Riverbend Rain Garden
Before she launched FYI, Dana Eness had to try it out herself…
In 2015, Dana Eness, the Executive Director of the Urban Conservancy, knew that excessive paving might be contributing to the yard flooding she was experiencing, so she decided to test the then budding concept of the Front Yard Initiative in her own yard. Each time it rained, she noticed standing water along the side of her home, a problem that was worsening over time.
“I can’t say for sure why after living here over 15 years we started seeing this problem,” says Dana. “I suspect it had to with modifications we and our neighbors have made over the years to our houses and our properties that have somehow affected the way the water flows.”
Because of the impermeable, compacted dirt and clay that covered the ground, the rainwater found its way to the side of the house and stayed, making that side of the house inaccessible after even a moderate rain. The pooling water may have also been contributing to other, more serious issues as well. Dana and her husband began to have problems with a termite infestation on that side of the house. Because termites thrive where there is moisture, Dana said, “We were concerned about our biggest investment, which is our house.” Ready to take action, Dana began to dig on that side of the house. What she discovered led her to a remedy.
About 18” beneath the dirt, sand, and debris was an old, clogged terra cotta pipe. After talking with a few of the landscape architects in the Greater New Orleans Water Collaborative, they explained that she had unearthed an old piece of the lot’s earlier drainage system, but one that was no longer functional. While it wasn’t feasible to put the old terra cotta pipe back into service, she learned the most practical solution in such a long and narrow space was to install a French drain. The French drain consisted of a permeable trench excavated to about 18 inches with a gradual grade toward the street from the back of the house, so gravity pulls the water toward the front of the house.
The trench is lined with geotextile, a material that keeps plants from growing back. Then it is filled with large gravel, creating a 40% void space that can detain the rainfall until it can seep into the ground. The French drain does a great job of capturing the majority of the rainwater that previously sat there and funnels any excess rainwater to the rain garden in her front yard.
Dana did not do her project through the Front Yard Initiative; she paid for it completely out of pocket. “I wanted to do this first and foremost because I had a serious problem to solve,” says Dana. “But I also thought doing it would help me better understand the experience of homeowners participating in the FYI program.”
The removal of the soil that was there beforehand and installation of the French drain and rain garden was a bit more labor intensive than Dana and her husband were prepared to tackle on their own. They called on Evans + Lighter, local landscape architects, who provided the project design, installation, plant and other materials. The total cost of the project was $3000.
Dana said their first reaction was “Yikes! It gave us sticker shock. Like a lot of homeowners, we really had no idea how to estimate what a project like this would cost. We were at first tempted to think that we could do that ourselves for less, but we’ve come to learn that there’s an art and a science to proper installation. There is no way we would have gotten the same results if we had done it on our own. Plus, we’d still be working on it two years later.” It took the Evans + Lighter team less than a week to complete the project, enabling Dana and her family to get back to business as usual, now with more peace of mind about their home.
Dana reports having no problems with flooding since the completion of her project, and maintenance has been minimal, requiring only periodic weeding. “Knowing my own limited gardening skills, we requested plants that had a tolerance for dry spells and heavy rains as well as benign neglect.” Evans + Lighter planted an assortment of native and naturalized plants including Louisiana irises and Lantanas. The only problem Dana reports is that “a year into it, the Lantana was dying and I didn’t know why. I called Joe (Evans) and he suggested I throw some compost and mulch on there and within a couple weeks, it had perked right up. I was starving the poor things.”
Since then, the completed project has been problem free. There is no more standing water and the irises and lantana, now in bloom, add a touch of color to the front yard. When asked how she felt about her home after the project was completed, Dana declares, “I love my cute little rain garden! I even love rainy days now that they no longer create a breeding ground for termites and mosquitoes in our alley.”
Does she have future plans? “I’d love to do more in other parts of my yard, especially tearing up some of the concrete our lot has accumulated over its 120 years,” she says. “People say that tattoos are addictive; once you get one, you want more. I feel like water-smart landscaping is like that; once you start, you want to keep going. And I am so inspired by what I see FYI participants doing with their spaces.”
Does she have any advice for other homeowners contemplating making similar improvements? “Homeowners have so many big ticket maintenance items, from painting to weatherproofing to just keeping up on repairs, that it’s easy to constantly put landscaping at the bottom of the maintenance list. Don’t! It’s not just about the aesthetics. The health of our houses depends on the health of our lots, and you’ll sleep better knowing you’ve taken steps to protect your home from flooding and subsidence. There are more resources out there every day to get you started.”
Check out the Urban Conservancy’s FYI Resource List to get you started. Do you know someone who provides goods or services in the green infrastructure sector we should include? Have them contact Felice Lavergne at email@example.com.
Interview and article by Blake Allen.