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Carmichael ‘rain garden’ overflows with native flowers

Rain garden flows with native flowers during California drought

Rodger Sargent of GrowWater.org harvested 15,000 gallons of rainwater in one winter in this Carmichael rain garden, planted with California native flowers. Rain gardens have become a useful alternative during the state's drought.
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Rodger Sargent of GrowWater.org harvested 15,000 gallons of rainwater in one winter in this Carmichael rain garden, planted with California native flowers. Rain gardens have become a useful alternative during the state's drought.

Lynn Sargent’s backyard used to look like a lot of others in the Greater Sacramento area.

“It was a big pool and lawn,” recalled Sargent, who has lived in her Carmichael home for 43 years. “But the pool was a lot of work; there’s so much expense and upkeep, all the chemicals and the water.”

That backyard lawn-pool combination served her well while her three sons were growing up, she noted, but didn’t make much sense later, especially with rising water bills and four years of drought.

“So we ‘sunk’ the pool,” she said, noting it’s now under the new garden.

In its place, a rain garden carpets the backyard with California native plants. Instead of filling up an unused pool, Sargent lets her new backyard “harvest” rain to supply its landscaping needs.

“I really, really like it,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Something is blooming all the time. It’s like new every day.”

Sargent’s rain garden is one of almost two dozen private gardens featured in the Gardens Gone Native tour hosted by the Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plants Society. Displaying mostly home landscapes in Sacramento and Yolo counties, the gardens will be open Saturday, April 9, during the free self-guided tour.

“Since the tour began (five years ago), our attendance has doubled every year,” said Colene Rauh, one of the tour’s organizers. “We had 1,000 people last year. It just shows people are interested in native plants.”

Once patrons register online, they receive a map of garden locations along with detailed descriptions of what they’ll see. Each garden is at least 50 percent California native plants. Docents and homeowners will be on hand to tell the story behind each garden, including its transformation and plant identification.

“We have a pretty good cross-section of private gardens,” Rauh said. “Half have never been on a tour before. They’re large, small, old, new. Most people who come out want to know what they can do in their own gardens. They’ll see plenty of representations on this tour.”

Since the tour began (five years ago), our attendance has doubled every year. We had 1,000 people last year. It just shows people are interested in native plants.

Colene Rauh, Sacramento Valley chapter of California Native Plant Society

Rodger Sargent, Lynn’s son, transformed his mother’s backyard into a rain-harvesting haven for birds, bees and beneficial insects. A 3,000-gallon cistern holds rainwater, collected off the home’s roof. A series of three shallow ponds and terraces allow water to seep slowly into the soil. A heavy layer of mulch retains that moisture.

“These plants are so happy!” Rauh said as she toured the rain garden, overflowing with bright orange California poppies.

Blue-eyed grass bloomed in low spots. On the surrounding terraces, blue flax and goldenrod vie for the attention of bees and butterflies. Black sage, white sage, flannel bush, lupine and other California natives will soon join the flower show.

“The plants all started small, but they grew!” Lynn Sargent said. “What I like best is it’s so calm and serene. I can come out here with a book, sit and read.”

Rodger Sargent knew what he was doing. He’s the president of Grow Water, which specializes in creating rain gardens and water-wise makeovers.

Since December, his mother’s garden has put more than 15,000 gallons of rain water into the soil, he said.

“It’s draining so well, I can’t keep it filled up,” he said of the garden’s collecting ponds. “Even with all the heavy rain we had in March, the water percolated right down. Under the mulch, the soil is amazing. It stays moist for weeks.”

Last year during the rain garden’s first full season, the new landscape needed no supplemental water until October, he added.

“The secret to a California native garden is to water it once a week – if that – then leave it alone,” he said. “A lot of these plants don’t like summer water at all.”

In addition to saving water, the rain garden and its assortment of native plants attract abundant wildlife. As Sargent spoke, swallowtail butterflies flitted from plant to plant. Magpies and blue jays took turns swooping in for a look.

“Listen to that hum,” he said, leaning in close to a large flower-covered shrub. “There must be 50 bees in this one plant.”

The backyard still has a small section of lawn that serves as a play area for Lynn Sargent’s dog and Rodger’s son Kyle. But the new grass is native, too.

“It’s native bentgrass,” he explained. “It’s sold as ‘California native sod’ from Delta Bluegrass. Its roots grow 12 to 16 inches down. It needs just a fraction of the water of normal lawn. It goes dormant in winter, but as soon as the weather warms, it greens right up.”

His mother said she’s also pleased with the real savings the rain garden has produced. Her water bill dropped from more than $100 a month to about $30. And there’s less work, too.

“Now, it takes 10 minutes to mow the lawn,” she said.

Rodger Sargent said native gardens take a few years to reach maturity and will look more beautiful each spring.

“In two years, it will be outrageous,” he said. “In five years, it will look insane. It takes about five years for a native garden to really get established, but it will be amazing.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Gardens Gone Native

What: Self-guided tour of native plant gardens

Where: 23 home and school gardens in Sacramento and Yolo counties

When: 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, April 9

Admission: Free

Details: www.sacvalleycnps.org; register at gardensgonenative.eventbrite.com

Note: Map and garden addresses for self-guided tour available with online registration.

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