such as at the Ford River Rouge complex in Detroit plant rain gardens for that same purpose.

“When you put in wildflowers that are very deep rooted and there are a lot of contaminates, they take them out of the soil and absorb them into their system, and it doesn’t kill them,” she said.

Littler became familiar with the environmental concepts behind rain gardens while attending a conference in 2002. After city officials approached her with the proposed project in Alpena, she found sources for plants and shrubs native to the Great Lakes.

Among the plants she selected for what is now called the Water Tower Park Rain Garden were Culver’s root, Southern blue flag iris, purple coneflower, joe pye weed, blue lobelia, yellow coneflower, old field goldenrod, heart-leaved aster, columbine, penstemon, round-leaved ragwort, hoary vervain and little bluestem (a grass). American elderberry and common ninebark shrubs also factored into the landscape plans.

“It’s nice because these plants are useful and very attractive. They are not maintenance free, but if you weed and mulch, which again absorbs some of the runoff water, pretty soon there’s less maintenance,” Littler said. “These are all Great Lakes native plants. They are used to the environment, the climate, the rain fall.”

When the plants first went into the ground five years ago, Littler rounded up 25 to 30 volunteers, provided them with trays of flowers and assigned them 10-foot sections of garden to plant. Among those who turned out to help were members of both the Alpena Garden Club and the Thunder Bay Garden Club as well as teens from the Youth Volunteer Corps of the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena.

Littler continues to enlist volunteer help for the weeding and cutting back of dead flowers and debris in the spring. Though it is not a garden club project, club members help out with the maintenance work from time to time. The area includes an irrigation system for watering.

A brochure that describes the rain garden and it purposes currently is available at the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. The brochure also is viewable at the City of Alpena website, www.alpena.mi.us.