In Southern Oregon, rain can be a feast-or-famine phenomenon. Our rainy season can flood yards while dry summers leave plants gulping pricey, potable water.
However, some savvy residents like Samantha Sager of Ashland glide through the seasons with strategies to help even out nature's water cycles.
Sager uses rain barrels and a pond to store rainwater for irrigation, and she built trenched garden paths with wood chips to hold water in.
"They act like a sponge, absorbing rain and releasing it slowly to the soil," she explains.
There are lots of ways to catch and store rainwater for landscape use — and prevent runoff from carrying pollutants into storm drains that feed local creeks. Doing this has many benefits, says Pam Lott, a landscape-design consultant and certified rainwater harvester.
"It conserves water, provides high-quality water for plants, improves water quality, provides cost savings, safeguards our water supply and reduces erosion, flooding and dependence on municipal water," says Lott.
Zack Williams, of Regenesis Ecological Design, recommends starting your rain-saving efforts by mulching and building your soil — low-cost ways to maximize water retention.
"Mulch with a 2- to 3-inch layer of woody debris, such as wood chips," he says, and use compost to amend soil.
Making hardscapes permeable is another easy way to keep water where you need it, a technique Steve and Carolyn Blass of Jacksonville incorporated.
"We had gravel covering the walkway, which still provided an area for weeds to grow," says Steve Blass. They replaced the gravel with permeable pavers that kept weeds down without causing problems from standing water.
When considering rain gardens and catchment systems, Williams recommends thinking about ways to conserve water first. It's also important to divert water away from foundations and to prevent runoff across roads.
"Well-designed irrigation makes the most of water and rainwater by encouraging deep roots, and irrigation can be tied to rainwater catchment," he notes.
"All our irrigation is fed by the pond," says Sager. "We have a beautiful landscape that wouldn't have been possible without a full pond. I didn't plant a garden last year because we had no water. This year, I can plant."
Rain gardens hold and purify runoff by using absorbent soil and plants that can handle both wet and dry conditions to filter pollutants. Some rain-garden plants that do well locally include maple, river birch, willow, dogwood, chokeberry, rudbeckia, milkweed, sedges and rushes, says Williams.
Rain gardens can be simple or complex, depending on size and site conditions. Catchment systems range from basic barrels connected to downspouts to large cisterns and ponds. Consider your relevant expertise, landscape attributes and the scope of your undertaking to determine whether you'll need professional help.
Rain barrels, says Williams, are an easy home project, though they have limited capacity. Sager uses 12 barrels with overflow pipes leading to the pond to maximize her water harvest.
"I did the rain barrels on my own, from reading about them," she says. "I bought barrels, put spigots and overflow nozzles on them and drilled holes in the lids. For the downspouts feeding the pond, I consulted with rainwater contractors."
Lott's Ashland home has a more extensive system, consisting of a 3,000-gallon cistern and a 12,000-gallon pond. These store rainwater from the roof and are used to irrigate a rich landscape of food-producing crops, flowers and other well-chosen plants.
When planning a rain garden, Lott recommends "The Oregon Rain Garden Guide," available on the Oregon State University website http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/onlinepubs/h10001.pdf.