Preventing Pollution? Rain Gardens are a Solution

An average annual rainfall for Michigan is more than 31 inches, which equates to more than 52 million gallons of rainwater per year. That much rainwater can severely damage downspouts and create pollution. A rain garden is an environmentally friendly and attractive way to filter and return storm water runoff from surfaces such as sidewalks and roof tops, while protecting our groundwater and waterways. They can be created on your own property using just a few steps – ultimately minimizing the pollution that emerges from the rainwater gushing out of downspouts.

First, determine if you have a suitable site for a rain garden. The ideal spot is one that is:

  • Fed by only one or two downspouts
  • Far from a septic tank, drain field, or wellhead
  • Free from trees

Next, follow these easy steps:

  • Find an outdoor space that can absorb water, ranging from 100 to 400 square feet. A rain garden should be about 20 percent the size of the roof, patio or pavement area draining into it.
  • If there are trees in the area, make sure they can handle wet soil conditions for lengthy periods of time to ensure that your rain garden is set up for success.
  • Remove the grass and dig a hole at least 2 feet deep.
  • Lay an inlet pipe used for catching the storm water. These small pipes can be purchased at any hardware store for under $20.
  • Add native vegetation, and you’re all set!

The benefits of rain gardens are tremendous. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, they are easy to maintain and improve water quality by filtering out pollutants. And perhaps the most magnificent benefit is that they attract wildlife such as birds, butterflies and insects who use the plants as a food source.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is working to protect storm water on the grounds of the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We built a rain garden near the Ford Education Center, which collects rain water from the roof of the 38,000-square-foot building and is maintained throughout the entire year, incorporating native Michigan plant species. The downspouts drain into the garden through a pervious pipe located 3 feet below the surface. We’re in the midst of creating a second rain garden near American Coney Island. Native, drought-resistant plants have already been planted and we plan to build a mock house with gutters and rain barrels. Signage will educate guests about how they can incorporate rainwater collection and rain gardens at their homes. In addition, we have incorporated permeable pavement within parking lots and public walkways, which also reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering out pollutants.

We all have an impact on the planet – projects like these are simple steps we can take to make sure it is a positive one.

Greenprint: Supporting Local Farmers

Summertime provides us with a great opportunity to visit farmers’ markets and purchase local fruits, vegetables or proteins such as fish and beef jerky. Buying from your local farmer allows you to support the regional agriculture industry as well as your community.

Food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate. All this shipping uses large amounts of natural resources (especially fossil fuels), which contributes to pollution and creates waste with extra packaging. Conventional agriculture uses more resources than sustainable agriculture and pollutes water, land and air with toxic by-products. Food at farmers’ markets has travelled shorter distances and is generally grown using methods that minimize the impact on the earth.

When buying from a large supermarket, only 18 cents of every dollar goes to the grower. Buying local cuts out the middleman and supports farmers in your community. The Detroit Zoo supports this mission by following a sustainable purchasing policy with an emphasis on locally made products. We recently opened Pure Greens, a 100 percent vegan café with all food purchased through Michigan farmers, supporting the state we live in.

A sustainable at-home option is to grow your own food in a garden. Even with limited space, a small pot on a porch can produce tomatoes or basil. At the Detroit Zoo, there is a garden devoted to the lizards and turtles that live in our Holden Reptile Conservation Center. A few of the edible flowering plants the reptiles enjoy are nasturtiums, marigolds, pansies and geraniums. You can view the garden during your trip to the Zoo; it is located on the south side of the Holden Reptile Conservation Center.

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Education: Spring has Sprung!

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes, especially in relation to plant and animal life. Plants and animals depend on these predictable changes to know when to migrate, nest, bloom, leaf out and so much more. People celebrate phenology-related events, such as cherry blossom festivals and monarch butterfly migrations. Before weather predictions were delivered to our email inbox or through an app on our phone, people used to watch for signs in nature to know just the right time to plant their crops or harvest their fields.

Phenology is an essential part of life on earth. As our global climate changes, some cyclical changes are becoming out of sync. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies may respond to earlier-than-usual warm temperatures and find the flower blooms they rely on for nourishment may not be blooming. If birds follow warmer temperatures and return to a nesting area before the bugs emerge, they could go hungry.

Scientists are studying these changes and collecting as much data as they can from all over the world. They are counting on citizens like you and me to help. The USA National Phenology Network is a great resource to learn about phenology and how you can report observations that will help scientists track long-term seasonal changes. Project Budburst is another great resource. This online repository is limited to plants, but it has a wide selection of plant species that you can observe, record data on, and report your findings about to help scientists. Chances are you can find a plant or tree in your yard or neighborhood that Project Budburst would like information on. At the Detroit Zoo, we’re observing and reporting on the flowering crabapple trees that line the walkways by Rackham Fountain.

Each year since 2013, the Detroit Zoological Society has participated in the Journey North Tulip Test Garden project. We plant red emperor tulip bulbs in the fall and mark the area. As spring nears, we watch for the tips of the tulip plants to emerge and then we report our observations to the Journey North Tulip Test Garden database. Animated maps on the Journey North website compile data from observers all over North America to show us when spring is on the way.

The best part of participating in any of these projects is that you’ll find yourself noticing more about the world around you. Even very young children can participate with the help of an adult, creating a new generation of people relying on signs in nature, not just the daily weather report.

– Claire Lannoye Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Education: Protect the Pollinators

Claire Lannoye-Hall is a Curator of Education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Summer vacation is upon us and we can’t wait for you to visit the Detroit Zoo. There are so many new things happening here – the wolves are exploring their new habitat and the dinosaurs are beckoning from the trail.

While the summer offers many great Butterfly - Roy Lewisopportunities to visit the Zoo, it also brings out bees, butterflies and other pollinators, which are very important to the environment. They help flowers bloom and fruits and vegetables grow. Without them, there wouldn’t be food for us or for the animals to eat. Fortunately, we can help them in a few simple ways.

Start by avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides. While they may keep the weeds away and your grass a little bit greener, they are devastating to pollinator populations. Consider pulling weeds by hand or using an organic alternative such as mulch or hot water to eliminate weeds.

Honey BeeYou can also plant a pollinator garden. Native plants are easy to find, easy to take care of and are great for pollinators. For southeast Michigan, try lupine, bee balm, coneflower or cardinal flower. Bees and butterflies will likely find your garden first, but if you’re lucky, hummingbirds may stop by, too! For more suggestions on what to plant, visit: http://pollinator.org/guides.htm.

Monarch butterflies are of special concern due to habitat loss. Here at the Zoo, we have special gardens called “Monarch Waystations” that are certified by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit organization. The plants in these gardens provide food and shelter for monarchs throughout metamorphosis and as they travel to and from their overwintering grounds in Mexico. Next time you’re at the Zoo, look for one of these gardens and see if there are any Monarch butterflies visiting. You can find out more about creating your own certified waystation by visiting: http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations.

Finally, you can help scientists by making observations and collecting data. Scientists need to know how many and what kinds of pollinators are in your backyard. Becoming a citizen scientist is easier than you might think. Visit some of the sites here for more information: http://pollinatorlive.pwnet.org/teacher/citizen.php.

We look forward to seeing you at the Zoo this summer!

– Claire Lannoye-Hall