Create a backyard rain garden

May 24, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Want to do your part to help local rivers and bays? Create a backyard rain garden.

It’s fairly easy to build your own rain garden and it can pay big dividends for nearby watersheds.

Stormwater runoff is one of the leading sources of pollution in waterways, according to Valann Budischak, a horticultural associate with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. But rain gardens can be a great way to manage stormwater. Rain gardens are shallow depressions, planted with perennials and woody plants, which collect water from roofs, driveways, other impervious surfaces and turf grass (which, like a driveway, is lousy at absorbing water).

Rain gardens slow down and reduce runoff and thus help prevent flooding and erosion. In addition, the garden’s soil and plants filter pollutants in rainwater.

“Rain Gardens for the Bays” was launched last year to encourage homeowners to build rain gardens to improve water quality in the Delaware Bay, Delaware’s inland bays and Maryland’s coastal bays. Partners in the project include UD Cooperative Extension, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), the Center for the Inland Bays, Delaware Nature Society and other agencies.

In addition to doing good, rain gardens look good. “Rain gardens are an attractive way to reduce impact on the environment,” says Budischak. “And you don’t need a huge property to have a rain garden.”

She has seen successful rain gardens as small as 10 feet by 15 feet. On the other end of the spectrum, rain gardens on UD’s Newark campus range from less than 1,000 square feet to more than 3,000. In addition, a large rain garden was installed on the Lewes campus last year, says Tom Taylor, UD’s landscape engineer.

Rain gardens were at UD long before the term “rain garden” was coined, says Taylor. He spearheaded the installation of a rain garden – at the time called a bio-retention basin – at the Dickinson residence complex in the early 1990s.

UD’s rain gardens have always had an environmental function but now the gardens serve an educational role, too. “The key is signage,” notes Taylor. “It’s important to have signs at the rain gardens so that people know what they’re looking at and understand how they can do something similar at home.”

Taylor added plantings to a bio-swale at his Lewes home and used the campus gardens for inspiration. Plants on the exterior of a rain garden must tolerate both dry and wet conditions while plants inside the garden need to handle very wet conditions. (A rain garden’s interior is designed to hold water for up to 48 hours.)

On the edges of a rain garden, Taylor likes native ornamental grasses, asters, goldenrod, blueberry bushes and red-twig dogwood. For the interior, he frequently chooses clethra, cardinal flower, iris, button bush and winterberry. Other options that Budischak suggests are turtlehead, Joe-Pye weed, dwarf fothergilla, sweetbay magnolia and river birch.

Living in Sussex County, Taylor doesn’t have to contend with the single biggest obstacle to a successful rain garden – heavy clay soil. That’s a problem most New Castle County residents must overcome because clay soil inhibits water infiltration.

Taylor recommends replacing a foot and a half of heavy clay soil with a rain garden soil mix to improve drainage.

Other considerations in building a rain garden are size and location. Although it would seem logical to install a rain garden in a low area that doesn’t drain well, this is a poor choice because it won’t support plant growth. The ideal place for a rain garden, says Budischak, is gently sloping ground where stormwater drains off grass or impervious surfaces.

Garden size depends on the size of the area from which you are capturing runoff, soil type and depth of the garden. Many homeowners seek professional advice about the garden’s size and soil requirements before tackling installation and planting. UD Botanic Garden intern Rebecca Pineo created a how-to guide to rain gardens, which can be found online.

For more information about the Rain Gardens for the Bay program, go to the website.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

The original posting of this article can be viewed on UDaily.

 

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Wild animals cope with harsh winter weather

February 10, 2011 under CANR News

Humans may whine about the harsh weather but for most of us winter isn’t a matter of life or death. For many wild animals and birds, the stress of winter is life-threatening. Wild animals and birds must contend not only with extreme weather but with a lack of food and other resources, such as adequate shelter.

Winter adaptations vary by species. Some species migrate, some go into dormancy and some develop a thick skin and tough it out. The thick skin is literal — from the bushy cold-weather undercoat of the fox to the thick winter coat of the raccoon.

Many birds adapt to winter by getting the heck out of here. About half of Delaware’s common summer birds are migratory and depart for warmer climes each autumn, according to Chris Williams, a UD assistant professor of wildlife ecology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The birds that do stick around Delaware often form flocks in the winter, comprised of members of the same species, or sometimes flocks of different species (known as mixed flocks). Common mixed flocks include small birds, like chickadees and titmice, which join larger birds, such as nuthatches and woodpeckers.

Flocking is a form of cooperative behavior that rarely occurs during spring and summer nesting season. Williams says that flocking can increase wintertime avian survival rates. Flocks have an easier time securing food since birds are foraging together. And when flocks roost together, heat loss is reduced. Flocking also can provide safety in numbers from predators.

Birds utilize a number of other survival strategies in winter, such as fluffing their plumage, which creates an insulating layer by trapping air. They cope with the cold by shivering, just like we do. And many species increase their metabolic rate to produce more body heat. The downside of this adaptation is that they need to eat more food, even though food supplies are limited.

A handful of species lower their metabolism, but only in the evening when food isn’t available. These birds enter a state called torpor, which causes lowered body temperature and decreased oxygen consumption.

Plenty of mammals also slow their metabolic rate in winter. Groundhogs that live in northerly climes are “true hibernators,” meaning they exist in a state of uninterrupted, deep sleep for six to seven months, with body temperatures so low their metabolisms are almost at a standstill.

However, Delaware’s groundhogs are “semi-hibernators,” says Derek Stoner, conservation coordinator at the Delaware Nature Society.

“In February and March, if it warms up to about 50 degrees, Delaware groundhogs will come out of their burrows,” says Stoner. “By St. Patrick’s Day, the males, in particular are very active on warm days. They visit other burrows in hopes of finding a mate.”

In the fall, Delaware’s groundhogs gained some 50 percent of their body weight to prepare for their long — if somewhat fitful — snooze. But they also stashed grass in their burrows for the occasional snack when they do awake. Chipmunks also are “semi-hibernators” at Delaware’s latitude.

Deer don’t hibernate in winter although they do move around less to conserve energy. In cold conditions, they gravitate to areas with good thermal cover, such as a patch of evergreen trees that’s protected from the wind and cold and thus a degree or two warmer than surrounding terrain.

In the Poconos and Adirondacks you can see herds of several hundred deer hanging out together in the woods. Here in Delaware, herds are smaller, usually about 40 deer. Stoner says that a herd has congregated on Coverdale Farm, near Way Road, for the past several weeks.

Like flocking behavior in birds, herding is a wintertime phenomenon that increases survival rates. Come spring, the herd breaks up and the deer will go their separate ways.

Unlike us, wild animals and birds don’t need to turn to the Weather Channel to know when a storm is brewing; they sense the shift in barometric pressure, says Stoner. While we make our pre-storm trip for milk, bread and eggs, they, too, make a mad dash for adequate provisions before the snow flies.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed online on UDaily by clicking here.

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